Please. PLEASE Don't Use a Template to Write Your Cover Letter
It’s time for some real talk.
As I’m writing this (December, 2018), we are in the peak of residency application season. People are knee deep into the waters of PhORCAS and they are putting the finishing touches on their application.
A lot of people are also looking for help on how to write their cover letters.
The way most people approach this is to Google “How to write a cover letter for pharmacy residency” (or something similar).
And most people will eventually land on this informative gem from UCSF.
There is a lot of good information in this document, but I want to draw your attention to the sample cover letter on Page 3. Go ahead and give it a quick glance. I’ll wait here for you.
You done? OK, cool.
I’ve been looking at a lot of cover letters recently.
It’s just that time of year.
Along with egg nog and holiday shopping, there is cover letter review for us pharmacy preceptors.
The other night, I was chatting with my friend Tony Guerra from the Pharmacy Leaders Podcast.
Tony pointed out how he noticed something…similar…about the cover letters he’s seen this year. And Tony is a brilliant man, because since he’s pointed it out to me I can’t unsee it. I’ve now noticed it on the cover letters I’ve reviewed too.
Can you guess what it is?
Nearly every. single. cover. letter. we’ve read so far has started out like this:
I am writing to express my interest in applying for the PGY-1 pharmacy practice residency at the [INSERT RESIDENCY PROGRAM HERE]. I have had the pleasure to meet with your current resident(s) at the ASHP MidYear Clinical Meeting, and with [INSERT CLINICAL PRECEPTOR HERE]….
For those of you that didn’t check out the sample cover letter I linked a few paragraphs ago, this is a word for word copy of its intro. And that’s a problem.
I’ve said this at least a half dozen times before (here, here, and here for starters), but your cover letter is the most important part of your residency application. It is the only part of your application that lets you be “you.”
A lot of students think their CV is the magic document that gets them into the residency of their dreams. They spend the bulk of their application prep time tweaking their CV until it’s perfect.
Your CV has your unique experiences, and that’s important. But it doesn’t present them in a compelling way.
There’s a sort of unwritten “law” that dictates the format of your CV. You’ve probably noticed this before.
All of our CVs (whether we are students or practicing pharmacists with decades of experience) have the same general layout and feel.
If you try to buck this trend and make your CV look too avant garde, you’ll stick out. But not in a good way. Your CV is not the best place to be a revolutionary.
Compare your CV to the CV of pretty much any other pharmacy student applying for residency. These people have the same level of training and the same qualifications as you. You’ve all done research. You were all chapter president of some student organization. You all presented a poster at some regional meeting last year.
What about your CV makes you stand out to someone like me (the person who is evaluating your residency application)?
At the risk of being blunt, not much.
That’s not meant to sound harsh, really it isn’t. Like I said in the beginning, this is real talk.
The ONLY way that you can set yourself apart from every other residency applicant is with your cover letter.
And if you start it out with “I’m writing this letter to express my interest in blah blah blah….”
You’ve already lost the game.
Your cover letter is an advertisement. It’s making a sales pitch, and you’re the product. Think of it like an episode of Shark Tank. You’ve got about 30 seconds to convince the RPD to keep reading. Otherwise they’ve already forgotten who you are.
Remember - the person reviewing your application is wearing many hats. They have a lot on their plate.
Typically, they’re practicing pharmacists and are looking at applications during their lunch break. They’ll be in the middle of (yet another) plate of lukewarm hospital cafeteria chicken tenders and french fries while they go through your application.
Your application is competing for their attention against 100 different things. The dosing recommendation they made on rounds this morning. The vanc level due at 2pm for the patient in room 314. The med rec and discharge counseling they have to do for the patient in room 321. The fact that they have to leave work early to take their kid to soccer practice.
Then they’ll read “I’m writing this to express my interest in……”
And their eyes glaze over while they contemplate the choices in their life that brought them to this moment.
Also, now their fries are cold.
Look, you’re applying for the residency program. They KNOW why you’re writing your cover letter.
You don’t need to make a formal announcement to express your interest.
You’re not some fancy pants English Lord expressing his interest to some commoner lady named Elizabeth Bennet.
There isn’t necessarily a “right” way to write a cover letter, but there is a “wrong” way.
There isn’t a magic formula or template. Different cover letters can be good for different reasons. You can write your cover letter in pretty much any way you want.
Just make it unique, and make it you.
Example Pharmacy Cover Letter
Let’s look at an example. Here is the opening paragraph of a cover letter I wrote once when applying for a job. It’s not specifically for a residency, but it shows you how you can tie your unique experience and personality into what you’re applying for.
It also shows you that you’re going to be writing cover letters for the rest of your pharmacy career, so you might as well get used to it :)
I’ll be honest, if you were to tell me 5 years ago when I was graduating pharmacy school that I would become an oncology specialist, I would have laughed at you. Yet, either through luck, serendipity, or a funny twist of irony, that’s exactly where my career has taken me – and I wouldn’t want it any other way.
I began practicing in oncology immediately after completing my PGY1 residency at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, DC, and I immediately fell in love with the field. I love the intellectual challenge of keeping up with rapid changes in practice. I love that, through teaching and empathy, I’m able to impact the lives of my patients and their families. And I love the responsibility of managing the inventory costs of some of the most expensive medications used in medicine today.
To that end, I am writing to express my interest in the [INSERT JOB TITLE AND SITE HERE].
Is it a perfect cover letter? No, of course not. But it was good enough, and got me invited to an interview (remember, the “job” of the cover letter is to get you an interview…nothing more). And yes, if you’re curious, I ended up getting offered the job.
Let’s break down my cover letter intro. I start with a somewhat surprising hook. I’m betting that most job applicants for specialist positions don’t open up by telling the employer about how they once disliked the field. That makes me stand out a bit. My hope is that it will make the employer keep reading.
After that, I’m just trying to show what interests me about being an oncology pharmacist…but I’m doing it in a way that shows the employer that I value the same things they do and that I can contribute. I mean, I think it’s neat that I routinely dispense drugs that cost $28,000 per vial, but if I’m being honest, I don’t get that excited about inventory management.
All in all, the rest of my cover letter (which I didn’t include above) goes on to highlight more of how my past experiences have given me a skill set that I can use to help this new employer. This cover letter was specifically written for a management position, so I made sure to highlight any experiences I’ve had managing a team of people.
Throughout it all, I’m using words that I would personally use in an actual conversation.
I’m not loading my cover letter with meaningless corporate buzzwords and phrases like “dynamic field of pharmacy” and “pursuit of excellence.”
And if you were paying attention, you’ll notice I even used that dreadful phrase “I am writing to express my interest in…”
But notice where I used it. At the end. After I’ve already demonstrated some of the reasons we might be a good fit for each other. It’s not a terrible phrase. You just have to use it wisely (i.e. NOT as your opening).
In a nutshell, that’s what you want your cover letter to do. You want to highlight the unique things you’ve done in your life and show how they will help you contribute to the residency program. You want to let your actual personality come out in the letter, so that someone reading it can almost “hear” your voice as they read it. You want to focus on using more active voice and less passive voice.
Your past experiences don’t even need to be related to pharmacy. When I was a teenager, I taught guitar to other kids in my neighborhood. It wouldn’t take a lot of savvy to demonstrate how that gave me the skills of meeting the student (i.e. the patient) on their level. Of patience and persistence. Of being self-motivated and having an entrepreneurial spirit.
I’ll bet if you think for a minute, you have a ton of seemingly unrelated personal experiences that make you into an awesome pharmacist.
Your cover letter is the most important part of your application. It’s ok to get help with writing it. I’m not trying to sell you anything with this post, but you have resources at your disposal:
Alex Barker’s amazing course - Cover Letter Mastery (you can even upgrade to have Alex review and give feedback on YOUR cover letter)
The tl;dr pharmacy guide - Mastering the Match (which has an entire chapter dedicated to the cover letter)
Or you could check out any number of the free podcasts that Tony Guerra puts out
Don’t forget about professors or preceptors as well. Anyone with experience in the residency “game” can give you useful feedback in making your cover letter stand out.
I cannot stress how important this is. You MUST NOT work from the same template that everyone else is using. You have to find a way to differentiate yourself.
I know this is an overwhelming process, and templates can make a stressful task a little bit easier. But residencies are competitive. You owe it to yourself to get this right.
Good luck, and happy writing!