By Amy Than
The following tweet inspired this piece:
To answer the question: you don’t need to, nor should you ever, write a cover letter like a fan fiction.
“Fan fictions” are stories that borrow characters, settings, and plots from pre-existing pieces, like novels and movies, to create an extension of the original story. For job applications, preparing a good cover letter may seem like writing a fan fiction, but it’s more like a documentary. Sure, there may be the same characters, settings, and plots (responsibilities, in this case) from the pre-existing piece (the job description), but successful cover letters are factual and informative. A fan fiction for a job in research would perhaps describe the applicant running noble-prize winning experiments without prior experience while a documentary-inspired cover letter would contextualize relevant work experiences, interests, and ambitions. What this tweet is essentially missing is the unique opportunity that cover letters provide applicants to narrativize their professional journeys in a way that will persuade the reader to extend an interview invitation.
Cover letters are weird (I’ll give you that, @roastmalone_) but they remain widely requested or required by job listings and hiring managers. So, how do you write a successful one — documentary-style? Below are a few tips, tailored for a student applying for a Research Assistant position within a lab that studies the neuroscience of addiction. Examples are drawn from my personal journey but are broadly applicable for any field.
Things to keep in mind
1. What the hiring manager is looking for and what you’re looking for.
Read the job description thoroughly with your eyes peeled for certain skills, work styles, and certifications that the hiring folks are seeking. Don’t get discouraged if you do not have everything they are looking for! Some qualifications, like degrees and certifications, are non-negotiable. But, be open to the fact that most job descriptions are guesswork for what the unicorn applicant would look like, especially when there is a project in need of extra hands. A speedy recruitment is often prioritized, which providing leniency and compromise for which applicant gets the position. For example, if a lab needs a research assistant by the end of the month to help analyze a data set before their graduate student leaves, guess who gets the position if there is only one applicant? In many cases, that applicant!
The goal as you read the job description is to decide whether joining this lab will add value to their projects and to your work experience. If you are confident and competent, you are capable and deserving of the opportunity. So, take a close look at the work that this job entails and the environment that you will work in. Ask yourself: have I had the proper experiences to make this job doable? Will I need training and, if so, what kind? What can I learn from this experience? Will this job bring me closer to my career goals? Does it provide fair compensation and/or experience? Does the workload seem manageable given my lifestyle and personal commitments? Most importantly: Do I want to do this job?
2. Your strengths and how to sell them.
Where you learned often has less impact than what you learned
When I applied to my first lab assistant job, I described the skills I learned from my Chemistry Lab Course as research experience. Although it wasn’t a formal internship or job, I gained basic lab training and hands-on experience with hypothesis testing and scientific writing. As you’ll often see in the world of career exploration, where you learned often has less impact than what you learned. It is in your best interest to write a cover letter that “sells” your strengths with confidence, regardless of the competition. Say you’re a university student from a small liberal arts college, but you had a great research mentor who gave you opportunities to conduct graduate-level projects. Many students tend to lose confidence knowing that there may be other applicants with similar research experience from more prestigious schools. However, the cover letter is a place to highlight the pros. Students who do not have prestige to speak for them can ‘beef up’ their experiences by highlighting aspects that make them unique. This could include smaller labs (more direct mentorship and independent study) and wider professional networks (more collaboration). Focus on expressing in your cover letter what you learned and why it’s relevant. This strategy of showcasing the relevance of skills applies to any past experience, so it can be helpful to save screenshots of job listing descriptions and course syllabi for reference.
“Having taken Organic Chemistry Lab (CHEM 43A) and General Chemistry Lab (CHEM7L) courses at [university], I have been trained in lab techniques such as chromatography, recrystallization and organic extraction. I am confident in my ability to apply the skills I have learned to do [experimental procedures from job listing]. I am excited to pair the knowledge in [scientific concept(s)] I have learned from my course curriculum with my technical experience in neuroscience to conduct experiments that will propel [lab name]’s research efforts.”
Continuing with the lab experience example, review your resume and refresh your memory on all the awesome things you are now able to contribute to the next team you join. You should know yourself and your ‘specs’ and well as a car salesperson knows the car that they’re selling. If you have trouble deciding which experiences are most relevant, ask a friend/family member/mentor to name some of your strengths.
Work experience comes in many different forms. Beyond lab experience, strong communication and time management skills are often sought after in research settings. This means that experience in volunteering, extracurricular involvement, and even personal hobbies can strengthen your application. Often overlooked non-research experiences include involvement within local communities (such as within your family, at your school, at your church), attending seminars/talks/conferences, mentoring other students, participating in clubs/sports, and completing group projects for a class.
In short, don’t ever sell yourself short!
So, how do you write a cover letter?
Writing a cover letter is daunting, but keeping a few common expectations in mind can make the process a bit easier. Let’s go over a few:
1. Keep it Professional
Start with a neat header with your contact information, the date at which you will be sending the letter, the recipient(s) contact information, and the job position title. Standard formatting for a cover letter is one page in length with text that is a simple 12-point font like Times New Roman or Arial. Have a greeting in your introductory paragraph, concise body paragraph(s), a conclusion paragraph, and a signed letter ending. Do not spend too much time on the ‘aesthetic’. It is often better to keep your cover letter simple and professional.
2. Have a strong introduction
For the greeting, mention again the position you are applying to (double check this if you plan to reuse cover letters!). Briefly introduce yourself and your current or most recent position or university attended. Express your interest in the position and end with a strong, assertive sentence that shows your confidence that this position aligns with your goals and you are ready to meet its requirements. You want the reader to keep reading, so keep it short but impactful.
“Dear Hiring Manager [or their name, if available],
I am writing to inquire about the [position title] position for the [lab name] Lab at the [institution name] during the [academic term or month] and further, if applicable.
I am currently in my [grade] year studying [major] at [university] and have strong interests in applying what I have learned in the Neuroscience field. I take personal interest in the [lab name] Lab because I want to learn more about the neurobehavioral factors that underlie addiction. I have worked closely with data analysis of [research topic] as a [position] in the [prior lab] Lab. [Mention any findings, published or unpublished]. The commonalities between the [lab name]’s efforts in [lab’s research focus] and my scientific curiosities make me eager to apply for this position. My enclosed resume will show the experiences that make me a qualified candidate your team needs.”
3. Highlight your shared goals
The cover letter provides context for the most relevant information listed on your resume. It also provides context for why you want the position. How does it align with your interests? If this position would be a stepping stone to your next, share why you are interested in gaining experience at this workplace and where you hope it will take you. What can you bring to this job that other applicants may not? As with all work experiences, be particularly aware of how this experience can be mutually beneficial.
4. Contextualize your work experience… Show, don’t tell!
In your cover letter, you have the opportunity to ‘sell’ your strengths.
If you keep asking someone to ‘say more’ about how they are feeling, and they’ll eventually share information with more meaning. The same goes for your cover letter. Be thoughtful but concise. Mention any strengths that would be useful to this job opportunity and acknowledge where you developed these strengths. If your experiences don’t clearly align with the job description, but you know they have contributed to the driven and highly skilled person that you have become, provide some examples. In your cover letter, you have the opportunity to ‘sell’ your strengths. Perhaps the experience strengthened your communication skills and ability to adapt to fast-paced working environments. Perhaps it provided you a taste of what a career in that field can look like and gave you clarity in the work you’d like to pursue further. Perhaps you improved the workflow of a team and have a knack for optimizing tasks. To conceptualize your work experience is to emphasize its relevance. Many people make the mistake of repeating the same scope of information in their cover letter that is already listed on their resume.
“From my recent internship at the [prior employer], I worked closely with the [position] under the guidance of [name] to administer behavioral experiments and collect the immunoassayed brain sections of rodents for research on motivation and addiction. I am eager to apply what I have learned to expand my skillsets to study [research focus of lab]. Moreover, as a [another position from prior experience] I adopted a keen sense of patience in collecting data and running tests. This exposure has given me exceptional knowledge of raw data handling and inquiry-based research that I am confident will be a valuable asset in helping your team collect and analyze information for [research focus] efficiently.”
5. Show your growth potential
Enthusiasm for a job should always be rooted in the excitement to grow. Hiring managers, in research settings at least, are looking for individuals who would go the extra mile to help move a project forward. A competitive cover letter will not only highlight an applicant’s strengths but also their potential. As you are investing time and energy into this position, they are investing time and resources. They might even want to hire someone that can one day get promoted into other roles. After you have made your pitch as a competent and eager applicant, make sure the reader puts down your cover letter knowing that you are an optimal candidate.
6. Work hard, but also smart
Writing cover letters that are tailored and convincing with the perfect amount of humble brags takes time. However, a solid first cover letter can be used as a template for other applications. Most people end up with several templates for several industries. Your experiences and the explanations on how they are relevant to your potential as an applicant is, in most cases, reusable. The effort that you put in does not go unnoticed. Any hiring manager would prefer an applicant that is eager and prepared to join their team.
7. Leave a strong parting message
At the end of your cover letter, make sure to reiterate your interest in this position, what you look forward to if you get the opportunity to join the reader’s team, and your availability to meet for an interview.
For example, end your cover letter with:
“I am greatly interested in taking on this position. This position would be an invaluable opportunity for me to strengthen my research skills for my future scientific pursuits as an [career goal] while providing your team with dedicated and reliable support. Thank you for your time in reading my cover letter and application. It would be my pleasure to meet with you in person to discuss my suitability for this position in greater detail. I am available on [days of the week] from [time] to [time].
8. Make your application known
After you sign off with a digital signature and your name, ensure that your cover letter has the appropriate formatting and save it as a PDF (to retain formatting). Submit it to the hiring manager through their application portal and personally via email with my brief nudge that your application is ready for review.
With your resume, cover letter, and any other application materials attached to the email, title your header as “Application_[position]_[your name]” and write in the body:
“Hello [hiring manager name],
My name is [name] and I am a [current position/student status’]. I have attached my CV, cover letter, and [other materials, if applicable] for the [position title] listed on [job listing location/website name]. I would greatly appreciate your consideration and look forward to hearing from you.
Thank you in advance,
With these tips in mind and some perseverance for the application process, you’re ready to prepare a cover letter that not only stands out among others’, but also captures your growth as a professional.
Written by Amy Than
Illustrated by Kayla Lim
Edited by James Cole