Cover Letters: The Hardest Part of the Search

Posted on December 18, 2014

ELGL green icon

In this series of articles, ELGL members reflect on the themes from our recent survey on careers. So far, we learned tips for interviewing and writing a resume.  Ian Davidson, a recent graduate of Oregon State University’s MPP program and ELGL project assistant, offers some tips for writing a cover letter.

Cover Letters: The Hardest Part of the Search

download (2)

By Ian DavidsonLinkedIn and Twitter

Last month, ELGL asked its members to give the best advice they had ever received or shared about writing a cover letter. Of the over 160 responses, one stood out:

None. The internet only contains generic advice that won’t get you noticed. Cover letters are the hardest part of the job hunt process.

Unfortunately, this respondent is not alone. I consulted the all-knowing vastness that is the internet for help on writing cover letters with limited success. This article attempts to rectify that deficiency. We have synthesized the 163 responses from ELGL members to give you the most comprehensive guide to writing a cover letter for local government.

Concise Is Nice


Be concise! This was one of most frequent pieces of advice given. To help you be concise some people recommend limiting your cover letter to one page. 

If it takes you more than one page to cover the material you think need to include then you are not being concise enough.

Avoid the passive voice. Remember, verbs can be either active or passive. For the purposes of cover letters it is best to let your verbs act (active) rather than let them be acted upon (passive) For example, “the city council approved the new policy” is active, whereas, “the new policy was approved by the city council” is passive. Still having trouble distinguishing the difference? Consult this reference guide.

Dear Sir or Madam

images (2)

Chances are you are not the only one applying for the job you want, so you need to do all you can you stand out, and one great way to do this is to personalize your cover letter. Sure. that’s all good and well, but how do I personalize it?

You should personalize every darn one to [the job] posting.

Get the Name of the Hiring Contact or HR Director – “To Whom it May Concern” doesn’t set you apart from the pack, so drop it–personalize your cover letter with the name of a real human! Does the job posting have a point of contact for questions? Call them and explain that you would like to personalize your application and ask for the name of the person making hiring decisions or the HR director. If you don’t have any luck with that, try finding and browsing the city directory, if it is online, for the name you need. Be sure not to misspell his or her name!

Recycling Is Bad When It Comes to Cover Letters


As noted above, “cover letters are the hardest part of the job hunt process” so you may be tempted to cut corners by reusing old cover letters as you apply for jobs, but don’t–people can tell when you do. Write a new cover letter for each and every job you apply for.

Cover letters have to be specific – they cannot be template documents.  Address each of the desired skills outlined in the job announcement and use specific examples of how you’ve used those skills in the past.

Beating the ‘Bot


Unfortunately, sometimes there are so many applicants that organizations rely on humans or bots to quickly skim cover letters to see if you are a good match, and they rely on the use of keywords to determine if there is a good fit. For example, if the job posting describes community outreach as “meeting with stakeholders” then use that language when you speak to that issue. Give them back their own language.

Write which job you are applying for in the letter. We forget what we’re reading sometimes!

Make Your Story Memorable 


As noted above, it is important to be concise, but it is also important to tell a story. If the job you are applying needs someone that has a proven track record of overcoming challenges, then it would be more than appropriate to describe a challenge you faced. Briefly describe the problem and how you overcame it; a memorable story doesn’t need to be long. Until you connect with them, you are just another application in a large stack.

The cover letter is a chance to tell a story about yourself.

So Where Do I Start?


You now know what to include in your cover letter, but what are the best techniques to getting your ideas on paper. Here are a few techniques offered by respondents:

  • Begin with two columns, in the first you should outline the listed qualifications and in the second column write how you meet (and exceed?) each of them.
  • View the qualifications as questions and individually answer as many of the position requirements as possible.
  • Read through each posting highlighting key phrases or terms that are used and incorporate them in your cover letter.

Do you have additional advice that was not covered? Be sure to let us know in the comments below or on social media!

Note: Complete results of the survey will be made available to ELGL members.

Close window