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Your CV covers the fundamental facts: where you’ve studied, where you’ve worked, and what your life has involved (at least since you left compulsory education). It’s all about ticking a set of boxes to make it through the weeding-out stage of the recruitment process. Missed a year with no explanation? Cut. Took 5 pages to cover content that could have been condensed to 1? Cut.
But once you’ve made it past the cut-off point, having done enough to justify a very basic level of consideration, the neatness of the bullet points on your CV isn’t going to help you earn an interview. It’s your cover letter that’s the key — your impassioned case for your candidacy.
What you need to do in every cover letter is tell the story of your life thus far, all leading up to your goal of being hired by that particular employer. But what’s the best way to do this? Here are some simple tips to help you get started:
Separate your story into clear arcs
Think of your favourite long-running TV show, whether it’s a soap opera, a cartoon, or a procedural show with a winning formula. Is there an overarching plot that loosely holds everything together? Possibly, but much of the emphasis will go to distinct story arcs. In a show about adolescence, for instance, the protagonist could make friends (one arc), encounter a bully (another arc), and experience their first crush (yet another arc).
To make your story impactful and digestible, you should separate it into arcs, with each one holding clear significance. Here’s an example of how someone could do it:
- Handling a difficult upbringing. They grew up in a poor family, which taught them the value of hard work and perseverance, and helped them develop their dreams.
- Balancing work and play. At university, they had to learn how to balance professionalism with general life, which helped them with focus and time management.
- Choosing a career path. Deeply invested in making a good choice, they researched various possible career paths, and ultimately chose the one they care about the most.
- Learning to deal with failure. After starting on their career path, they made their first major mistake, which taught them to be humble and keep improving.
Notice how each arc tells a self-contained story? That’s exactly what you’re looking for with this exercise. Your story is a collection of these interesting arcs, and the better you point them out, the more compelling your cover letter will be.
Focus on when you’ve shown initiative
Some young people are accomplished, but have only ever done what was expected of them. Go to school, take the required exams, follow instructions, proceed along the set path. Now, going with the grain at every opportunity doesn’t mean that a candidate isn’t capable or even brilliant — but employers ideally want candidates capable of making things happen.
After all, a business can run into trouble at any time — and when trouble arrives, which type of employee do you want more? The type that can follow instructions very capably but looks lost when that guidance dries up, or the type that can follow or take the bull by the horns when the opportunity is provided for them?
Young people have so many chances to find ways to show initiative. If you’ve taken advantage of some, you can talk about how that went — and if you haven’t, then you can start taking initiative now and bring that up in your cover letter. Here are some examples of how a prospective candidate can demonstrate initiative:
- Assemble a creative portfolio. If you’re trying to enter a field that requires creative work (copywriting, graphic design, etc.), then this is almost mandatory — but even if you’re not, you should think about doing it. Have you done pieces of work for friends or family members? Written down any ideas? Throw those materials into a portfolio to showcase your thought process and level of determination (if you use Photoshop, Adobe Portfolio is the perfect tool for you).
- Network with other professionals. Part of being a professional is working effectively with other people, so networking is something that’s hard to avoid in the long run. If you can join some kind of community around your intended career, you can prove your commitment and build some valuable connections for the future.
- Start their own business. It’s simpler and easier to start a business in your spare time than ever before (it’s also a great way to help with your finances after graduating). You could try offering your services on a freelance basis, or even set up an ecommerce store to sell products online — there are plenty of tips out there to help you get started, so go with whatever approach suits you best.
- Seek new qualifications. The best professionals never stop learning, so don’t make the mistake of imagining that you’ve already picked up all the knowledge you’ll ever need. The more you learn, the more valuable you become, so if you keep taking the time to add to your skill set, you’ll show that you’d make a good long-term investment.
Of course, that isn’t all you can do. You can also volunteer at a charity, work on your physical fitness, see the world… anything you do to fill your time can be used as a mark in your favour if you can explain why it was worth doing. What people don’t want to see is indifference or laziness, so showcase your eagerness to take a bite out of life.
Show struggle followed by accomplishment
You may have heard of the classic three-act structure, something that’s particularly common to films: you start with the setup (introducing the world and laying the foundations), move on to the central conflict or event (your lead character taking on a major challenge, for instance), and wrap things up with a conclusion that resolves the second act and pays off the main themes.
That particular structure doesn’t apply to every narrative, but you should apply it to every one of your story arcs. Struggling is how we learn (you learn more from a failure than a success), and it humanises us — it’s so much easier to empathise with someone who has to fight for victory than someone who makes smooth progress at all times.
By talking about the challenges you’ve faced and the times you’ve found it hard to get by, you show that you’re honest enough to admit your shortcomings, and that you’re tough enough to keep going until you reach your goals. So don’t try to present yourself as a one-in-a-million talent who breezes through every roadblock — instead, show some grit.
To tell your story in the most effective way, split it into arcs, demonstrate initiative, and show that you’ve overcome challenges along the way. That’s the best way to make yourself seem relatable and empathetic, and show that you’re deserving of a chance.