The winning cover letter
And how to write a losing cover letter of course
Last month, I spent the bulk of my column pointing out small, but significant, mistakes in introductory e-mails sent by prospective candidates for teaching positions at my school.
Needless to say, none of the applicants whose e-mails I commented upon in my column got to the interview stage. In fact, as a re-cap of what I said last week, most employers are inundated by resumes in response to Ajarn.com job postings, and we are looking for any legitimate reason to filter out certain applicants.
Applying for positions that do not exist, applying from outside the country when the ad asks for local applicants only, applying for a position advertised for native English-speakers only when you are not even in the grey area, writing in incorrect English (or with typos and misspellings), and sending e-mails as couples who expect to be interviewed and hired jointly are all legitimate reasons to delete applicants' e-mails from the in-box.
Now on to the next important step of the job application process, and the document most employers peruse before anything else - the cover letter.
In this day and age, with mass e-mails and tremendous demands on employers' time, some people have quite reasonably assumed that cover letters lack the importance they used to. In fact, the very service my column appears on is an example of a job search device that by virtue of its very structure seems to discourage cover letters.
Simply click a button and, "BOOM," 37 odd employers have your resume and a short note from Phil saying you are interested in working with them! Convenient, yes. Effective, not necessarily!
I am not saying that electronic mass mailings for teaching positions are completely useless. I understand that some employers, perhaps an increasing number, will disregard the lack of a cover letter and move right past the cookie-cutter e-mail from Phil announcing your "interest" and dig right into the cookie-cutter resume online.
I am not one of those employers, however, and my sense is there are quite a few of us who look for, or at least appreciate, a bit more initiative.
Having perhaps bitten that hand that feeds by complaining about the cookie-cutter style of e-mails and resumes from Ajarn.com, I will now try to mend fences a bit by noting that even in the world of mass-mailed, electronically-generated expressions of interest in teaching employment, there is some room fro creativity. I urge you to use this room, and to do so wisely.
First and foremost, in sticking to this month's topic, take a few minutes to write a couple paragraphs to personalize the Ajarn.com e-mail containing the link to your resume. In particular, make me aware of the fact that you actually read my posting, know the name of my school (correctly spelled!), and have a legitimate interest in hearing back from ME rather than just hearing back from any old desperate English Program coordinator or language school head teacher who has lost his latest teacher and is tired of covering classes! Make it genuine, and show some creativity.
Second, if you have the time and are willing to invest it in writing a serious cover letter (which I and many others request in our postings), there are a few more pointers to make it both effective and memorable (as opposed to ineffective and memorable, which I see all the time!):
1. The salutation should read "Dear Sir/Ma'am:" or something equally as gender neutral (Dear Hiring Coordinator, etc.), when you do not know the person's name or sex. I am amazed at how many letters starting with "Dear Ms. Crossley:," I receive every time I post a job! I am a fairly liberal guy, and don't really take offense, but it doesn't really get things started off on the right foot to pop me in the side of the head with a "Dear Ms." before I even get to read your letter! I know Thailand is the place for sex changes - but let me decide when and if I am ready, don't do it for me, ok?
2. The letter itself should be relatively short and to the point. I would suggest no more than 3-5 paragraphs. The first paragraph notes your interest in the specific school and specific job listed, and reinforces that your qualifications meet the qualifications sought by the employer. Here is a short example:
I write to express my interest in the M.4 English teaching position listed on Ajarn.com. I am a native-speaker of English from Canada, with two years of teaching experience in Asia. I am now based in Thailand and seek a challenging position at a school such as yours. I hold a B.A. in History from the University of Ottawa, and have recently completed a TEFL course. Thus, I am confident that I more than satisfy the requirements listed for the position. Your advertisement sparked great interest because I enjoy teaching at the M.4-M.6 level, and would prefer to be in a school like Potisarnpittayakorn, where teachers have ample support to carry out their work."
3. The meat of the letter in the most important. The second, and sometimes third and fourth, paragraphs are the BEEF. They should NOT simply restate what is on your resume. I can read your resume if I want that. Instead, an effective cover letter ties your experience to your suitability for the position listed. So, when you sit down to write the letter, look closely at the ad, or think a bit about what the position entails if the ad doesn't provide adequate detail. For example, take an actual cover letter I got that reads:
"I spent two years teaching in Korea and a year in Japan, so I am familiar with Asian students."
Sorry...ineffective, and as we who teach in Thailand know, just plain wrong. A better sentence would be:
"I have spent two years teaching students in the same age group as the students at your school, and my interactive and creative teaching style suits this age group well."
I could spend a lot more time on this point, but I hope you get the idea.
Also, please use this portion of the cover letter to explain motivation for seeking the job and to clarify any concerns that arise from your resume. If you just left a lucrative international school and are applying for a job with half the salary, tell the prospective employer why. And if you have gaps in your resume, or have switched jobs a dozen times, explain why!
4. The penultimate paragraph should ask any relevant questions you may have that were not addressed in the advertisement. DO NOT ask things that were covered in the posting! Again, I am amazed by how many people say in their cover letter, "Could you please tell me some more about the job?" Sure, but I would rather tell someone who read the ad and knows specifically what to ask!
My ads tend to be quite detailed, so this especially annoying for me. Still, I am sure most of us can fashion a better question that this. For example, how about asking whether a curriculum is in place, whether textbooks are provided to each student, or whether there is a Thai coordinator in each class? Think of a serious question or two to show you care about the environment you seek to work in!
5. The last paragraph is the summation and the closing. Short but sweet. Reiterate your strong interest and qualifications for the job. Express your availability (at the EMPLOYER'S CONVENIENCE!) for an interview. Thank the reader for his or her consideration and let them know you are looking forward to hearing from them (and by what means you prefer they contact you). Simple...here's an example:
"Thanks in advance for your time and consideration. I am eager to meet with you to discuss this position, as I believe I would be an asset to your teaching team and would enjoy working at Potisarnpittayakorn School. I am available to further discuss my qualifications and availability at your convenience and can be most easily contacted by mobile phone at 0X-XXX-XXXX. I look forward to your call."
Ok that's about it for this month. Cover letters seem to be extremely difficult for many people, but I hope the tips above help out! Remember, it's the cover letter than connects the resume to the position offered, and makes you stand out in a pack of viable teaching candidates. It's a chance to show your skills in the English language (or lack thereof, so be careful), and to make an early impression on the prospective employer. Now, happy writing!
You might be interested in....
Making your resume count - How to get the best from your ajarn on-line resume
How to land that teaching job - Five tips to make you stand out from the crowd
How to be a successful teacher in Thailand
Coming to live and teach in Thailand? - You can do it but have a plan!
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Thanks for the pointers :)
By Simon, Fleetwood, UK (6th August 2017)
I believe it's 'Dear Sir or Madam', not "Ma'am"!
By David Stewart, Glasgow (24th April 2017)
Interesting from the perspective that there are spelling errors in this article, which specifically mentions the importance of accuracy and spelling correctly. A little advice for the writer: it pays to take the time to check for mistakes! It gives one credibility, just like it does a job seeker!
Three paragraphs for a cover letter? Really?
By Donna, UK (2nd June 2012)
Interesting article. I like these tips. Cover Letter is most important for your job. Everyone needs perfect resume. I am very excited about this post.. Well Done..
By Maria Lindsay, us (12th November 2010)