I have always loved mad libs. When I first learned about them as a kid, I remember howling with laughter at the hilarious outcomes that resulted when different people plug in a word in the same sentence. Even as an adult, I can easily play with mad libs for hours and never get bored! As much as I love a good mad lib, let’s keep the mad libs to parties and far, far away from cover letters.
You want to know the best way to tell that you need to re-write your cover letter? If I can take out the name of the organization you’re applying for, replace it with another organization, and your cover letter still makes sense, that’s your sign!
That’s because cover letters are supposed to be personal! If you are applying to work for me, I want to know why you want to work for ME as opposed to the employer across the street. Show me you have done your research on my organization and know what we do. Show me that you are interested in the work that our organization does. Show me that you really want to work at my organization and not that you just want a job, any job.
This doesn’t mean that you need tons of experience directly related to the organization you’re applying for. It is enough to be interested in the organization’s work and to want to learn more about it. But you have to express that specific interest in your cover letter.
One of the best cover letters I ever read was to a consumer protection bureau of an attorney general’s office. The applicant had no work experience related to consumer protection whatsoever but her cover letter discussed how she had read an article referring to the consumer protection bureau’s key priority as regulating multi-level marketing schemes in their state and how many friends from her community had been harmed by multi-level marketing schemes. She was very passionate about this issue and wanted to work in their office to learn more about it. Had that applicant taken that same cover letter, removed the words “Consumer Protection Bureau” and replaced it with the name of a law firm or judge, that cover letter would have made zero sense. And that is a good thing!
Don’t obsess too much over needing to tie in your past experience to the jobs you’re applying for. If you can, that is great. If not, just focus on explaining authentically why you are interested in working for that organization. An interest in the issues they work on is enough. You can even say that you don’t know much about antitrust, labor and employment, family law, or whatever, but you are interested in learning more about that issue area and know from your research that their organization is a leader in that field.
You want to come across as enthusiastic, well-researched, and authentic. Trying to fake experience you don’t have isn’t going to accomplish any of those things. Expressing a genuine interest and desire to learn is.
When reading your cover letters, ask yourself if you were to remove the organization’s name and replace it with the name of any other organization, would the cover letter still make sense? If the answer is yes, your cover letter is a mad libs cover letter and you need to re-write it. If the answer is no, you are on the right track!
The CDO is here to review cover letter drafts so send them our way!