“I am writing to apply for the Marketing Manager position you have posted on your website. I have 5 years of experience in campaign management and 3 years of experience in content strategy. I also excel at working with others and have an unparalleled work ethic. I…”

Whoops – I’m afraid I can’t finish reading that because I already fell asleep and drooled over the latter half of the page, blurring the undoubtedly-titillating prose discussing your dominance of the marketing world. Next!

Seriously, we’ve all done it, but this has to stop. Where did we read that cover letters MUST follow that format? Is that really how you want to present yourself? Because that’s exactly what you’re doing with a cover letter – you’re pitching yourself for a job.

A cover letter is a no-holds-barred opportunity to sell yourself into the role.

You’re amazing, and it’s time to properly prove it. As a first step, here are three quick things to do:

  1. Do a Google Images search for “cover letter examples” and ignore everything you see
  2. Roll your eyes while thinking about how annoying and time-consuming it is to write a cover letter
  3. Realize that your cover letter is an incredible opportunity to differentiate yourself from all other candidates

Now we’ll dive into what makes a cover letter great. To start, let’s get a little psychological for a moment.

Acknowledge their pain

Why do companies hire people? Hiring people is really expensive, so they’d rather not spend the money if they could avoid it. But they can’t avoid it. You see, on the road toward greater revenues, bigger clients, better recognition, or happier investors, companies have an obstacle in their path. And they can’t get to where they want to be without paying someone to come along and remove that obstacle.

So before you even begin hammering away at that keyboard, ask yourself – what obstacle are they facing that’s prompted them to open up this role? What’s their problem? What’s their pain? It could be that they’ve brought on a bunch of new clients but have no one to properly manage and build those relationships. Or that their current customers love them, but other potential customers have no idea they even exist.

Identify and acknowledge their pain so you can position yourself as the person uniquely qualified to eliminate it.

Start with a surprise

Once you’re ready to begin writing, forget about the staid opening used at the beginning of this article. Almost everybody starts that way, and it’s boring – both to write and to read. Believe me, hiring managers are practically begging for something different! Instead, think about how you could differentiate yourself and grab the reader’s attention from the very first sentence. Because when an HR person has 200 applications to sift through, that’s about as much time as you have.

There’s no set formula for this, but here are a couple of ideas:

Ask a quirky question. For example, as a communication guy, if I were applying for a role that involved training employees to be better communicators, I could start my cover letter with: “Have you ever found yourself on the verge of tears while sitting through a mind-numbingly boring presentation?” With this one question I’d be acknowledging an internal pain while also sprinkling a bit of humor into the mix. I could then go on to point out why I’m the right guy to solve that problem.

Tell a quick story about how you fell in love with your line of work. The company knows you want the job otherwise you wouldn’t have applied. But WHY do you want it? Where does your passion come from? One way to illustrate this is with a story. For example: “For a 6th grade science project, I found myself passionately marketing the virtues of chinchilla ownership to my classmates. Ever since then I’ve been borderline-obsessed with optimizing product messaging and campaigns to increase the odds of getting people on my side.”

What other creative openers can you come up with?

Give specific examples

Now that you’ve conveyed your passion for the type of work you’re seeking and piqued the interest of the recruiter with your unique approach, you can talk about why you’re a great fit. Remember how we figured out the company’s pain that led to the creation of the role? Give examples of how you’ve solved that exact pain, or a very similar pain, for others in the past. A few tips:

Pick your highlights. A cover letter isn’t a resume in paragraph form – it’s your opportunity to bring to light a few of your brilliant qualities or successes that can’t be perfectly communicated on a resume. Keep things focused and pick just your two or three most relevant or proudest moments.

Get detailed. When sharing these examples, give specific details – quantifiable, when possible – to create more authenticity. For example, instead of saying “I worked on a social media campaign for a Fortune 500 company,” say “I was able to get 5,000 new likes and over a hundred fresh sales leads while working on a social media campaign for [Company Name].” It’s still concise, but much meatier.

Use lists. Consider presenting your work examples in list form, either bulleted or numbered. Why? Lists are much easier to skim and absorb than dense paragraphs, which means your letter has a greater chance of being read by its very busy recipient. Why do you think the “listicle” article format has become so widely used by content marketers?

Tie it all together

Okay, we’re almost done. Once you’ve talked about the past experiences that make you a great fit to alleviate their pain, it’s time to summarize your greatness. Here are three things I recommend doing in your closing:

Revisit your opening. To bring everything full-circle in your closing, a nice touch is to refer back to your opening. If you started with a question or statement to acknowledge the company’s pain, or shared a passion story, now’s a good opportunity to drill that message home and shine the spotlight again on your uniqueness.

Share a link. If you have a website or digital portfolio, point them to it. You’ve enticed them with a few of your impressive work examples, and now they might actually want to SEE what you did. Great! This is an excellent chance to get their eyes on you outside of your application.

End with a question. In sales, once the pitch has been made or as the conversation’s wrapping up, it’s customary to ask for the sale or determine the next steps. Why should your personal job pitch be any different? When you’re going through your overflowing inbox, aren’t you more likely to respond to the emails that end with a clear action for you to take? I am. So don’t be afraid to ask for an interview.

Putting it all together, here’s how your closing might look:

“While I no longer own a pet chinchilla, I still possess that same drive for creatively communicating helpful solutions that can enrich people’s lives. If you’re curious to learn how I did just that to acquire those 100+ sales leads for [Company Name], feel free to check out my portfolio at www.myreallyawesomeportfolio.com. What might be the next steps for exploring our potential fit?”

You can then thank them for their consideration in your farewell, if you’d like.

A note on length

“But Siôn – isn’t telling a story and recounting a few of my experiences going to make my cover letter really long?” Nope. It’s very possible to include all of the above while also keeping your letter brief. We have a punchy opening, a few specific and concise work examples, and a 3-4 sentence closing that ties it all together. That’s about half a page, give or take. Feel free to flesh things out a little more if you feel certain important qualities or skills aren’t being conveyed, but definitely keep it all on one page. There’s no need to write a memoir.

Writing a great cover letter takes time, but isn’t it worth the extra effort if it helps you land the thing you’ll likely spend the next few years of your life doing? I think so.