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I’ve Read More Than 500 Cover Letters and Here’s What I’ve Spotted

I’ve Read More Than 500 Cover Letters and Here’s What I’ve Spotted

There are about 3.69 million results on a Google search for “cover letter template,” which isn’t surprising. Many are concerned with making sure they have the right cover letter format, so they go searching for a template.

Here’s the problem with that approach: by definition, a template (especially those residing on Page 1 of Google’s search results) is something that thousands of people are using. This cannot stand out from others. Your cover letter begins from a very average place.

The average number of applicants to a job these days is 59,[1] with most jobs receiving far more. Recruiters and hiring managers simply don’t have the time to go through 60+ resumes and cover letters thoroughly without sacrificing many other priorities during the day.

A good, interesting cover letter — especially one that hooks the reader immediately — can be a huge difference in getting you a job. A generic cover letter on the same template the recruiter just saw 50 other times? No.

When we discuss cover letter format, then, let’s shift the focus to how to make yourself stand out as a candidate via your cover letter.

Make It Personal (Like You Know the Hiring Person)

This is actually much easier in the modern age, because you can use LinkedIn often to find the specific hiring manager for the position. For example, a writer job may report to a marketing or content marketing manager, and a design job might report to a marketing manager or Chief Designer. Once you know the hiring manager, you can personalize the cover letter format pretty easily:

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  • No sir/madam; use the name.
  • Look at their career arc and mention one commonality between theirs and yours.
  • Mention one skill or concept you think you could learn from them.

Now the cover letter is directed at one person and wholly personal. This is a great first step.

If you can, look up potential pain points for the employer online. Some sources are Google News, Seeking Alpha, The Wall Street Journal, and other financial sources. If you’ve determined the biggest problems they face and you have a few sentences about how your role could solve them, that might endear your candidacy to them.

Narrate Your Story

Nothing resonates for the human brain like stories. Tell a great one here — especially given the time constraints for a hiring manager to read all these letters. Some tips:

  • Use the inverted pyramid approach and put the most important information first.
  • Assume that with every additional word, the chances of the hiring manager continuing to read it declines. You can assume that because it’s been proven by research.[2]

A good story-driven intro might go something like this:

Hi Mr. Peterson,

I saw that you were a river guide for a while in your 20s. I was also for three years and a near-death experience I had with a group from a corporate retreat changed everything for me about how I considered my career arc.

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Mr. Peterson is likely to keep reading. The story has hooked him.

Play up Your Connection with the Company

This is where your research (LinkedIn and otherwise) comes into play. You need to convey why working for that specific company is important to you, not just the concept of having a job. The goal is to build emotional attachment based on the research you did. Here’s an example:

Hi Mr. Smith,

My dad always told me his best experiences were in family-owned businesses, so I’ve been gravitating towards those in my recent search. I discovered how many awards your team has won, including the 2017 Best Business award for the metro area, and I began doing additional research on your culture. It seems fantastic, especially that part about company-wide data accountability and bonding “color days.” I’ve been searching for a great fit like this since those long conversations about being a male and career-building with my dad, and your approach seems excellent. I’d love to show you why I’m the best candidate here.

This references research, shows you care about the company, and plays to the ego of those already inside the company. It’s a triple win!

Focus on 3 Attributes Only

When the iPhone first came out, there were over 200 features. Steve Jobs could have discussed them all in that famous opening press event. He discussed seven only. If he had discussed 200+, the event would have taken forever and no one would remember the key elements.

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You don’t need seven features for a cover letter, but picking three attributes is usually a good start. It may look something like this:

I believe I can add value in this role in three specific ways, namely advanced data analysis, communication and presentation of that data to senior leadership, and project management around the initial stages of transferring what the data says into a direct action plan. I’ve been working in the data context space for six years, and some examples of my biggest projects include…

The letter/section would go on, but the important point is that you specifically defined your value adds. The experiences underscoring those value adds comes next.

At this point, the optimal cover letter format focuses on:

  • Emotions
  • Stories
  • Personal context
  • Background research
  • Defining your value-add
  • Friendly tone

And now, let’s get to some more logistics.

Make It Easy-To-Read

This means font (Arial, Courier New, Times New Roman, etc.) and size (usually 12-14). Use standard margins. It should be one page or shorter, and save it (as with your resume) as a PDF instead of a MS Word file, which can look different across different devices.[3]

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Also make sure it’s clearly labeled as the cover letter, as oftentimes you’ll send as attachments with the resume. While this may seem minor, confusing a recruiter or hiring manager for even a few seconds could get your cover letter tossed.

The baseline: no mistakes. Avoid typos, run-on sentences, poor grammar, or misspellings (especially of the company or hiring manager’s name). This is a baseline that will get any cover letter tossed aside. Proofread it and make sure you run it through a spell check process.

The Bottom Line on Cover Letter Format

As the number of applications to a standard position rises, you have to make your cover letter stand out. An impressive cover letter will get you through those top of funnel hiring stages and onward to an interview with the hiring manager.

Your cover letter format is less about the exact best template and more about the story you convey. That’s going to push the door further open in the hiring process.

Reference

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Brian Lee

Chief of Product Management at Lifehack

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Last Updated on July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

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