How to write a cover letter in 8 steps

Cover letters -- the bane of every job hunter's existence, except those who are blessed with the ability to instantly distill their lives into four brief paragraphs that communicate their entire essence.

That is to say ... none of us. Or precious few of us, at least. But that won't stop us from writing damn good letters anyway that put us in the running for our most Coveted Jobs.

The trick, I've found, is to reframe the task. Don't think of it as a chore -- consider cover letters freedom in templated form, the sonnets of the working world. Your goal: to get people who don't know you to understand you and your potential. So the more you let that personality shine through, the more likely you are to make an impression on your readers. And besides, it's much more fun to write!

I was imparting this counsel to BFF Emily today when it struck me that writing an outline guide might be more useful that straight-up editing her cover letter. Here was the result:

1. Salutation: Write to a person. Try to find a specific contact if possible. It's just warmer and more natural. If you can't find it, “to whom it may concern” won’t kill you -- but making the effort says a lot about your thoroughness and commitment.

2. Paragraph 1: Open with a bang. Why start wimpy or stiff? Say hello -- literally. Introduce yourself, reference the position, and state any networking connections or how you found out about the job opening. Bonus points if you can work in a (sincere) mission plug.

3. Paragraph 2: Call out your current gig. What’s the main challenge or tenet of your present job? How did you overcome/address it (with skills that your Coveted Job calls for)? Cite one or two examples of your work in action. Anything you did that's new, innovative, and/or self-directed gets bonus points.

4. Paragraph 3: Tackle your other most relevant work experience. This is up to you since you know what the posting says and what your work experience is. This is NOT the place to repeat your resume or list every job all the way back to mowing lawns in the neighborhood. Again, what about the particular job or role you want to highlight prepared you for something the Coveted Job is asking you to do?

5. Paragraph 3: Write, rinse, repeat -- IF NECESSARY. I recommend NOT to unless you have something amazing to work in. Better to craft two strong grafs that paint a memorable picture of you than squeeze out three wimpy ones that make the letter run too long and you entirely forgettable.

6. Paragraph 3/4: Show your humanity. This is also known as the feel good graf. Here’s where you explain how the sum of your experiences has uniquely qualified you for this position. It's not so much about basketweaving or that summer by the lake -- it's how you have amassed the skills Coveted Job so desperately needs, and why you enjoy possessing those skills. And do it in your voice. Show them how you look at the world. Do/say what's authentic to you and reflects what you think of your place on this Earth.

7. Closing paragraph: Say buh-bye and call me. The last graf = wrap up and contact. Let them know how to reach you, thank them for their time, and get the hell out of Dodge.

8. Reread. Edit. Tighten. Repeat as necessary. Your mission is to be clear. Be concise. Be direct. Be colorful. Be honest. Be YOU. Keep the grafs short and to the point. Only tell them the info that sets you apart from all other candidates and leaves them wanting even more.

Just one tiny coda before you go: the case for why you should bother listening to me. I got my current job from sending in my cover letter -- cold -- to an online job posting on (This, after years of being told online job postings amount to nothing.) The recruiter liked what she saw enough to conduct a phone interview, promote me to her client, and bring me to DC. I ended up being the answer to their 8-month search for a managing editor.

I think it was my "show your humanity" graf that did it:
In a nutshell, my professional career is built on four pillars: Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, calendars, Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, and my Myers-Brigg ‘teacher-idealist’ typology. Now I can bring my editing ‘eagle eye,’ organizational skills, leadership, and passion to the Case Foundation, and help further your commitment to finding sustainable solutions for complex social problems.

So how will your success story read?