You may feel like you’re late to the game.
You’ve been so invested in simply surviving pharmacy school that residency never really crossed your mind. You’ve spent thousands of dollars and thousands of hours in the library simply trying to finish your PharmD degree.
Now you’ve discovered that if you really want to practice pharmacy, you need a residency under your belt.
Whether you’re the student who has been preparing for residency since day one, or you’re the student who just discovered the need for it, you have a lot to think about: updating your CV, finding volunteer opportunities, buffing up your accomplishments, and writing a cover letter.
The match for residency programs is a competitive process. You’re competing against your own classmates as well as pharmacy students from other campuses. Last year, 6,027 students enrolled in the match, and 4,132 were matched with a residency. That’s a 69% match rate and a great indicator that your application must stand out from the rest.
It’s the reason your cover letter is vitally important.
Your cover letter is your first impression. It’s the Residency Program Director’s first opportunity to discover who you are. It’s your first opportunity to explain your intent: why you want to be a resident in a certain position and what makes you an ideal candidate for it.
By its very definition, a template will not set you apart, nor will an example letter given to you by a professor.
The harsh reality is that your cover letter will likely earn you 30 seconds of time. Thirty seconds for someone -- an RPD, a clinical preceptor, or perhaps even a current resident -- to determine your future as a resident. Thirty seconds to learn something about you that isn’t represented anywhere else. Thirty seconds to decide whether you’ll land an interview with a residency program.
I know because I’ve been on both sides of the application process. I applied to 9 PGY1 residency programs and earned one interview request.
Though I’m not proud of the result, I know now that my lackluster cover letter was to blame.
The following year, I honed my skills, tweaked my accomplishments and wrote cover letters that would get me noticed. Of my five PGY2 applications, I was invited for three interviews.
Your cover letter is your very best tool to earn yourself an interview, and it’s the place common mistakes can undermine your efforts.
Don’t choose professionalism over personality.
Your RPD is obviously very interested in your accomplishments but she wants to know more. Who are you? What are you like? What makes you unique?
The cover letter is the RPD’s only opportunity to see your personality, but very few people are able to capture that in a one-page letter. Your cover letter should look different from every other student out there. You’ve got one shot to get it right.
Tell them something they won’t see anywhere else in your application. Tell them what makes you different from the other students whose CVs and GPAs look remarkably similar to your own.
Don’t make broad generalities.
I’ve been on both sides of the application process numerous times, and nearly every cover letter I review includes general statements that could apply to anyone.
“I am passionate about patient care.”
“I am a competent leader.”
These statements lack credibility because they lack evidence. Don’t believe me?
What if I ask you to simply trust that I’m the guy to listen to about cover letters? No evidence. No basis for my claims. I’ll simply tell you that I’m your guy for cover letters.
Are you in?
Perhaps it would be more effective for me to remind you of the huge improvement I saw in my own results when I followed what I’ve learned about cover letters. Or I could tell you that I’ve interviewed multiple residency directors about what they are seeking in a cover letter. I could even share that one student reported immediate results after working with me on her residency cover letters.
If you expect evidence in order to make an informed decision, isn’t it reasonable to expect RPDs to want the same?
Don’t re-use a cover letter.
Remember those broad generalities? If you’re using the same cover letter for multiple programs, your cover letter is too broad.
RPDs read hundreds of cover letters in one cycle, and they can immediately spot a generic one. If you write a generic cover letter, your application will likely get tossed. (Remember the 30 seconds?)
You are competing against dozens, or perhaps even hundreds, of other applicants. If you send a cover letter that highlights qualities unrelated to the residency, the RPD will spot it. If you send a letter that makes no specific mention of the residency at all, the RPD will notice.
Don’t lose sight of the prize.
It’s worth the effort to write an outstanding cover letter.
If you choose not to, your options are to find a placeholder job and try this whole process again next year or to choose a different career path that doesn’t require a residency.
Are you willing to sacrifice another year of your life to this residency process if it doesn’t go well the first time?
You could ask your professors for help with your cover letter, but they likely won’t be able to review every letter you write. Since you likely aren’t the only student who will ask for their help, they’ll be limited in the amount of time they can dedicate to it. More importantly, though they may have good intentions, they may not be experienced with cover letters.
Alternatively, you could ask your friends for help, but they are likely as lost as you are. Enough said.
You could ask a resident to help you, but their experience is likely limited given that they are only slightly ahead of you in the process.
Your best option, of course, is to get serious about your application and use your precious time wisely.
I designed the Cover Letter Mastery Course because I understand the situation you’re in. It’s the culmination of everything I’ve learned about cover letters over the course of my pharmacy career.
The course includes 12 short video lessons in a consumable self-paced format. It includes guides and worksheets that will help you truly introduce yourself to the people who read your letters.
You’ll get lifetime access to videos, guides, and worksheets, and you’ll even get some examples of cover-letters-gone-bad.
Let me help you level the playing field. Allow me to show you how to differentiate yourself from all the other students competing for residencies. Let me teach you how to write a cover letter that will capture the RPDs attention.
You’ve only got 30 seconds. Make them count.
Alex Barker, PharmD
Alex Barker is the founder of The Happy PharmD, which helps pharmacists create an inspiring career, break free from the mundane "pill-flipping" life. He is a Full-time Pharmacist, Media Company founder, franchise owner, Business Coach, Speaker, and Author. He's also the Founder of Pharmacy School HQ, which helps students get into pharmacy school and become residents.
Do I really need to write a cover letter? In my role as a pharmacy recruiter and career coach, I am often asked whether a cover letter is a necessary accompaniment to a CV as part of a job application. Some people believe that cover letters just repeat information from their CVs — others are concerned that recruiters never even read them. However, if you can write a cover letter that explains why you are the right candidate for the job you want, you can ensure that your application stands out for the right reasons.
Cover letters — what’s the point?
Traditionally, you would send a CV and cover letter by post in response to a job application or as a speculative approach. Your cover letter would introduce you in a professional sense, explain why you were applying for the position and provide some evidence of your competency for the role.
Nowadays, applications are less frequently sent by post — they are usually emailed or completed online. Despite this, presenting a professional cover letter is still part of the established protocol. If you are responding to a job advertisement in today’s competitive pharmacy jobs market, it is likely you will be one of many applicants (sometimes one of hundreds). Therefore, you need to do everything you can to ensure your application stands out, which includes an excellent cover letter.
Before you start writing your CV and cover letter, you need to ask yourself: “What would the hiring manager want to see in the application?”
One way to find out is to simply call and ask the hiring manager or recruiter exactly what they would like to see. A recent survey of US employers by Saddleback College in America has shown that they can have differing views on whether a cover letter is important, how long it should be and what information it should contain. By asking the employer directly, you can find out their specific views and tailor your cover letter accordingly.
Laying out your letter
There are no set rules for your cover letter, but a good structure is important. The cover letter is telling a story about you and, like all good stories, it should have a beginning, middle and end.
If the application is being posted then use a standard letter format, with your own address and date on the right and the organisation’s contact name and address on the left. For email applications, put your cover letter in the main body of the email and add your CV as an attachment. Your cover letter can be ignored more easily if you attach it as a separate document.
You should always try to address your cover letter to a specific person when possible. This will be easier if you have already called the hiring manager. Research by Forum3 (now called Charity People), a not-for-profit recruitment company for the third sector, suggests you are 10–15% more likely to receive a reply if you address your application to a person and 5% more likely to get an interview. If you do not know the name of the person, then use a professional address such as “Dear Sir or Madam”.
Immediately after addressing the reader, you should state the purpose of the application, so that the reader can quickly understand the reason for the email. For example, “Reference: Application for Band 6 hospital pharmacist role”. This could also be included as the subject line of the email.
The first paragraph should describe what your current professional situation is and why you are applying for the position. This paragraph should also include any research you have done into the role or organisation, including anyone you have spoken to, any site visits you have undertaken and the name of anyone who may have referred you. If you have taken the time to research the organisation and the role, this could be a key differentiator for your application. However, you should avoid making generic statements, such as “I want to join your esteemed company”. Make sure anything you say about an organisation is relevant to them and based on the research you have undertaken.
Your cover letter should demonstrate to the reader that you have the key skills and experience relevant to the particular role. You can do this by providing specific examples, tailored to the requirements listed in the job description, of when you have demonstrated these from your own experience to date. Choose three or four of these relevant examples that each tell a story about your skills, experience or traits and provided a positive outcome for the stakeholders involved in the situation.
These examples could come from any part of your life, as long as they are relevant. Newly qualified pharmacists will likely use examples from their pharmacy placements, academia, part-time work and also extra-curricular activities, in order to demonstrate a range of skills. A more experienced pharmacist candidate would generally choose examples from their work history because it is the most relevant. However, sometimes it is appropriate to bring in other examples, such as voluntary work.
Always try to use an active voice when explaining your achievements, because this serves to make the reader feel that you were in control in these situations. Additionally, try to avoid making vague or generic statements that could apply to any applicant.
If an achievement is strong enough to be included in your cover letter, it should be repeated on your CV. Try not to repeat examples word-for-word on both documents — instead, try to interpret them differently. Sometimes, due to time constraints, the hiring manager may bypass your cover letter and go straight to your CV, which could mean they miss your best examples. In addition, repetition will serve to reinforce these key messages like a sales brochure would, which is, in essence, what your CV and cover letter are.
In your final paragraph, thank the reader for taking the time to read your application and summarise why you feel you are a good fit for the role, based on your skills and experience. State how and when you can be contacted with regards to arranging an interview and then make sure you are available when you say you will be.
Sign off the letter professionally with “Yours sincerely” (to a specific person) or “Yours faithfully” (to an unnamed person), followed by your name.
Formatting your letter
In terms of format, a cover letter is usually written as a traditional letter, laid out in paragraphs. It is different to your CV, which is an abbreviated document that uses various techniques to draw the eye to the most important parts quickly and make the document as succinct as possible. In your cover letter, keep your language concise and purposeful. To achieve this, you may need to redraft your letter several times.
The grammar, spelling and formatting of your cover letter is just as important as the content of the document, so make sure it is perfect. Particularly, ensure you have spelt names and company names correctly and there are no typing errors. Research from student recruitment website StudentGems.com suggests half of employers discard job applications that contain spelling or formatting errors.
Choose a standard, well known and professional font, such as Arial, Verdana, Calibri, Times New Roman or Trebuchet. This will make the letter easier to read and will also support applicant tracking systems that may not be able to pick up lesser-known fonts. Keep your font size between 10 and 12 for ease of reading.
Through my own experience of recruiting pharmacists, I have observed that the standard of today’s pharmacy job applications is generally quite poor. If you spend time putting together a strong application, which includes an excellent cover letter, then it will stand out to an employer and increase your chances of securing the role.
Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal, 7 February 2015, Vol 294, No 7848, online | DOI: 10.1211/PJ.2015.20067660
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