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Write a Winning Résumé Cover Letter

Photo of two men sitting at a table shaking hands over cover letter.
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“Best practices are often just pooled ignorance.” 

Flint McGlaughlin, Director of MECLABS Institute.

I remember years ago when I was searching for jobs. It felt like my résumés andrésumé cover letters were going into a black hole. I did not know what people who were reviewing them were thinking or how they were reacting.

So, I spent hours reading books and pilfering language I liked from samples. Still, it was time-consuming, stressful, and full of uncertainty.

Now that I have been on the other side of the hiring desk, I have learned that it is no picnic over here ether. So, I want to help you help people like me to decide to hire you.

As you read for the next 9 minutes, you will learn the secret to writing a cover letter that will get you to the top of the right résumé stack — including, the one killer story that every resume cover letter should have.

Employers want you to help them decide to hire you.

Job seekers run into trouble because they focus on themselves. After all, they are worried about having an income, paying the rent, and eating. So, they think, “It’s all about me and how I look.”

Photo of a person carrying a backpack.
Photo by Dimi Katsavaris on Unsplash

But hiring managers are not concerned about your rent. Thus, you cannot become their allies by talking about it. However, you can become an ally if you understand what they want.

Employers are concerned about money, reputation, and time.

  • Business owners want consistent growth and profits so they can plan and feel secure. Hiring the wrong person costs money and causes uncertainty.
  • Hiring managers want to hire someone that will impress the owner and make them look good.
  • Team leads want to hire someone who will reduce their workloads so they have time for high-value tasks.

With this 4-step system, you will write a cover letter that helps you connect with hiring managers and guide them to decide to interview you. It works because it starts in the decision-makers’ shoes instead of yours.

The examples used below are for an administrative assistant position with a job description that emphasizes calendaring. Plus, the one killer story that every résumé should have is coming up in just a few more minutes.

1. Prime the reader or your résumé cover letter with a promise in your subject.

First, the subject of your letter should be a promise in a complete sentence. For example, “Get an administrative assistant who knows how to use a calendar as a profit-making tool.

Most job seekers start the cover letters with an “I.”

  • I am writing to express my interest…
  • I am a highly skilled professional…
  • I have been looking for an opportunity like this…

The problem with the “I am” approach is it asks someone to care about you before they know anything else. Also, every job seeker is looking for an opportunity, and of course you are writing. Who cares?

On the other hand, by starting the letter with a promise, you are starting where the employer is — looking for a result that brings more money, reputation, or time. You are also priming their minds to read your letter as an answer rather than a request.

2. Transition the reader into a conversation.

The next step is the transition. The purpose of the transition is to ease the reader into a conversation before you get into the heavy lifting of the next section.

Transitions in a résumé cover tell your reader where you are going. Photo of blue and white street signs.
Photo by Sangga Rima Roman Selia on Unsplash

In the transition, you answer the question, “Why should I interview you?”

Your answer could come from something that stands out in the job description, or from your own research (covered at the end.)

Do not repeat the job description, but if your reason relates to your research be sure to include it. For example,

  • Not this: “Your job description mentioned calendaring is a key function…”
  • But this: “Companies in your industry view calendars as a profit-making tool…

The transition can be a sentence or a short paragraph. The important thing to remember is that when you are talking about yourself you are focused on the employer.

  • Not this: “I have 10 years of experience as an administrative assistant.”
  • But this: “With my training and experience over 10 years, I can keep a well-managed calendar that earns money.”

As an employer, why do I want to interview you as an administrative assistant? Because you “can keep a well-managed calendar that earns money” — which is what I want.

But you are not there yet. That was the start of the conversation. We will finish it in the next section.

3. Enhance your perceived value with stories, proofs, and features.

This is where you increase your perceived value in the eyes of the reader. You do this by enhancing your appeal and credibility.

Photo of a woman writing on a whiteboard.
Photo by Jeswin Thomas on Unsplash

Important: Focus on one big idea in this section of your résumé cover letter.

You can address multiple points from the job description, but you should focus on one main overall point. Answer the question: What is the one big thing that the hiring manager needs to know about you? (“How do I know you can keep a well-managed calendar that earns money?”)

Tell stories to increase your appeal.

First, you can increase your appeal by telling stories. In this context, a story consists of a goal, an obstacle, a hero, and an action.

For example, “Our new sales initiative was due to start in three months, but our sales manager suddenly quit. So, I spent 31 hours locked in my office making calls and rearranging appointments. In the end, I was able to rework the calendar so that we only started two days late and finished on time.”

In stories, be as specific as you can about facts and figures. Specificity adds to credibility. “I spent 31 hours” is more persuasive than “I spent a long time.”

Use evidence from your résumé to increase your credibility.

Second, increase your credibility with proofs. Fortunately, they are already on your résumé. That makes it technically easy but remember to clearly relate proofs to your claims. That is, your Microsoft Outlook certification will support your calendaring expertise. However, the YMCA SCUBA certification you are so proud of will not, so leave it off your cover letter.

Finally, you are ready to make it about you.

Lastly, features are things about you that you do not need to prove. For example, “I read ‘Calendar Weekly’ to keep up on the latest calendaring trends.” Features are often what make us unique so they are useful to include. However, make sure they support your one big idea and do not waste time.

In other words, think of it as a “Shark Tank” pitch. You want to have tight sentences and get your point across quickly — claim, story, proofs, features, “call me”.

But which should you have more of — stories, proofs, or features? That depends on the position and your strengths. You find stories everywhere because they are our most powerful means of communication. Even applicants with little experience can use stories from school or a part-time job to support their one big idea.

But nobody wants to read a cover letter written like a novel. Nor is a mere list of qualifications persuasive. So, use as much as you need of each to get your point across.

4. Create a compelling call to action.

Now, let me tell you the killer story that every cover letter should have: The “Inside Story.” That is, the story that puts you inside the business.

People say, “It’s not what you know but who you know.” But what if I told you that you could become who you know in the unconscious mind of a decision-maker? That is where your Inside Story comes in.

To create this type of story, you only need a setting and an action. So, to create an Inside Story, you need to tell an action that puts you in or near the business.

Here are a few examples to get an idea:

  • Your office is such a convenient place to work. I pass by it every day on my way home.
  • Several alumni from my university work there, so I know I will get along with everyone.
  • I have walked in your company’s neighborhood and would love to work in such a beautiful area.

Remember, this is not about sucking up or being likable. Locating you nearby in the story puts you closer to decision-makers in their subconsciouses. It also helps persuade the reader that you are more likely to accept an offer and work there for more than 10 minutes.

But we want to end with a promise. So, make your call to action an Inside Story and a promise. For example, “[Inside Story]. Get answers to your questions and concerns by scheduling an appointment at [email and phone]. I will get back to you within 24 hours.”

How to market research like nobody else does.

Finally, find people in the industry where you are looking for work and talk to them. Start by finding connections — not for jobs, but for information.

Talk to friends or family or go to a local chamber of commerce meeting and let them know you are interested in learning about an industry. (Yes, you need to do this for every industry in which you want to apply. Standing out requires effort.) Then ask people if they know anyone you can talk to. You should be able to get connected to a decision-maker willing to answer a few questions.

Research for a résumé cover letter. Photo of two people drinking coffee together.
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Ask questions.

Once you have a contact, ask the decision-maker for a meeting or a lunch. At the meeting, ask questions like:

  • How did you get your start in your industry?
  • What do you enjoy most about your industry?
  • What advice do you have for someone who wants to be in the position I want in your industry?
  • What is something that someone in your company did that really impressed you?
  • What are your biggest complaints about people in the job I am looking for?
  • What is the #1 thing a person in the position I want would need to do well in your industry?
  • What task or process do you have the most difficulty finding someone to do well?

(These are also good questions to ask at your job interviews.)

Tailer your questions for your position and the person you are talking to. But, the important thing is to ask about people in your position rather than you specifically. Also, pay close attention to the language they use, ask follow-up questions, and take notes!

This is because you will use the same language in your cover letter.

For example, if the #1 thing the decision-maker wants to be done well is to “use a calendar as a profit-making tool,” then you will want to use that exact language. However, for most cover letters, that language will make no sense to the reader.

Get out of your comfort zone.

In order to stand out, you must get out of your comfort zone. Doing research interviews sounds scary, but they are a lot of fun. All you have to do is schedule your first one and you will leave armed with insights you cannot find anywhere else.

After that, schedule three more knowing how rewarding the experience will be.

Overkill with A/B testing.

If you want to go for your next level of overkill, you could A/B test. Create a landing page and an ad with candidate promises and transitions. Then see which ones get engagement.

See, e.g:


No professional consultant will tell you to research or write a cover letter like this. But to repeat Flint McGlaughlin’s quote, “Best practices are often just pooled ignorance.”

This system is not designed to make you look like a job applicant that fits a formula. It is designed to help you communicate with decision-makers in their language and then to guide them toward the decision to call you for an interview.

Good luck!

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