Writing for Business and Pleasure
Copyright by Stephen Wilbers
Columns on Job
lucky enough to have a job these days, you’ve probably written a
self-evaluation for your annual job performance review. If you’re
unemployed or underemployed, you’ve no doubt written a letter of
application – or maybe dozens of them.
Either way, you may feel overwhelmed by the task of pulling together so much information. Here’s some advice to help you succeed.
□First look outside, then look inside, then look for points of convergence. Don’t begin by thinking about your accomplishments. Begin by thinking about the institution’s values, mission, and goals. Make a list. When you do begin writing, use some of the same words and phrases you came across in the assessment guidelines or the job description.
□Next look inside. What have you accomplished? What are your most important qualities and achievements? What are your most valuable skills? What are you most proud of?
□Don’t begin gathering information just before you write. Make notes throughout the year. Whenever you catch yourself doing something right or accomplishing something important, record the dates and details so that you’re always ready to go.
□Next identify areas where your accomplishments, values, and goals converge with the institution’s. Although you’ve done many wonderful things in the past year, month, or week, look for the ones that have most value for the institution.
□Identify your themes. You’re not just compiling a list of facts and dates. You’re compiling evidence to support two or three major themes, such as "I am a visionary leader" or "I am particularly good at motivating team members" or "I am skilled and experienced in turning around troubled companies."
□As you devise your strategy, keep in mind that evaluations and assessments involve multiple steps. The purpose of your application letter is to create interest in your resume and to help your reader interpret it. The purpose of your resume is to get an interview. The purpose of the interview is to get a job offer. As you prepare for each stage in the journey, use your themes to develop your story.
□Remember that all story or narrative involves three basic elements: characters, conflict, and resolution. With self-assessments and applications, you are the protagonist, the hero who meets a challenge and overcomes an obstacle to achieve success. So what’s your story?
□Now that you’ve gathered your information, devised your strategy, and identified your story, write – that is, write and re-write, or draft and revise. As you tell your story, remember your main goal: to connect your accomplishments with the institution’s goals (or your manager’s expectations).
□Having drafted your story, edit for success. Have you created the right emphasis? In other words, have you used your topic sentences not only to introduce your paragraphs, but also to reinforce your main points and central themes? The easiest way to check is simply to read the first sentences of your paragraphs.
Even with all this advice, self-assessments and application letters are challenging to write. But you may as well have fun telling a good story.
First published September 6, 1996
by Stephen Wilbers
many times have you had to provide a written account of what you have done
with your life?
Do you remember what you had to write when you returned to school in the fall? Every year it was the same thing: a 500-word essay on what you had done over the summer. And suddenly, what had been your deliverance became your affliction. Five hundred words?
Later, when you applied to college, you had to write a personal statement. But the challenge – not to mention the stakes – was much greater. Now you had to account for what you had done not over the past three months, but over the past three or four years, and you had to present your story as a compellingly persuasive argument that would enhance your chances of being admitted to the college of your choice.
In your senior year of college, you had to write another personal statement explaining why you were a desirable candidate for graduate school, or you had to write a letter of application explaining why you were the perfect applicant for the perfect job.
Today, with your application for that next great job, with your request for a promotion, or with your summary of achievements and goals that you submit as part of your annual performance assessment, it's more of the same.
How do you make the story of your life into a persuasive argument? How do you organize and present your material when the subject is you?
Whether you are writing a personal statement or a letter of application, your goals are the same:
■To make a favorable impression
■To distinguish yourself from other applicants
■To accurately reflect your background, experience, and interests
In accomplishing these goals, you face these challenges:
■To convey a great deal of information in very limited space
■To present facts and details without sounding as though you are presenting a list
■To go beyond facts to convey warmth and personality
■To write about yourself, your qualities, and your achievements without sounding immodest
Here's my advice on how to meet these goals and overcome these challenges:
■Open with a statement or brief paragraph that is engaging but not contrived. A statement such as "I've been waiting for this opportunity for a long time" may get your reader's attention, but "Ever since my dog died I've wanted to become a veterinarian" doesn't cut it.
■Consider organizing your material around one or two principal themes. Tell a story that illustrates, for example, your commitment to hard work, your interest in travel, your openness to new experiences, or your appreciation for other cultures and ways of thinking.
■Don't tell everything. A statement such as "At this point in my undergraduate studies, I have no idea what I want to do" may be honest, but it doesn't advance your case. Emphasize the positive.
■Avoid overly general and clichéd language, such as "had the opportunity," "really excited," and "very interesting experience." Go beyond the general to specific, concrete, detailed support for your statements.
■Make every word count. Write in a style that is both concise and conversational.
■Tie all secondary or subordinate points to your main argument. Make all information and examples relevant.
■Proofread carefully to eliminate any errors in spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Your writing is your most tangible and immediate proof of your competence and ability.
■Show your draft to family, friends, teachers, counselors, or professional associates. Ask for their reactions and suggestions.
■Finally, set your draft aside for a few days and edit it with a fresh eye. What sounds terrific today may not sound so terrific tomorrow.
Writing about yourself may not be easy, but remember this: There's no topic you know better.
First published September 23, 1994
by Stephen Wilbers
makes a prospective employer decide to invite you for an interview?
If they're like the rest of us, the people who read letters of application and résumés base their decisions on two types of information: facts and feelings.
First the facts. Who are you? What have you done with your life to make yourself valuable to the hiring business or agency? What problems can you solve? What needs can you meet? What evidence suggests that you can provide this service more effectively than the other 794 well-qualified applicants for the same position?
Then the feelings. Beyond the factual information presented in your résumé is the general impression, the feeling or suggestion, conveyed by that most personal and crucial of documents: the letter of application.
The letter of application is your opportunity to breathe some life and personality into the cut-and-dry outline format of your résumé. To treat it as nothing more than a cursory note or transmittal letter is to miss an important opportunity to make a statement that sets you apart from the crowd.
Here's how you too can become the proud owner of a well-designed, well-written letter of application:
■Open by clearly identifying the job you are applying for and stating where you learned about it. Have pity on the poor chumps who have to wade through the paper avalanche generated by every job opening. How would you like to sort through it all, especially when several positions have been advertised concurrently?
■Highlight especially pertinent qualifications. More than likely you won't get the interview based on the completeness of your résumé or the totality of your experience. Emphasize those particular skills that make you uniquely qualified for the position.
■Anticipate and address questions raised by your résumé. Comment on anything that might detract from your application, whether that be a gap in employment or an unusual succession of jobs. Don't leave obvious questions unanswered.
■Convey a sense of your personality. This is your chance to give a personal voice to those dry facts. Think of your letter as an audition: You have two minutes to introduce yourself and make an impression. What impression do you want to make?
■Offer a positive reason for leaving your present position. Save the negative stuff for gripe sessions with friends. Present only the positive in your letter.
■Consider using an attention-getting opening. Opening with a provocative statement or issue is risky, but the better you know the organization to which you are applying, the more likely you can pull it off without its sounding contrived or forced.
■Make your letter an example of your professionalism and competence. Your letter is a measure of the quality of your work. It's a tangible representation of your standards. Be correct.
■Close by asking for an interview and stating where you can be reached. Don't demand an interview, and – whatever you do – don't say you'll call to schedule one. (What if all 794 applicants did the same thing?) It's customary, however, to ask for an interview. Make it as convenient as possible for someone to reach you.
■Avoid gimmicks or clumsy attempts at humor. I remember reading a letter of application for a position I had advertised when I was director of a student advising service at the University of Iowa. The letter seemed reasonably well written until I got to the last paragraph, where the author – apparently in a last-ditch effort to get my attention – wrote "Now, can we talk turkey?"
And here I thought we had been talking turkey all along. I must have had the wrong holiday in mind.