Check and cross check
We discuss cover letters in a career workshop. Georg brought his application documents with him, which we will analyse together.
“I’m an enthusiastic and broad-minded chemist…” I read. “I would like to work for your company, which is known to be a leader in responsive polymers.” Georg immediately jumps into the rhetorical pause I leave after the two sentences. “I find it very difficult to praise myself, but also to praise employers. I feel like I’m just writing generalities.”
Georg is right, and he is not alone. In most cover letters, there is a section that many applicants feel is an obligatory mutual belly brush. It doesn’t have to be.
Self-praise is not necessary, as described in the column “Show, don’t tell” (Nachr. Chem. 2019, 67(3), 23). Think more along the lines of: What is the connection between me and the employer? What do I have that no one else has? And: What does this employer offer that others hardly offer? If you cannot answer these questions, you should invest some more time in self-analysis and research. Otherwise, in the worst case, you will receive an offer from an employer who does not suit you.
“But how do I know,” replies Georg, “that I sound like a person with a genuine interest in that very employer?”
To find out, first examine the main statements you use to describe yourself and conduct a thought experiment: Could your lab neighbour write the exact same sentence? This is the case with phrases like, “I’m very organised.” Here you only name an attribute but give the readers no reason to believe you. It’s better if you write: “During my part in the organisational team for the online conference XYZ, I learned the pitfalls when participants from different time zones and cultures come together.” Few others can boast of such an experience.
Then do the same test for your statements about the employer. For example, if several companies could describe themselves as “leaders in the field of responsive polymers,” you need to investigate further what makes this employer unique.
This article was first published in Nachrichten aus der Chemie (issue 01-2023). See here the German original.
Do you want to learn more about writing application documents? You might be interested in our workshop Job application and interview strategies for scientists.