Cover Letter Boot Camp: What You Need to Prepare for the Writing Process

Have you ever spent an entire day staring anxiously at a blank computer screen, your nerves getting more tightly wound with every maddening blink of the cursor? Maybe you’ve even bought a book of sample cover letters, but you’re still not quite sure how to translate your skills and career credentials into the kind of professional-looking document that will catch your potential employer’s eye.

If this sounds at all familiar to you, you’re not alone. Few phases of the job search process cause more grief than the cover letter. Only the interview process itself seems to be responsible for more sleepless nights and anxiety.

Cover Letters Count

Although résumés are arguably more important in the job search, they tend to be fairly straightforward documents. After you’ve selected the format you intend to use, there’s just not that much ambiguity in the résumé preparation process.

With cover letters, on the other hand, there’s a whole lot to fit into a very small amount of space. Within the parameters of a standard three or four paragraph business letter, you have to introduce yourself, convey your knowledge of the company, and demonstrate why you’re a perfect fit for the open position.

Plus, you have to accomplish all of this in a way that will catch the HR gatekeeper’s famously fickle eye – and research has shown that the person who sorts through application materials usually decides whether each one makes it to the next step in the process or heads into the trash can in the space of less than thirty seconds. Talk about pressure!

Prewriting Your Cover Letter

With all that has to go into your cover letter, you’ve got a lot of work to do. But what may come as a surprise to most job seekers is that your work should begin long before you write a single word. In fact, what is most likely to determine the success of your cover letter is the effort you put into the process that writing experts refer to as prewriting. Use these prewriting basics to guide your cover letter preparation process.

  • Research.

    The very first stage of prewriting involves reading everything you can get your hands on. Research the company on the Internet and talk to friends and colleagues who have worked there or have been frequent customers. Most importantly, print out the job posting you’re responding to and go over it with a fine-tooth comb. Based on all of your research, what are the main qualities the company is looking for in an applicant? Take notes and make some lists to refer to later on.

  • Gather paperwork.

    The longer you’ve been in the workforce, the more documentation you’ve likely accumulated along the way. As part of your prewriting process, bring out all of the reviews, letters of recommendation, job descriptions, and past résumés and cover letters you’ve gathered over the course of your career. Spend a few hours looking over everything, making notes about your strengths and the skills you’ve developed in your past roles. Try to focus specifically on the talents and attributes you think will translate best to the new position.

  • Brainstorm.

    Time to begin writing, but at this stage, keep things very abstract. Make a series of free-form lists of the skills and experience you most want to get across in your cover letter. Imagine the ideal candidate you think the company is looking for to fill the position, and create a list of words and phrases you can use in your cover letter to tailor your skills and experience to better fit this mold. Make lists of the attributes and even the personality traits you want to get across in your letter, and brainstorm some words and phrases that best embody these traits.

  • Pick a format.

    There are countless sources of sample cover letters out there, whether you’re looking online or prefer to buy or check out a book-length compilation. Browse through samples and pick one that you think is best suited to the position you’re applying for. Having a predetermined format in mind can make the writing process much less intimidating – it’s akin to the difference between a coloring book and a blank canvas.

  • Begin to sketch in the details.

    To get your cover letter just right, you have to expect to go through multiple drafts. Your earliest attempts can be more like outlines than polished business documents. Using the format you’ve selected as a guide, decide which details about yourself and the company you’ll include in each paragraph. Once you’ve got these core components in place, you can gradually begin the traditional writing process. Take it slow, and don’t call it finished until you’re completely happy with the final product.

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