Your cover letter along with your resume are the first documents a prospective employer will use to make a snap judgment on whether you’re worth a second look or get tossed to the bottom of the pile. These tips will not only make sure you make it past round one, but have the velvet rope removed and cut to the head of the line.
It’s highlights, not an autobiography
Your resume and portfolio (if applicable) get into the detail of your work history, skills, design sense, and projects you’ve worked on. Your cover letter should only touch on some of this information with examples and anecdotes, leaving the detail and heavy lifting to the remaining documents. If you read about a building typology, skill, or software in the job description that relates to one of your career highlights or memorable experiences, this a perfect time to connect the two. Give the prospective employer two or three reasons right off the bat why you’re the only right choice for the job from the very beginning. Spell it out without being too obvious, as you should leave a little mystery for the hopeful job interview or follow up email. Keep it simple with an introduction saying who you are and what job you’re applying to, the aforementioned two to three reasons is the meat of the cover letter, and finish it off with a quick reiteration of what you’ve said and how you look forward to hearing from them. Spell it out: who you are, what job they should hire you for, and the clear reason why.
Make it specific
While a template is always helpful on how to structure a cover letter, each one should be bespoke to the individual job you’re applying for. Hiring managers have been at this long enough that they can tell when someone is throwing a hundred resumes and cover letters against the wall, hoping a few stick. Make sure you read the entire job description so you get the detailed feel of what they’re looking for and if they’re asking for specifics within your application (see pro tip below). If a company lists out 3D coordination, high rise experience, and curtain wall design review as necessary skills, showing a small house renovation with punched openings and a simple HVAC system probably wouldn’t be the wisest project to highlight. An attention grabbing way to woo your potential future employer is a variation of “I admire how XYZ Company was able to construct a complex building shape in a small limiting site, and I feel my experience with my last project, Awesome Funky Façade Place, is a great alignment of my skills and your design ideology.” You’re simultaneously stating why you want to work for them and why you’d be a good fit. Get two or three of these in your cover letter and you’re on the fast track to an interview. Butter their bread.
PRO TIP: If you’re on the other side of the ball and you’re the one doing the hiring, I always like to include a built in screening line in my job description when hiring different freelancers. In the job description I write in all caps “PLEASE READ THE ENTIRE JOB DESCRIPTION”. At the very bottom, I’ll then write in all caps again to make it the most obvious “IN ORDER TO BE CONSIDERED FOR THIS JOB, PLEASE START YOUR COVER LETTER WITH, YOU’D BE CRAZY NOT TO HIRE ME BECAUSE…”. You’ll be shocked at how many people don’t follow this very elementary step and get eliminated from the running right off the bat because of a simple oversight. I have declined the best candidate for the job before for this fundamental misstep, as it in my eyes shows a lack of attention to detail which is key to any business.
Coordinate the design
If given a project to design a master plan for a grouping of buildings, you would probably start with some common elements to relate the different structures to one another through scale, materiality, orientation, fenestration size, etc. Why wouldn’t you do the same for your cover letter, resume, and portfolio? A simple starting point is to make sure the text between the three documents is the same style and size, as it will be the meat of what the hiring manager focuses on for two out of the three documents. Do you have an accent color, logo/graphic, or layout style that you think looks great? Here’s the perfect place and time to use it. After all, your potential employer is buying you as entire package and not individual pieces. Make sure you sell yourself as a cohesive whole and not a collection of fragmented chunks that happened to show up at the same time.
Cut the filler
People are busy and will only have time to read the most pertinent and important information in your cover letter. If it doesn’t increase your chances of landing a job opportunity, leave it out. Potential employers don’t have time to read a page long mini biography of your career to date. Your resume can provide a Sparknotes version of where you worked, what your responsibilities were, and show a timeline of how you’ve grown from your first internship to your latest position. A cover letter should list out why you’re interested in this specific job (reread the second part), two or three reasons why past experience lines up well to their ideology, and how you’re excited to learn more about the opportunity. If written well, you’ll have plenty of time to provide more detail in the interview whether it be in person or over the phone. A well written two to three short paragraph cover letter will get infinitely more responses than a verbose, page long self-report. When it doubt, leave it out.
Confident, not cocky
Unless you’re interviewing for a Principal position in a firm in which case you probably wouldn’t be writing a cover letter in the first place as it came about through networking and referrals, don’t state why your years of experience with world class projects make you the only right choice for the job. There is a very fine line between confidence and cockiness, and you want to strive for the former rather than the latter. Architecture is unfortunately filled with big egos or as I like to call them, “The Black Turtleneck Crew”. These are the ones who can only envision one answer to a design problem which conveniently happens to be their own and shoot down anyone else’s opposing view. Instead of framing yourself as the second coming of Frank Lloyd Wright or Zaha Hadid, focus on why past project experience has prepared you to excel in the position you’re applying for. You can even list out a trial or tribulation you faced on a project, how it was solved, and what you learned from it if it’s concise and not too wordy. Bottom line, show them you’re the right person for the job without instilling fear of wanting to direct every employee in the office.
That’s all folks. Go find the position you want, research the heck out of it, and write that amazing cover letter that’s guaranteed to get you onto round two.