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Clinch The Interview With 6 Can’t-Miss Cover Letter Strategies

When I first started my job search, I was not a fan of cover letters. 

I’d even go so far as to say that I hated them.

But I ran into a friend of mine about a year after I got my PhD. We got to talking.

I told him that it had been almost 12 months since I graduated and I had only had a few interviews. 

He said to send him my resume and cover letter and he’d take a look for me.

Cover letter? I didn’t have a cover letter, I told him.

And he told me that it was time to consider that that was part of my problem.

So that night I sat facing the blinking cursor on my computer screen. 

Maybe it was time to start fresh.

So I spent half an hour on the About page for the company I was applying to. I read their News page too. 

I Googled them. 

Checked out Glassdoor.

Visited their LinkedIn page. 

Then I picked three of my favorite qualities from the job description and thought about the ones I knew I had.

I wrote a short paragraph that demonstrated those qualities using quantifiable results. 

After that, I spent another half hour looking up the name of the person that would end up reading this cover letter. Added that to the greeting. 

I steeled myself for disappointment as I hit send at 10 PM that night. But if this didn’t work, I was out of ideas.

And then I did a double take when, the next morning, I saw the company I had written to reached out FIRST THING to schedule an interview. 

Not a phone screen. 

An interview. 

That was the day I decided to shift my perspective about cover letters.

Your Cover Letter Can Matter More Than Your Resume

If you’re the type of person who likes to get down to brass tacks, a cover letter might feel unnecessary to you. 

And if you’ve heard that hiring managers only take 6 to 7 seconds to review your resume, you’re probably coming to the very natural conclusion that they don’t have time to read your cover letter. 

Even if you aren’t averse to the idea of cover letters, there’s a good chance that you fall into the category of people who just don’t ever send one.

Careerbuilder found in a study that 50% of applicants don’t include cover letters with any of their applications. 

I’ll admit – this was me once too.

I’d even go so far as to say that if the job description mentioned a cover letter, that was all it took for me to lose interest.

But I was wrong. 

And if you’re thinking this way, you might be seriously hurting your job search.

Consider that a recent poll from recruitment firm Robert Half found that 90% of hiring managers consider cover letters to be invaluable when assessing candidates.

Other studies echo these findings. Despite the fact that 87% of hiring managers say that cover letters are an important part of their decision-making process, only a third of candidates say they regularly submit a cover letter (Top Resume).

In a world of 1-click applications, a cover letter is proof that candidates didn’t impulsively apply for the role. It shows patience, determination, and the ability to follow instructions (if the job advertisement asked for one).

And, when you get right down to it, it’s just courteous. 

It sets the tone for all the qualifications you outline in your resume, and it introduces you to the hiring manager as a person and not just a list of qualifications.

6 Things You Should Include In Every Cover Letter

A survey from ResumeGo revealed that 87% of recruiters read the cover letters sent to their top candidates. 

The operative words there are “top candidates.” 

That can mean something different depending on the hiring manager. Some report that it’s another way to weed out poor-match candidates that the applicant tracking system didn’t cull. 

Maybe it’s the deciding factor for any candidates they’re considering moving to the next step of the hiring process.

For others, it’s a way to better understand candidates whose resumes raised questions for them.

But one thing’s for sure: if they’re looking over your cover letter, it means that a hiring manager wants to see specific information.

Let’s dive into the six things that hiring managers are looking for when they read yours.

1. Address Your Cover Letter To A Real Person

You know what never fails to impress a recruiter? 

A thoughtful cover letter is great, but a thoughtful cover letter that’s actually addressed to them? You’re in.

Finding out who will read your cover letter is a small test. If you pass it, it demonstrates that you’re resourceful, capable of working independently and have an understanding of business etiquette.

If the job is advertised on LinkedIn, a contact person is often associated with the position. That’s the name you’ll want to use in your greeting.

You can also call the company and ask someone in Human Resources for the name of that hiring manager. This is the easiest and most immediate way to get a response.

If you’ve already built a relationship with the recruiter before applying, now is the time to use this resource. Ask this person who will see your resume first.

You can also reach out to (or create a new) connection you have at the company and ask them if they could help you pin down the hiring manager for this role. 

Another clue comes in the form of the job posting itself. Does the description include details about who you would be reporting to? Something along the lines of “the successful candidate will report to the director of medical affairs”?

This is your cue to look up the director of medical affairs at XYZ company.

You can also search online for the company and title of the position you are interested in. Job postings can differ slightly from one site to another.

No matter how you find the name of the hiring manager, don’t skip this step.

Hiring managers will be impressed by your resourcefulness and you will have instantly made a good impression when you address your cover letter to the right person.

2. Hook Recruiters With A Compelling Introduction

The first paragraph of your cover letter is the “why you” of your application. And your why should not be your education or credentials. Your reason for wanting to work at ABC Inc. should appeal to the company’s vanity, not yours.

Do you love the work they do? Are you a longtime fan of a product they create? Do the company’s values align with your own? 

Mention those things. 

If a company understands that you’re invested in them, they’ll be more likely to invest in you.

It’s also important to avoid cliches in a cover letter. You might actually be “thrilled to apply,” but most hiring managers will see this as unoriginal. 

Instead, draw on your own personality – not canned phrases – to make an impression. 

Another attention-grabbing tactic is to mention a connection. The name of a referral is ideal – with any luck, you’ve already made a contact at the company and have their blessing to do this.

“[Name of your referral, title, and company] encouraged me to apply for [open position]. I am writing in response to their recommendation because I think I would be a great fit for this position and I am very interested in the work being done at [company name].”

But if you haven’t gotten to that stage with your contact, you can still use their name. 

“I met Davina Purdy, an engineering officer at XYC Corp., on LinkedIn. It’s because of her glowing review of the work you do that I first became interested in a career here.”

Just be sure to shoot your contact a message after you apply. Let them know that you recently submitted an application and mentioned their name in your cover letter. 

3. Describe What Makes You Great For THIS Job

You may use a T-Format cover letter or opt for the more familiar paragraph structure. Whether you use bullets or a paragraph format, this is where you spell out how your background lines up with what the employer is looking for.

You’ll look to the job description for hints. What skills or experiences are mentioned early on in the description, or often? Lean into these.

Pick three to five of those qualities, characteristics and skills that you feel you exemplify.

What personality traits do you have that mirror the values of the company or that resonate with the company culture? Speak to those.

Tie your answers into your previous experience. This might require some out-of-the-box thinking, but as you read each requirement of a position, ask yourself, “Have I done this?” 

The odds are high that you have, in one capacity or another. 

Sites like Wordclouds can help words that are used most often jump off the page at you if you’re stuck. 

It can also be helpful, if you’re having trouble framing your accomplishments, to think about how someone who has worked with you would describe your strengths. 

Showcase your knowledge of the company’s mission statement, corporate strategy, values and culture in this paragraph. This is how you can show (not tell) them that you’re excited about working with them because – as they can see – your skills are a great match for the position they’re trying to fill. 

4. Add Quantitative Data

Quantifiable data is the closest thing to proof that you can offer employers – proof that you are what you say you are and proof that you can do the things you say you can.

Using the list of qualifications you used to describe what makes you a perfect candidate for this role, think of specific examples that prove your worth. 

What you don’t want to do is speak to the points you’ve already made in your resume. You want to paint a clearer, more robust picture of the experiences and accomplishments that make you great.

To do this, take each quality you’ve focused on and ask yourself: 

What qualities made you so successful in your last role, and how was that success measured?

How would you tell a short, one- to two-sentence story about a problem you solved using those skills?

What approach did you take to tackling one of the responsibilities you’ve mentioned on your resume?

Above all, try to choose qualities that support your use of quantitative data. Employers love numbers. 

Numbers demonstrate that you understand the bottom line, that you know how to set achievable goals and can accomplish them in a timely manner. Numbers show your value and are also easy to recall when hiring managers are comparing candidates against one another. 

5. Leave The Employer Wanting More

It’s tempting to say that the opening line is the most important line in your cover letter, but that’s debatable. 

The closing is your chance to summarize what makes you such a great candidate and convince the hiring manager to give you a call.

You want to restate your enthusiasm for the company and the position you’re applying for. The end of your cover letter is also a great place to include important details that didn’t fit elsewhere. 

For example: “I’m eager to learn more about how my passion for analytics can translate into optimized marketing spend and lower turnover for Coca-Cola’s advertising team. I hope you and I will get a chance to speak soon about the Data Analyst opportunity and what it takes to achieve in this position.”

If you don’t mention specifics about the role in your closing, focus on transferable skills instead. 

“When you have time, I look forward to learning more about how I can leverage my passion for creative problem-solving and experience with startup culture to further Expedia’s mission of inclusivity and innovation.”

Recruiters and hiring managers want to hire candidates who align with the company culture. So, this is a great way to end your cover letter.

After your closing, you’ll include a professional-sounding sign off such as “Best regards” or “Thank you for your consideration.”

Below that, you’ll include your contact information. Include your number, email address and the URL to your LinkedIn profile. The very last line should be the professional headline you use as the headline for your LinkedIn account.

And that’s it. 

Well, almost.

6. Proofread. And Then Proofread Again.

You’ve probably heard this suggestion so often that you tune it out. 

There’s a strong chance you’re glossing over it right now, but try to take this to heart: 

Proofread your resume. 

Employers receive over 200 resumes for a single open position. Leaving errors on your cover letter gives them the perfect excuse to whittle away at their candidate pool. 

Imagine that you had two identical candidates. One had misspellings on his cover letter and resume. If you’re only looking for one hire, you could infer that one candidate demonstrates less attention to detail and is inferior to the other.

And poof. The one with spelling errors took itself out of the running.

As many as 77% of employers will reject a candidate because of spelling errors or typos in the resume or cover letter (Careerbuilder). 

So, please, check your application for mistakes. If you reread and revise, your resume won’t be rejected.

Concluding Remarks

Especially for PhDs who are new to industry, a cover letter is an opportunity to explain how your past experience has prepared you for this new chapter.

In one page, you have the chance to show that a role as a research scientist has prepared you for a successful career as a quality analyst in biopharma. Make sure that your first paragraph is addressed to an actual person, and that you introduce your referral here. This is also where you make it clear that you want to apply for a specific position.

The second paragraph should show how your previous experience and technical skills match the job description, showing that you would be a capable candidate for the role.

Finally, the third paragraph should focus on your transferable skills and how your values align with the company culture.

When you observe strategies like these, you’re guaranteed to deliver a targeted cover letter that’s destined to impress.

If you’re ready to start your transition into industry, you can apply to book a free Transition Call with our founder Isaiah Hankel, PhD or one of our Transition Specialists. Apply to book a Transition Call here.

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Dr. Isaiah Hankel is the Founder and CEO of Cheeky Scientist. His articles, podcasts and trainings are consumed annually by millions of PhDs and other professionals in hundreds of different countries. He has helped PhDs transition into top companies like Amazon, Google, Apple, Intel, Dow Chemical, BASF, Merck, Genentech, Home Depot, Nestle, Hilton, SpaceX, Tesla, Syngenta, the CDC, UN and Ford Foundation.

Dr. Hankel has published 3X bestselling books and his latest book, The Power of a PhD, debuted on the Barnes & Noble bestseller list. His methods for getting PhDs hired have been featured in the Harvard Business Review, Nature, Forbes, The Guardian, Fast Company, Entrepreneur Magazine and Success Magazine.

Isaiah Hankel, PhD

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