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Why Are You Telling Me This? Cover Letter Tips for Your Job Application

Posted July 20, 2016 by Pat Nickinson - Director - BizComm Center, Muma College of Business, University of South Florida

As director of a writing center in an active business college, I often receive pleas for help from MBA students who are puzzled that their eager, hopeful job applications just aren’t getting the responses they should be. So I asked one student to show me what he’d sent, along with the job posting he was responding to. “Here’s one problem,” I showed him. “What you wrote in the cover letter was all about the things you find remarkable about your skills and experience, but the job doesn’t include those. In your eagerness, you overlooked what the job requires. The HR person looking at this is probably scratching her head, wondering, Why are you telling me these things?

Since then, that’s been the one thing I’ve suggested students consider when they write any business document: why does the recipient of your letter or report or memo or email need or care about these details or this topic? On the flip side, have you actually provided the information she does need?

The Two Requirements for Effective Business Writing

Good business communications—and a request for a job interview is a business communication—come down to two things: you need to provide the information the reader needs, and you need to make it as easy as possible for the reader to access and understand that information.

Following the Clues: Aligning Your Cover Letter to the Job

Easy access to the truly important bits means not cluttering your cover letter with irrelevant details or background or ideas. It means paying really sharp attention to what she’s indicated she needs from you. In a job posting, that means key words, and especially any responsibilities, duties, and qualifications that the posting mentions more than once. Those indicate the priorities.

When I’m working with MBA classes, I have students create a table for any job posting they’re responding to. In one column, they record all the specifics of the posting: what does the employer indicate is critical for the applicant to be considered for that job? In the other column, the students make notes about how they fit each of the specifics listed in the first column. The second column becomes what will be useful in the cover letter.

Painful Deletions: Removing Clutter From Your Cover Letter

What this also means, of course, is that it doesn’t matter how proud you are of some accomplishment: if it is irrelevant to that particular job posting, it doesn’t go in the cover letter. That’s often a surprisingly painful deletion. The key is to remember that the recipient’s needs matter here, not your own. Don’t make her roll her eyes and say, “Why are you telling me this?”

Final Tip: Good for Cover Letters and All Applications

If you recall from your undergraduate composition classes, you learned about “audience.” That’s what this is: a real-life exercise in figuring out whom you are writing to and what that person needs from you in order to say yes to whatever you’re after. I don’t mean literally just “yes,” as in “yes, we’ll interview you,” because not all business communications are explicit requests. “Yes” could mean your boss’s gratitude that you didn’t make her wade through extraneous details to find the ones she needs, or you didn’t tack on a topic that isn’t relevant to what she needs right now.

Considering your reader’s perspective is a pretty good rule of thumb in any business communication, but especially for those of us who are wordy. As you read back through any draft (and yes, you need to assume you’ll write more than a single draft), ask yourself, Why am I telling her this? If you ask yourself, then the reader won't have to.

Pat Nickinson, Director, BizComm Center, Muma College of Business, University of South FloridaPat Nickinson directs the BizComm Center for the Muma College of Business at the University of South Florida in Tampa.