Connie Going has spent decades as a social worker and placed over 1,000 children in foster homes. Many times, she has matched a needy child with a loving family. Sometimes, it takes one or two tries to find the perfect fit. And one time, with a rebellious boy named Taylor, she could never get it right.
That’s why, after ten years placing Taylor — unsuccessfully — with different foster families, Connie made a remarkable decision. She decided to adopt Taylor as her own son and let him live alongside her two other children.
Great story, isn’t it? No, I didn’t make it up. It’s the focus of a recent piece by Steve Hartman, the master storyteller for CBS Sunday Morning (the best show you’re not watching).
Here’s the full version of Connie’s story. WARNING: you might sweat out of your eyes a little.
I started this column with Connie Going for a reason. A compelling story in the first paragraph hooked you and kept you paying attention.
Unfortunately, way too many people open a cover letter with:
“Hi, my name is _____ , and I am interested in the position of _____”
Guess what the employer thinks?
“I’ve seen this same cover letter about 400,000 times. Next!”
So, let’s propose a new idea…
Rather than start a cover letter in typical, ho-hum fashion, lead with a personal story that either happened at work or on your free time. It can be dramatic, interesting, unique (like Amanda Munster’s genius savings plan for a first home), exciting or downright unusual.
If the anecdote relates directly to the job you’re after — and the skills it requires — you stand a much greater chance of the employer being impressed with your application.
In other words: a stronger cover letter might just get you hired.
Why do we read books? Go to the movies? Watch TV dramas?
Because human beings love stories. They move us, inspire us, transport us and above all… they entertain us. Why should a cover letter be a flat, unemotional document? Who decided they should exist only to regurgitate your resume? To fill up five bloated paragraphs with everything you’ve done so far in your career?
No one, that’s who. No one decided those rules. We all just slowly came to accept them.
***Oh, and you don’t have “Education” at the top of your resume, do you?***
Below, I will show you how to write your own story in the first paragraph of any cover letter for any job.
There are three advantages to this style:
- Catch the reader’s attention immediately
- Demonstrate your ability to do the job in question
- BE MEMORABLE
How to Write a Cover Letter People WANT to Read
Here’s the process. Feel free to write these answers down somewhere else.
- Think of a job you want or plan to apply for.
- List out the essential skills that job requires. Some employers ask, impossibly, that you have 500 different skills so try to think of the most important qualities of the position.
- Now, the clincher. Look back on your life and think of a moment, a story or situation that exemplifies the type of person the employer wants. Again, it doesn’t need to be something that happened on the job.
For example, I recently did this cover letter activity for a group of college students in Virginia. Almost everyone in the room is in the process of applying for work.
One girl told me she wants to be a nurse. So I asked her: “Can you tell me a story that shows you can handle the challenges of nursing?”
Here’s what she wrote down, paraphrased:
As a teenager, I learned that my grandfather developed Alzheimer’s. While it was painful to watch him decline, I made a point to provide him extra attention, tend to his ever-growing needs and be as much of a caretaker as I could. It wasn’t easy, but that experience proved to me that nursing is my calling. And that’s why I’d like to work in the medical field and help others.
If you, the director of a nursing program, read that paragraph atop her cover letter, would it give you pause? Would you want to then call the girl in for a job interview?
This girl is not a novelist, blogger or any kind of “writer.” So what. The story itself is noteworthy and doesn’t require elegant prose. She simply explained what happened and then started the SECOND paragraph with the classic “My name is ____, and I am interested in the position of ____”
***If you DO want to strengthen your writing, the best way is through blogging, and here are nine reasons why.***
Through the cover letter exercise, the girl realized something powerful:
Personal experiences are our greatest asset, and no one else can claim them.
It’s time to change how we approach job applications. With a cover letter, employers don’t need to know every single thing you’ve ever done. They don’t have the time and, frankly, they don’t care.
They WILL care and they WILL pay attention if you offer a great story that proves you’re the ideal candidate for the position.
Remember: the same person who likes hospital and courtroom TV dramas is also reading your job application.
Be entertaining. Be memorable.
I wonder if Connie Going, the kindhearted social worker, will ever re-enter the job market.
If she does, I already know how she’ll start the cover letter.