Sell Yourself on Paper: Master the Application and Cover Letter

As a judge and former Operations director at large companies, I’ve had to look at a lot of applications in a short period of time and have learned to quickly analyze how someone sells themselves on paper.

When we as managers or interviewers pick up a piece of paper we question, “Who is this person, and what do they represent?” These are the ways that you can capture our attention quickly in your cover letter, application, or resume to ensure that your piece of paper stays at the top of our pile.

 Volunteers and employees of the organization you're vying to be a part of take the position seriously. By doing your research and showcasing your knowledge, you show that you care as much about the organization as they do. Photo courtesy of Curtis Yanksey. 

Volunteers and employees of the organization you're vying to be a part of take the position seriously. By doing your research and showcasing your knowledge, you show that you care as much about the organization as they do. Photo courtesy of Curtis Yanksey. 

Do your Homework

Take the time to research the organization you’re applying for. Take the time to look at their Website and know what they stand for.  Then, as you craft your application, showcase their ideals. And, then talk about their ideals in new language. Don’t use clichés or tired, worn out adages. Not everything is “Super awesome!”

Link yourself both to their core values as an organization as well as the list they’ve provided for the role (do you need to be personable, have a background and interest in the Western industry?). Explain how your personal values link back to those listed on the application. A lot of people think that the organization chooses them for who they are, when in reality an organization chooses you to represent who they are. You want them to look at you and think, ‘Okay, this person is really going to uphold the values of the organization. They’re on brand.’

Paint a Self-Portrait

Paint a picture of who you are. You have to walk a fine line as you write your application because they want someone who fits their organization, but they also want someone who has something special going for them. They want someone who’s on the ball. So, those first things you say about yourself in your cover letter and resume should be original, grab their interest, and make them want to know more.

 Take the application as seriously as the rest of your pageant preparation. Photo courtesy of Flickr.

Take the application as seriously as the rest of your pageant preparation. Photo courtesy of Flickr.

Don’t use the same language that everyone else uses. For example, “I want to be a rodeo queen because the sport has been a part of my life since I was a young girl with her first horse” is heard time and time again at contests. Instead, think of your reason first and start with that. The same sentence may read as “As a new rider at the ripe age of six, I fell in love with rodeo sitting on my Dad’s lap at my local rodeo. I knew that I’ve wanted to represent the sport ever since.” Your reason doesn’t have to be the same as everyone else’s; in fact, that’s good if it’s not! Maybe you love talking to people and want to be a queen so you can meet rodeo lovers from around the nation or your local community. The point is that you want to paint a picture quickly.

It’s like a good book. If you read the first few sentences and it’s good, you’ll keep reading. If it’s not, oftentimes you’ll set that book aside. If I’m sitting there with a pile of 20 or more applications or cover letters to read, then those that don’t paint that picture quickly will go to the bottom.

Showcase Your Experience

Explain your experience in terms that others will understand. The reader of your application doesn’t know your experience or the organizations you’ve been involved with as intimately as you do.

For example, if you’ve led pep rallies, then simply saying that doesn’t mean much to someone looking at your application. But, if you can link that to how you helped an organization grow, get better, and get smarter by using specific skills examples, that’ll help sell your experience.

 Lane Tech Pep Rally 2009 courtesy of Flickr.

Lane Tech Pep Rally 2009 courtesy of Flickr.

“I led pep rallies” then becomes “I helped an organization understand how vital it is to motivate others.” I’ve seen resumes that say, “I help children.” And, I think, okay, that’s good and that’s nice, but it doesn’t help me understand the role you played. Instead, frame it as “I helped children develop and find a love for reading through these steps: X, Y, Z…” Or, I helped children understand why reading is important and can form the basis for life.” That sounds a lot better.

So, it’s important to take your skills, and explain them in a way that someone who doesn’t know you can look at you and understand how you could potentially incorporate what you’ve done in their organization. Every one of you has done something interesting and marvelous with your lives otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this (or watching) and you wouldn’t be interested in competing. Show how you can take your skills as an individual and apply them to other aspects of your life, such as the job you’re applying for or the contest you’re competing at.

Dos and Don’ts

Along with this basic advice there are a few quick ways that you can set yourself apart, and faux pas to avoid.

  • Avoid the clichés. Don’t use language that’s been seen over and over again, such as “I want to be a rodeo queen because I want to uphold and promote the values of the Western way of life.” If that’s true, then phrase it in your own words. If it’s not, then be candid and use compelling language to explain your true reason.
  • Do your research. Not enough people take the time to look at examples. The Internet is easily accessible; use it to find good and bad examples. Analyze them and learn the difference, and if you don’t know−ask!
  • Use personal language. Explain yourself in language that shows who you are. An interviewer should be able to pick up your cover letter or application and get a sense of you quickly. Paint that picture and then connect how who you are can be applied to the organization.

Mark Galaviz

Mark Galaviz is a communications professor at the College of Western Idaho and serves as a coach on their speech and debate team (the fighting unicorns; hence, the stuffed animals).

He competed as a member of CWI’s team; earning numerous speaking and debate awards, contributing to two national collegiate titles, and earning himself full-ride scholarship to compete as a member of the nationally recognized speech and debate team at Boise State University.

As a multiple-time speech judge at the Caldwell Night Rodeo and a former Operations Director at large warehousing and transportation organizations, he’s developed a sharp eye for quality applications.

When not in the classroom, Galaviz enjoys exploration: of the outdoors, of old bookstores, and of literature around sociological criticism of narrative.