January 29, 2009

Reader Mailbag: Writing a Cover Letter

Dear Job Monkey,

I am a 28-year-old about to graduate from nursing school. A friend of my mom’s works at a large, local hospital and they are having a hiring fair next week. There will be representatives from all the different departments and they will be doing informational sessions as well as scheduling actual job interviews. My mom’s friend told me to come prepared with a resume and cover letter. I have a resume, but I don’t have a cover letter. I have done some research about how to write a cover letter, but I have no idea how to write one for so many different people at once. Do you have any suggestions?

Thank you,

Hi Nurse-to-be,

Thanks for your letter! And congratulations on your impending graduation. You have definitely chosen a wonderful career path, which, in addition to providing an invaluable public service, is also fairly recession proof. That may not have been primary in your mind when you started your nursing degree, but I bet you are awfully happy about that now!

So, on to your question. First, let’s talk about the nuts and bolts of writing a cover letter. Think of it as a pyramid, with three basic paragraphs.

Paragraph 1: Why (why you are writing)
Paragraph 2: What (what you can uniquely contribute to the position)
Paragraph 3: How (how you can be contacted and how you will follow up)

Why: If you found out about a job online or in the newspaper, you would reference that in paragraph 1. If you heard about it from an individual, you would mention his or her name. In your case, Nurse-to-be, you might want to talk about what a pleasure it is to be attending such a dynamic job fair.

What: If you have a written job description in front of you, make sure that you address the specific responsibilities and skills sets that the employer is looking for. You can even use the same language — if the ad says they want someone to coordinate and oversee, reference experiences you have had with coordinating and overseeing.

Just be careful not to repeat, verbatim, your resume. Your cover letter is your chance to show a little personality and to provide a bit more depth to the breadth of experiences and training detailed on your resume.

Also, remember that you are limited by one paragraph. You do not need to share everything you have ever done. Focus on one or two experiences or opportunities that underscore the specific qualities the job calls for.

How: If you are applying for a job through an online ad, you might want to provide an email address as a contact, rather than a phone number or physical address. While most online ads are legitimate, a growing number are scams. The last thing you want to do is give some scam artist your home address. In fact, you might want to open a separate email account (you can get a free one through Gmail, Hotmail or a number of other providers) just for job applications.

Now, as for your specific question about preparing a cover letter for a job fair, I have a few suggestions:

Do your research — you said that there would be representatives from all the different departments. Which ones are you most qualified for? Where would you most like to work? Prioritize your top five or six and then write targeted cover letters for each of them. You should even be able to find out the name and title of the department director. If for some reason you can’t, “Dear Sir/Madame” is still widely acceptable.

Write a boilerplate resume — I also suggest preparing a boilerplate resume, one that is general enough to work for almost any nursing position. It won’t be as targeted as one that you write in advance, but you will at least have something to hand someone who you didn’t expect to meet.

Improvise — Even if you run out of boilerplate cover letters, you don’t need to stop meeting and greeting representatives. Worst case scenario: You meet someone great, but unexpected, and have nothing left but your resume. Jot a hand-written note about how nice it was to meet at the job fair at the top of your resume and hand it to them with a smile.

I hope that helps you with your question, Nurse-to-be. Now go get ’em! Good luck!

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