Start your cover letter
Welcome to the start of you cover letter- which might be the only thing your reader sees of your application before sending it into the abyss- the bin! Help! A creative text which should under no circumstances annoy anyone? The conventional way to deal with this issue is to try to bypass it and bore your readers into a cosy office sleep with sentences like:
“I hereby apply for the position of blabla.” But then you missed the best chance to catch their interest by giving information they already have- they wrote out this position themselves! Don´t panic, in the three examples provided you´ll find some ideas on how to tackle the problem of a good start.
Example 1: Professorship
Professorship at a University of Applied Sciences (FH)
“Is it possible to act as link between academia and industry, between research and application, while at the same time work intensively in academic teaching? In order to answer this question, I was looking for contact with FH professors, who shared their insights into the profession with me. What attracted me most about their descriptions of life as FH professor was the fact that direct contact with the students is being given more weight than at a university.”
In order to raise attention for what is to follow in your application, you don´t need to do brash things, little tweaks to the expected flow of a text can already do the trick. Here the first sentence was simply turned into a question to the reader, thereby actively involving him in what will happen next. After binning twenty letters all starting with “I hereby apply…” the reader will hopefully pick up his reading glasses after this starter.
This paragraph also circumvents another pitfall: information overload. This typically looks like:
“I hereby… My previous experience/ skills in A,B,C… as well as… make me the ideal candidate for a position which requires in particular D,E and F at an employer which is well-known for G, H and I.”
After reading such a sentence, you´ll find it hard to remember even just one of the many facts, the disordered information snippets are becoming one big blur in the reader´s mind.
In the example paragraph at the top, only two pieces of information are given following the starting sentence:
- The applicant did her homework and actively contacted professionals in her target field. Implicitly the information is transferred, that the applicant could identify these professionals and get in touch with them.
- Contact with students is her TOP 1 priority when choosing this profession. This argument is not watered down by naming lower priorities here.
Without loading too much information onto the starting paragraph, the reader should already have a concrete picture of a proactive person, who knows what the job entails and is passionate about the particular challenges of this job.
One more detail about these few lines: the applicant refers to colleagues of the readers. Albeit being an anonymous reference, it still lifts the applicant out of anonymity. Even stronger is to mention someone the reader knows by name, e. g. “During a discussion with your colleague Dr. Kulinsky, my positive impression about working in your company got reinforced.” In this way, the reference person is brought into the letter as a lively part in support of your application, making it harder to completely ignore your application. Such reference can be placed at various points in the letter, however the beginning is the most usual place as it´s a very important point and might spare your application from the looming threat, the bin.
Example 2: Sales
“I could make my first experiences in the services industry when working for the catering company of my parents. The personal contact with the customers was always my utmost concern. Back then the reason for this was simple: I could increase the tips I received by being friendly.
Today, 15 years later, I graduated as a PhD in microbiology. The joy of working with people, giving advice as well as working in sales has stayed with me at all times.”
The first paragraph is an excellent example of how to raise attention with an unexpected start of the cover letter. A little story from childhood is being told. That as such is certainly unusual enough to keep the reader from sleeping. At the same time, the example closely relates to the position, forming a nice link and giving a sympathetic insight into the personality of the applicant. Again, the story is by no means overloaded with information, actually the only fact explicitly transported is the work in the parents´ business. All the information is being transported indirectly by the picture of the applicant which is invoked in the reader´s mind:
– an entrepreneurial and service-minded family background,
– business sense developed from early childhood on,
– combining own financial interests with customer satisfaction,
– open enough to give (innocuous) details about the private background,
– creative person who dares such unusual entry paragraph.
The reader is involved in this letter from the very beginning on.
Example 3: Patent Examiner
Patent examiner at the European Patent Office (EPO)
“When my mother asked me as an eight-year-old what I would like to become, I sternly told her, “I want to become a patent examiner.”
What makes this claim so outrageously unbelievable? It´s probably the fact that at this age it would be inconceivable to find attraction in a job with such an unusual constellation of tasks and underlying interests. And even though LEGO is now, after producing “The Hobbit” and “The Superhero”, also marketing “The Scientist”, it still seems impossible to design “The Patent Examiner”. So, like the children of today, I was kept from reaching such a positive judgement about the patent field back then.
However today, as an adult, I could give such a determined answer. Yes, I do want to expose myself to new intellectual challenges on a daily basis. Yes, I do want to work in a highly international environment. And yes, I do want to work myself into a new field of expertise at this point in my life. I want to become a patent examiner at the EPO and be a critical, fair and knowledgeable counterpart to the innovators of today.”
Here an example from the field of “suicidal” beginnings. An application to a public body full of lifetime employees who do nothing but checking patents for validity all day. The applicant has the nerve to write in a creative tone as if she were applying for a position at a School of Journalism. Why on earth?
The reason for such a “risky” approach lies in a basic principle:
“Write risky applications when the situation is precarious, write careful ones when feeling secure.”
This sounds counterintuitive, to say the least. However, writing an application is an activity quite different from most others in our life. When driving a car, you should be careful when the roads are insecure, while you should only drive faster under good road and weather conditions. When driving a car, the normal scenario is to arrive safely. The penalty for failure can mean death in the worst case, the benefit of a riskier driving style is too save minuscule seconds.
When applying for jobs, the opposite is true. Most of your lovingly crafted applications will not lead to an invitation or even job offer. The penalty for such a failure is low, the “loss” is just a couple of hours of your time. The prize to be won on the other hand is great- the much sought-after job offer! This is the reason for this “counterintuitive” switch in handling the risk of an application in comparison to most other activities.
Average applications written by average applicants for average positions might have a success rate- scoring a job offer- in the range of 1-5%. When applying for positions at highly popular, internationally active employers like the EPO, it can be assumed that the chances of success are far below 1% for all but the best of applicants. So what do you have to lose? A boring start of the cover letter will lower your chances to exactly 0%, you simply won´t emerge from the sea of applications. A “risky” start as depicted above has a small chance of giving the reader just that bit of mental tickle to put your application on the small pile for further processing. The only risk is, that an anonymous clerical assistant responsible for the presorting thinks that you are a bit weird. Who cares?
The other extreme of the spectrum are applications which are “secure”: you have a fair chance of receiving an invitation because you fit the job description extremely well or because you already have a foot in the door by knowing an insider. In fact, these are the really risky ones as you now do have something substantial to lose. In this case the challenge lies in not cocking up! If you´re unlucky then there is just this one notoriously frustrated, nagging person in the committee who vents his anger at your application because he dislikes your face. The rationale behind writing a boring and error-free application is thus to prevent fuelling this person´s negativity.
So example 3 might give the applicant a 90% chance of being sorted out in the pre-screening phase. Great! Much better than the 99% for a boring application!
A note on writing style. The last paragraph of example 3 is putting a typical triad of arguments into a single sentence each instead of just packing them into a single sentence like, “Yes, I want A, B and C.” This stylistic device certainly tries to build up some suspense, to hammer in the points and make them more memorable. Again, the author stays true to her risky-creative style, as such figures are usually found in advertisement or political speeches. But of course there is no reason speaking against trying to stand out with such a structure, as long as it fits the overall text and does not make it too elevated for a cover letter.
Interested to learn more about this topic?
Our workshop Bewerbungs- und Interviewstrategien für WissenschaftlerInnen and our talk Holen Sie sich Ihre erste Stelle: die Bewerbungsphase show you tips and pitfalls when writing application documents and doing job interviews.
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