If you’re having trouble writing a cover letter for employment, there are good reasons. Because a future job is on the line, cover letters are high-stakes communication. Usually, they’re written under a deadline (the closing date for a job opening), which makes the writing even more stressful. They also need to be personalized to each employer, and since most job seekers apply to multiple jobs, this translates into a lot of time.
To overcome some of the stress and time of writing cover letters, I’ve created a template that enables me to write cover letters quickly and effectively. Following an OABC organizational structure, the template includes four parts.
Opening: Connect with the hiring manager or company in some way. For example, mention a shared acquaintance, talk about how you’ve researched the company online and appreciate the values or mission of the company, detail what you’ve learned through an information interview with a current or past employee, or share a positive experience you’ve had with the company’s products. The goal is to show enthusiasm and to signal your sincere interest in the job.
Agenda: Identify the skills or characteristics the employer seeks and that you possess. For help in this process, review our previous blog on preparing to communicate for jobs. Select two or three skills and use them for the agenda that forecasts your body paragraphs.
Body: Relate a PAR story that illustrates each skill or characteristics you selected for your agenda. For help in this process, review our previous blog on PAR stories.
Closing: Summarize your characteristics, and then invite the employer to consider you carefully for the position you’re applying for.
To see all of these pieces put together, take a look at this example:
I invite you to try out this template the next time you apply for a job. I think you’ll find that you can write cover letters more quickly and effectively as a result.
It’s a format that has been used time and time again for centuries—for movies, for novels, and for fairy tales. A person is placed in a difficult context with formidable challenges. The person takes action, and, against all odds, comes out as the hero. Think of the plot in fairy tales, such as Cinderella and Snow White, in movies like Moana, and even in the great stories of the Bible—Moses confronts Pharaoh and frees the children of Israel, Joshua wins the battle at Jericho, and Esther risks her life to save her people.
This three-part story structure is also a powerful model for persuasion in business presentations, employment interviews, public relations campaigns, and more. As humans, we love to see the underdog come out on top (except when we are the dog on top), and we can appeal to this human characteristic in multiple situations.
One of the beautiful things about this three-part story structure is its simplicity. Remember it with the easy-to-remember acronym PAR—representing Problem, Action, Result.
Here is how a PAR story was used by one college student in an employment interview (used by permission):
Problem. Growing up, my dream was to play quarterback for my high school football team. My dream was almost crushed in eighth grade when my football coach told me I would never play quarterback because I was too small and too slow.
Action. I spent the next four years of high school trying to prove my eighth-grade coach wrong. During summers, I spent four hours every night running, throwing the football, and lifting weights. The summer before my junior and senior year I took part in an intense 14-week sprinting program. I would also throw over 200 passes a night and lift weights for over an hour.
Result. My senior year I was named our region’s Most Valuable Player. I was also named to the All-State team, was chosen as the top quarterback for the 1A-3A All Star Game, and was one of the Arizona Wendy’s All-American Heisman finalists.
In addition to using PAR stories for telling things of the past, they can be used in describing future scenarios.
Problem: We are having serious problems recruiting new employees for our fast-food restaurants.
Action: We could offer recruiting incentives to current employees.
Result: This action would reduce the amount of time and money that we now spend in recruiting efforts, and we would see an increase in the job satisfaction of our current employees.
Take a moment to think of three situations in which you might use PAR stories in your current workplace. Then write a rough PAR outline of a story you could use in each situation. Finally, put the stories into action. We think you’ll like the results you get.
It's the first of the semester, and universities are hosting that exciting, but scary, annual event—the career fair. Students see career fairs as great opportunities to meet potential employers, but the event also strikes fear into the hearts of many students because they feel woefully unprepared. One such graduating senior recently stopped by my office the day before my university’s career fair. He didn’t think his skills and experience qualified him for current jobs. To give him some help, I guided him through a three-step process.
List All Accomplishments
To reorient his thinking, I asked, “What have you accomplished over the past four years?” He couldn’t think of much until I began asking additional questions. “What was your greatest accomplishment at your summer job last year?” He then told me how he and his team had doubled his employer’s output. I then asked him, “What projects have you worked on in school?” He then remembered ten projects he had completed in his chemical engineering major.
Brainstorm Transferrable Skills
With many accomplishments to now draw from, I chose one and wrote it on my whiteboard. I asked him to tell me ten characteristics or skills needed to achieve the accomplishment. We came up with this list: team work, attention to detail, diligence, focus, searching and finding, judgment, troubleshooting, technical skills, results focus, setting goals, and meeting deadlines. We then repeated the process with another accomplishment.
Connect Skills to Employers’ Needs
Finally, I asked him, “Do you agree that chemical engineering firms need someone who can work in teams, who pays attention to detail, and who is diligent and focused?” He agreed and began to realize he did indeed have skills and experience that could transfer to his field.
When this student first came into my office, I had drawn a glass of water on my whiteboard. I asked him, “Is this glass half full or half empty?” He responded, “Half empty.” After we completed the foregoing steps, I posed the same question. His response this time was “half full.”
In your next job search or preparation for a career fair, take time to prepare before you jump into writing a resume or practicing for an interview: list your accomplishments from work, school, service, and other activities; brainstorm skills and characteristics underlying each accomplishment; and connect your skills and characteristics to your potential employers’ needs. You’ll be much better prepared, and I think you’ll find your job search much more encouraging and successful.
We're Bill, Matt, and Vince, and we hope these posts will help you more effectively teach business communication. If you like what you read, please consider teaching from our business and professional communication textbook.