How to Write Cover Letters That Will Impress Non-Academic Employers
Understand the purpose of a non-faculty cover letter
The cover letter and resume are complementary job documents.
In an initial application for a non-faculty job, the cover letter and resume go hand in hand. Your one- to two-page resume will highlight relevant work experience, education, and skills. Your one-page cover letter, meanwhile, will include details that illustrate what you bring to a specific job and company.
Because cover letters and resumes are read in tandem, make sure that you do not squander your cover letter space by summarizing or restating the contents of your resume.
Time-strapped hiring managers who sift through initial job applications will not necessarily read the cover letter first and the resume second. In fact, a hiring manager may look at the resume and cover letter at the same time, moving back and forth between the documents.
Like a resume, a cover letter is a persuasive document. A cover letter for non-faculty jobs gives you–as a job candidate–the opportunity to provide evidence of your skills and interest in/passion for the company. In the cover letter, you will illustrate aspects of your work style, personality traits, and communication skills that are not included in your resume.
Think of the body of your cover letter as a short argumentative essay in which you will create a case for your fit with the position.
Brainstorm persuasive examples that show you are a strong fit
What’s the biggest mistake you want to avoid when writing a non-faculty cover letter? Simply rattling off your work history.
Don’t do this.
If you are unsure on how to begin writing your cover letter, pretend you are telling a friend from your PhD program how great you would be at this job. Chances are you will come up with persuasive examples of things your bosses, colleagues, or students have told you in the past.
If you have ever written a statement of teaching philosophy for faculty positions, you may have received the advice of showing, not telling, how great of a teacher you are (e.g. using examples of concrete activities or assignments that you have successfully used in your classroom).
The same concept applies here. You are a storyteller. Show, don’t tell, how great of a fit you are for this specific job. Demonstrate your expertise and qualities with compelling and interesting examples.
As you brainstorm, you might want to make a list of positive anecdotes you could use for your cover letter (and eventually in interviews). For example, write down:
- flattering compliments from annual reviews;
- compelling quotes from teaching evaluations;
- examples of projects that were particularly successful and any associated metrics (e.g. a publication; curriculum innovation; service activity that increased enrollments);
- challenges you have successfully overcome during and after your PhD program (e.g. handling multiple course preps shows you are skilled at time management; creating a new course for the curriculum underlines your innovation; receiving a last-minute notice of a course change before the start of the semester is an example of adaptability);
- positive feedback you have received from advisors, PIs, colleagues, or students during your PhD.
Tailor your non-faculty cover letter for each job
Like the resume, a cover letter must be tailored for each job application.
Mine the job description carefully for keywords and include these keywords in your cover letter. Show how you fit the company mission and culture through the language you use.
Ask yourself: “Could another applicant have sent this same letter?” Your letter should be specific enough to you that it will stand out and be memorable to the hiring manager.
Of course you can reuse anecdotes from other cover letters to apply for a particular job, but you absolutely must tailor each application with the nuances of that particular job.
Personalizing each cover letter can take more time, but before you become discouraged, remember that sending out a tailored cover letter will get you farther in terms of interview invitations than sending a generic one.
Provide context for your career transition
As a PhD in career transition, you may be perceived as overqualified—or over-credentialed–for positions. The fact that you have experience in a different industry (higher education) might also tempt hiring managers to think you are a “wrong fit”. Without additional context on your career transition, your application could easily land in the “no” pile.
The cover letter provides an opportunity to explain how your experience translates to a new field. Explain how and why you are interested in moving to this new field. Show that you are excited about the job and that you can excel in the role.
Address hiring managers’ skepticism towards PhDs
Hiring managers might be skeptical of PhDs, so you may want to address some of the fears by providing counter-examples.
In the body of your letter, choose examples from your PhD experience that show how you collaborated with teams to solve problems. Demonstrate that you can work quickly and accurately.
Always use language that the hiring manager will understand, avoiding academic jargon.
Follow the cover letter outline for non-faculty positions
A cover letter’s content is what matters the most, but following the general outline of cover letters can help avoid confusion. Hiring managers are skimming and not reading cover letters, so follow general conventions and keep content organized so that your audience will not miss something important.
Your cover letter should include the following elements:
- a header section: Always include your name and the date. In electronic letters it is now common to omit the applicant’s and the recipient’s address. You only have one page, so don’t waste this valuable space.
- the greeting: It is best to add the hiring manager’s name. If you can’t find out after searching in the job description and on LinkedIn, write “To Whom it May Concern” or “Dear Hiring Manager”.
- an opening line: you don’t have to open the letter with a catchy phrase. A straightforward “I’m writing to apply for your X position” or “I’m excited to apply for your X position” is fine.
- the body: Make a case for why you want to work at the company and why you would be outstanding at the job. A well-written cover letter should have a main claim about how you are a strong fit for a particular position, supported by reasonable evidence to support your claim. Include 2-3 spotlight experiences with their outcome. Explain how your experience/skill connects to the company’s need.
- closing sentence: Keep it simple. For instance, you can write “Thank you for your consideration. I hope to speak soon.”
- sign-off: Keep the tone reasonably professional (e.g. “Sincerely”, “Best”, “Warm regards”).
- your full name and signature.
Find the right tone for your cover letter
Write confidently about your experience. As a PhD in career transition, you may be tempted to write: “Although I don’t have exactly the experience you’re looking for…”. But don’t do this! Avoid any apologies.
Use a warm, conversational tone, unless you are applying for a field that still requires formal-sounding cover letters (like a law firm). Imagine writing a letter to a colleague you do not know especially well.
You can show some personality, and perhaps even some humor. Review the company’s website and social media feeds to get a sense of the company’s voice and culture–match their tone.
Be mindful of your document formatting
Make sure your cover letter matches the font of your resume. Use a standard font (e.g. Garamond, Century Gothic, Georgia).
Do not shrink your font or margins to fit the page limit. Stay under the one-page limit.
It is helpful to save your file “LastName_CoverLetter” when delivering your letter electronically.
Show that you care about the company’s needs
The hiring manager reading your cover letter wants to see that you took time to learn about their company and their needs.
Remember that a cover letter is not about what you will get out of the job – it’s about them! Show passion for what the company does and focus on the employer’s needs.
As you edit your cover letter, ask yourself if you addressed why you are interested in and excited about the particular position for which you are applying. Translate how your spotlight experiences are connected to specific company needs.
Do mention substantive conversations you have had with current employees at the company and name the organization in every paragraph.
These tricks will make it easy for the hiring manager to see that you’ve tailored your document and that you are excited about the company and the position.
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