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When Cover Letters Get Personal

by Linda Matias

“It is with great interest and enthusiasm that I submit my resume for your review.” Most cover letters are written in this humdrum tone. Cover letters do not need to be so dull, nor so uninteresting. This style of cover letter writing has been around for years; and it’s a trend that has overstayed its welcome.

It’s perfectly acceptable to add pizzazz to cover letters in an effort to engage the reader in your story. Taking a business approach while adding a personal touch to the cover letter will certainly make you stand out from other candidates. But many are skeptical about adding a personal story to the cover letter because rumor has it that cover letters should be completely business-oriented. That isn’t true. There are occasions when it is appropriate to deviate from what others expect to read, and of course, there are times when you should remain with the “tried and true” method.

When Getting Personal Doesn’t Make Sense
Getting personal can be tricky because most people have a tendency to reveal too much. Only choose to disclose personal information if doing so will help sell you for the position. Don’t use the cover letter as a vehicle to make excuses, to apologize for your current situation or to describe how difficult the job search has been. For example, the following is not a personal story that should be fleshed out in a cover letter:

A few months ago, I was laid off and haven’t been able to secure a position since. I have answered countless classified ads and no one will give me an opportunity. My bills are piling up and I need someone to give me a chance. I am a good worker and if you hire me, you won’t be disappointed.

The above introduction smacks of desperation, and although you may be truthful when saying you’ll do a fantastic job, the reader will think either: a) if nobody else wants this person, I sure don’t or b) this person will take on any position just to pay the bills while continuing to look for the right opportunity. While that may not be your intention, it will be the perception.

When Getting Personal Makes Sense
Not every situation is the same and some situations call for more than just a reiteration of your resume. If you are currently unemployed, a career changer, or just have an interesting story to share about your career progression, feel free to elaborate in the cover letter. The following is an appropriate personal story to tell in a cover letter:

It is human nature to believe that life-altering events will only happen to “them,” not us. With this popular notion in tow, we go about our lives doing the best we know how. Then one day, we are struck with a reality that changes our view of the world and our purpose on this earth. Each of us has our own unique life changing events; mine was when my companion was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

When I made the decision to leave the workforce to tend to my companion’s illness, I quickly realized there was never enough time to get everything done: paperwork, doctor's visits, clinical studies, and housekeeping responsibilities.

Even with all that needed to be done, I welcomed the opportunity to care for him when he needed me the most. In fact, I am grateful I was able to follow him through his journey. I realize this is a luxury not afforded to everyone. Because of the experiences I had in and out of the nursing home, I decided to return to college and earn a master’s degree in Health Advocacy at Sarah Lawrence College.

The above is a heartwarming tale of how one’s personal experience changed their course in life. This particular story is a great sales tool because it alludes to the empathy and compassion this candidate has for others who are going through what she experienced.

Recognizing if your personal story makes sense
When getting personal in a cover letter, the key is to focus on a topic that: a) will interest the reader, b) is relevant to your career objective, and c) will add weight to your list of qualifications. If you can enthusiastically answer “yes” to all those distinctive qualities, then your story is one that should be told.


Linda Matias is President of CareerStrides and The National Resume Writers' Association. She has been quoted in The Wall Street Journal, New York Newsday, Newsweek, and HR-esource.com. Visit her website at www.careerstrides.com or email her at linda@careerstrides.com

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