A reader writes:
I’m applying for administrative/production assistant jobs, and I don’t know how to start the cover letter. I hate starting with, “I was excited to see a position open…” or, “I’m writing in response to [position title] opening.” The third example I’ve seen, while ideal, doesn’t apply to me: “As [director/editor/higher up title] for ten years, I have made ABC company profit with [specific and impressive statistics].”
I’ve done unpaid art internships, data entry, and a bunch of cashier jobs. That’s it. What major accomplishments could I boast about? I know I have to show the company why I’m their best match. But I don’t know how to do that when I don’t have an actual career, or fancy stats I can show off.
Do you have examples that could help me? Or are there other resources I should look into? I just need a direction to take.
How you open the letter really doesn’t matter as long as it’s not cheesy (“have you been searching for a self-starting visionary with a penchant for data?”) or off-putting (“you’ll never find a stronger candidate than me”). You don’t need a flashy opener — in fact, you’re generally going to be better off without one. “I’d love to be considered for your X position” or “I hope you’ll consider me for your X position” or “I was excited to see your ad for X” are all fine.
The big issue is where to go from there. How do you explain why you’d be great at the job when you don’t have a long professional track record to point to as evidence?
The question you want to answer for yourself before you start writing is this: Why should the hiring manager be excited to hire you? What do you know — that they might not, because it might not be clear from your still-limited resume — about why you’re likely to excel at this job?
If you can’t answer that, you can’t expect someone who doesn’t know you to figure it out. So step one is to get really clear on that in your head. At this stage in your career, it might not be direct job experience. But maybe you’re a highly driven person who lives for data and plays around in Excel for fun. Maybe your summer job wasn’t directly related to this one, but you were continually lauded for how diplomatically you dealt with customers, and the job you’re applying for has a client service focus. Or maybe you’re like the person I once hired for an assistant job who talked in her cover letter about how her friends teased her about her obsessive organization because she color-coded her closet and used a spreadsheet to organize her music.
I don’t know what the answer is for you — but to put forward a good candidacy, you’ve got to figure out what “evidence” exists in your background, traits, skills, or experience that demonstrate “hmmm, yeah, this person might do really well in this role and here’s why.” It doesn’t have to be strictly work-based, as long as you can compelling tie it to what you’d be doing on the job.
Another way to think about this: If you were explaining to a friend why you think you’d be great at this job, what would you say? It’s probably not just about what’s on your resume, but about skills, orientations, approaches, talents …. and your cover letter is the place to convey that.
Of course, you can’t just assert “I have talent X” because that’s not especially credible or convincing. You need to demonstrate it. For example, while “I have great initiative” tells me nothing concrete or reliable, “I founded and led a campus drive to raise funds for a rice sculpture of the university president, exceeding our targets by 20%, and was able to get the piece featured in Rice Sculpture Weekly” shows me initiative (and that you have weird hobbies). Similarly, “I have great communication skills” is meaningless fluff, but “In my volunteer work, I’m regularly turned to as the person who can explain our not-easy-to-understand X process to new volunteers” has weight.
(To be clear, once you do have more work experience, you want to draw your evidence from work history, for the most part. But when you don’t have it yet, hiring managers understand that and this approach makes sense.)