How to write a kickass cover letter?
When applying for a new job offer, many candidates make the common mistake of not adapting their CV specifically to the job opening. But those who don’t make this mistake, often do another important one: not writing a cover letter.
A CV is a very condensed way to spark some interest in the eyes of recruiters but it does not tell you the full story and is a poor format to convey ideas and deeper concepts. Conversely, cover letters are a great free form of expression where you can share with a company much more about who you are and why they should consider you as a top candidate. Not writing a cover letter is a clear missed opportunity to shine.
To understand the importance of a cover letter, let’s just take one step back and consider what companies are looking for when they recruit a data scientist (or any employee actually): they want this person to be smart, well trained, understand what the role entails, be motivated (actually, in some countries, cover letters are called motivation letter) and to be able to carry out a very specific mission.
Your CV will give some hints on your technical skills, experience and achievements but won’t tell much about how you work, what you can deliver and how much you understand the company’s business, which are other important criteria to assess a candidate’s potential. And if you don’t write a cover letter, the recruiter will only have access to one part of your story.
This is why you need to convey additional information in addition to your CV. It usually takes the form of a cover letter although in some cases it can be quite different, such as an email introduction or a video presentation (either spontaneous or required as part of the recruitment process).
There are many ways to write a good cover letter, and here are a few tips on achieving it.
Remember it is not about you
It’s a common mistake candidate make at all levels. They forget that a job search is not about them but the company and they should still keep this in mind when writing your cover letter. This does not mean you should not talk about yourself of course but, ultimately, the goal of your letter is to convince the company you are the person they need to solve their problems. Also, as they already read your CV, there is no need to list again all your skills.
Identify the company challenges
In any job search, research is key (we will cover this in future posts). If you do not understand what the company is selling and the market they are operating in, it will be hard to convince the company you help them solve problems you have no ideas about. Conversely, stating explicitly that you understand which problems (being as specific as possible) they are facing will quickly put you in a good light. Believe me, very few candidates actually do this in their cover letters and if you manage to do it convincingly, you will be seen as a special candidate.
How do you identify such problems then?
Your first source of insights is the job description. It will likely state what is expected of you and who will be your stakeholders. From there, you can have a hint of which problems they are likely to face. For example, if the posting states “You will develop a highly accurate algorithm to detect churning users”, you can get that user churn is a critical problem in their business and needs to be addressed. On the other hand, if they mention “Your principal duty will be to develop some Tableau dashboards to help decision making of your main stakeholders” this means the company still needs to improve their tooling to become more efficient at making data-driven decisions, which is also an important process in a company.
Once you have identified those first elements of answers, do some additional research about the company, other similar companies and this specific issue. For example, if the problem you will have to tackle is user churn, check how big an issue it is in similar companies and how it is generally addressed (e.g. how to churn detection can help and which methods are commonly used).
Once you have gathered all these elements, package all this in a paragraph whose aim is to show how well you understand the process.
“It came to my attention that you want to reduce user churn to better capitalize on your current user base and past user acquisition spend. A proper churn detection solution coupled to an efficient targeted marketing campaign will have a strong impact on your product future performance. Luckily, there are multiple ways this problem can be solved using machine learning approaches. ”
Such statements will show you understand what the role is about and what is the impact of your work on the business. It also shows you are smart enough to understand it and that you either have some experience or can quickly learn about new business areas. This is much more powerful than the classic clichés “I am extremely motivated and a quick learner”. That might be true but anyone can write this without having to provide any guarantee. Actually learning about the company and their problems and sharing this understanding is the best way to show you are a quick learner instead of only stating it.
Tell your dragon-slaying story
Now that you have shown you understand the business and their problems, you have to show why you are the best person to solve them. This is what Liz Ryan, a job-search expert and former contributor at Forbes, calls the dragon-slaying story.
Here, the dragon is only figurative but you will have to show how you already solved such a problem (or a very similar one) and how this makes you a top candidate to talk to.
Your goal is now to find a good story to tell them. Dig in your past experiences or projects and find that one time you successfully solved a similar problem. For example:
“At my previous job, I led the technical development of a churn prediction model. I used machine learning algorithms such as Random Forest to predict future churners with a 91% accuracy. The predicted churners were later targeted via a specific email campaign which ultimately led to a 5% increase of our revenues”.
Of course, you might not always be lucky enough to have such a perfect story to tell but that should not prevent you from highlighting how you can help them. In such a case, find the most similar project you worked on and explain how relevant it is.
“Although I have not yet worked specifically on churn prediction models, I recently conducted a project to detect potential future payers on a freemium product using machine learning algorithms such as Gradient Boosting. In both cases, the main difficulty is to work with imbalanced classes and make accurate predictions with limited activity data. Despite those challenges, I could predict a set of potential payers who, when targeted via a specific marketing campaign, showed a 2% increase in conversion. I have no doubt similar approaches could be used to predict churners and drive a similar business impact.”
Facts over clichés
A problem recent graduates often face is the lack of concrete experience to show for and they might then be tempted to use clichés like “I am a quick learner”, “I am extremely motivated”, “I am highly organised” or “I am a hard worker”. Such formulas are void of any meaning as anyone can write them without proving anything.
Rather than clichés, facts and examples are much more powerful and they show something concrete that will showcase some of your qualities. We have seen before that the best way to show a company you can learn quickly is to actually learn what they are doing and which challenges they are facing.
If you want to show you are organised, mention an example where you had to manage multiple persons or tasks even if it was in a non-professional context (e.g. you organised a football tournament at your school).
If you want to show you are a hard worker, show it by producing a small business case specific to your application’s position and adding it to your application (and mention it in your cover letter, of course).
If you are stating you are passionate about data science and highly motivated, tell them about a project you developed just out of pure curiosity or driven by a personal problem (e.g. that time you scraped a real estate portal data to analyze what would be a fair rent price to pay in your neighbourhood).
You got my point. It is easy to make general statements that do not have to be true. Showing concrete examples of what you do can actually back those statements up.
Write that letter
These are just a few tips out there to nail your cover letter. Putting some effort into writing a tailored letter showing how you understand the target company business and how you can specifically help them is a huge help towards getting an interview. In addition, all the research and effort you have put in the application will give you an additional advantage during interviews as you will arrive more prepared.
Therefore, next time you find a job you are really excited about, give yourself all the possible chances and write that kickass cover letter.