The ubiquitous “Just be yourself” isn’t foolproof advice when it comes to cover letters. Here’s how to add personality while keeping it professional.

For candidates in search of their next opportunity, the realities of the job-application process can be sobering. According to Glassdoor, a corporate job opening attracts an average of 250 resumes. Of those, four to six candidates are typically interviewed, and only one gets the job.

What does this mean for you? First off, it requires you to submit your resume to multiple companies in quick succession. However, the standard resume format has its limitations when it comes to helping a candidate stand out. The cover letter is your opportunity to incorporate personality into your application — but it’s critical to do this in a balanced and professional manner.

On one hand, if you aren’t writing a cover letter that connects with the reader and showcases you as a unique person, you may as well not bother with a cover letter at all. On the other hand, a cover letter that’s too informal or unprofessional will likely elicit a cringe from the hiring manager. How can you avoid common cover-letter mistakes, improve your odds of connecting with the decision-maker, and help your application rise to the top? Let’s take a look.

Begin with an honest self-assessment   

Is there enough personality in your cover letter already? Maybe, or maybe not. A “black-marker test” will help you get the answer.

Here’s how it works: Print your cover letter, then take a black marker and black out your name everywhere in the document. Reading it now, could you mistake it for someone else’s? Could another professional replace your name with his or hers and use the rest of the cover letter without additional changes?

If your cover letter has failed the “black-marker test,” know that you are not alone. Most cover letters look and read almost identically because many candidates want to play it safe by using boilerplate language. Use this to your advantage! Make sure that your cover letter represents you and only you.

Understand the company culture

The goal of creating a personalized cover letter is to demonstrate a great fit between you and the company you are interested in. You want the hiring manager to get a sense that you will get along well with others who already work there. Therefore, you must do your research to strike the right chord in your cover letter.

The company’s website is a great place to get a sense of its culture. Does the company break the mold by introducing executives with personal anecdotes and cartoon drawings? If so, you have a bit more creative license when it comes to showcasing your quirky side. If you find a traditional corporate environment with black-and-white headshots and formal professional histories, your incorporation of personality should be carefully weighed and balanced.

Blog articles from the company, whether on the main website or on LinkedIn, can provide additional color and help your decision. Finally, Glassdoor reviews can be useful as long as you approach them with healthy skepticism and look for patterns across a variety of individual experiences.

As you do your research and reflect on your application package, pay attention to any mismatches or resistance you may sense. For example, if you are having a hard time reigning in your tone to suit a hierarchical and formal organization, this company may not be the best fit for you in the long run.

Related: How to Find a Job You Love by Assessing Company Culture

Don’t just duplicate your resume — tell a story!

Once you understand the voice and style you are trying to echo, it’s time to begin writing the cover letter. While following your resume is an easy way to structure the pairing cover letter, the result can come across as impersonal and boring. Instead of reiterating the professional experiences listed on your resume, use the cover letter to reflect on them by connecting to who you are.

Here are some brainstorming questions to spark new thinking:

  • What defining feature of your personality makes you a great fit for this position?

  • What quote might illustrate your interest in this company, your professional journey, or your personality?

  • What about this position draws you to apply?

  • What experience isn’t on your resume but would be an appropriate connection point on the cover letter?

Here are some examples:

“I am the kind of a person who will insist on testing new teleconferencing software from multiple different internet browsers to make sure that the flow of the client conversation isn’t interrupted by technical issues. My focus on identifying risks, then addressing them proactively and systematically, makes me the project manager you are looking for.”

Or:

“When I was eight years old, I asked my parents for starter capital to fund my very first business venture: breeding rabbits. With my father’s help, I built cages and installed heaters to keep the bunnies warm during the winter. I volunteered to sweep the aisles at a local mom-and-pop grocery store in exchange for taking home discarded vegetables. Months of my hard work paid off at Easter. My hand-drawn advertisement posters brought in scores of local families who lined up to buy the bunnies for their kids. That spring, I made $50 and discovered my passion for entrepreneurship. I will bring the same enthusiasm, creativity, and tenacity to the position of Sales Manager at your company.”

Or:

“I remember looking out of the window of the Red Line train as it surfaced above ground to cross Charles River on my way to classes at Suffolk University. Every day, no matter how early or late, I would find the Hancock Tower above the Boston skyline and think to myself “Someday, I will work for Ernst & Young in that very building.” As I prepare to graduate this spring, my dream can come true with this internship position.”

Personalize for success (with caution)

From an honest self-assessment to brainstorming, understanding the company culture, and crafting a story, you are well on your way to writing a cover letter that will help you stand out in a pile of same-old applications.

As you write your personal take on why you are a great candidate for the position, be careful to use the right amount of personality. Stay away from stories that are deeply personal to the point of being embarrassing. Anecdotes that are funny for the sake of cracking a joke, or not relevant to the job at hand, won’t help you make your case. Personality should never come at the expense of professionalism!

As always, don’t neglect to spell check and proofread every cover letter. Reading it aloud can help you spot the sections that don’t flow smoothly. Check your tone — it should be conversational, yet respectful. Use your cover letter as an opportunity to showcase the research you’ve done by mentioning client names that get you excited, recent accomplishments and pride points for the company, or anything else that will reinforce the personal connection between you and the position you want. Combine these tips with the right dose of personality and you’ll be sure to show a hiring manager that you belong.

Click on the following link for more cover-letter advice.

Your resume should pair well with your cover letter. How does yours stack up? Submit it for a free resume critique and we’ll tell you.

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