How to Write the Best Nursing Cover Letter

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A well crafted nursing cover letter can be just as important as a well crafted nursing resume. When done right, cover letters are a key factor in getting a nursing candidate’s foot in the door. Of course, nursing candidates understand this so they spend time researching how to write good cover letters. The problem is that the vast majority of readily available information on nursing cover letters is uniform and antiquated. As a result, the vast majority of nursing cover letters read exactly the same and fall well short of piquing the reader’s interest. So in this blog post, we’ll cover the basic items to review before sending a cover letter, summarize the conventional approach to nursing cover letters and discuss its shortcomings, and offer a unique formula that will wow employers and land you an interview.

Covering the nursing cover letter basics

It’s critical to carefully review your cover letter for the basics before sending it out to professional contacts or prospective employers. What are the basics? We’re referring to things like grammar and spelling. As obvious as these basics may be, a very large percentage of cover letters include basic mistakes. So be certain to review your cover letter for the following issues:

  1. Spelling: Yes, it’s a good idea to use the spell checker. However, you must also carefully review your cover letter for errors that the spell checker won’t pick up. For example, you may have typed “form” instead of “from.” And yes, some recruiters and hiring managers are that picky.
  2. Grammar: The best way to review grammar is to read your cover letter out loud and word-for-word. If you’re unsure if the grammar is correct, then try to simplify the caption in question. Simpler is usually better anyway.
  3. Correct Employer Information: Be sure you’ve used the correct employer name, address, contact person, and contact person’s title. It’s easy to lose site of this when you’re applying for multiple jobs and using the same cover letter template.
  4. Date: Be sure to use the current date. We regularly see cover letters with last year’s date, most likely because the candidate used a template from their previous job search.
  5. Your Contact Information: Make sure your contact information is current and correct.
  6. Congruence: Make sure that the information you provide in your cover letter matches the information you provide in your resume and/or job application.

General framing for your nursing cover letter

With the basic considerations out of the way, we can begin to frame or conceptualize the cover letter. For starters, it’s important to consider your angle. Are you responding to a job advertisement? Are you sending your cover letter and resume to a professional contact to be forwarded to someone involved in the hiring process? Are you engaging in a general inquiry expressing interest in working for the organization in some capacity while having no professional contacts within the organization and despite the fact that there is no job advertised?

Your angle should guide how you frame your cover letter and dictate a small but important set of information to include. Consider the following:

  1. Job Advertisements: If you’re applying to a job advertisement, then your cover letter should reference the advertisement, job ID if applicable, and Job Title.
  2. Professional Contacts: If you have a professional contact within the organization, then your cover letter should include the name of the professional contact, their title, your relationship to the contact, and perhaps a few references to 2nd degree contacts and conversations you’ve had pertaining to the job in question and/or organization.
  3. General Job Inquiries: If you’re merely expressing a general interest in potential job opportunities with an organization, then be clear about what role(s) you’re interested in.

The conventional approach to nursing cover letters:

Now that we’ve covered the basics and have an idea of how to frame the cover letter, it’s time to move on to the meat of the letter. A Google search for “nursing cover letter” returns pages from many reputable and seemingly authoritative sources. You’ll find pages from Ohio State University, Johns Hopkins, Monster.com, Duke University, and many others. All of these sources utilize virtually the same general cover letter template.

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Their general template recommends the following. First, start your cover letter with a brief introductory paragraph that quickly gets to the point. Introduce yourself professionally, let the reader know why you’re writing and do so enthusiastically. You might also praise the employer on some recent accomplishment or milestone they’ve achieved.

Second, include two to three “strength paragraphs.” These are paragraphs that describe your professional strengths. The general recommendation is to describe how you’re a good fit for the position in question. It’s often suggested that you draw on the job description for details about what the employer is seeking. Then, describe how your skills and experience fit the criteria. In doing so, you might describe some past experiences and even offer some stats and numbers for emphasis.

Finally, end the cover letter with a brief conclusion paragraph. Recap your interest in the job. Once again summarize why you’re a good fit. Perhaps offer some well wishes and good sentiments. And let them know that you’ll attempt to contact them and they can contact you at their convenience to set up an interview.

What’s wrong with the conventional approach to nursing cover letters?

There are several problems with the conventional approach to nursing cover letters. First, it does nothing to set you apart from the rest of the candidates. Almost every single candidate is taking this approach. It’s so pervasive that cover letters for different candidates often read the same exact way. Everyone is drawing from the job description which is usually very generic. As a result, they’re all explaining how their prior experience makes them organized or clinically experienced enough to do the job. Or how their orientation towards team work will help them fit right in. Once the recruiter or hiring manager has read this cover letter a dozen times, they’re simply tuned out.

Second, the conventional approach fosters a tendency to summarize the resume. Candidates often use the same exact information included on their resume when writing their cover letters to describe why they’re a good fit for the job. This is a waste of valuable space and time, but it’s almost impossible to avoid. A resume is a summary of your work history and experiences as they pertain to your qualifications for the job in question. Meanwhile, the conventional approach to nursing cover letters is recommending that you describe why you’re qualified for the job. These are very closely related.

Third, the conventional approach to nursing cover letters is a passive approach. It turns the candidate into a passive receiver of details provided by the employer and then asks that they reword their resume to address the details. Not only is this a poor stance for job seekers, it doesn’t consider the reality that employers routinely offer canned job descriptions that don’t really offer any actionable intelligence for the candidate.

An alternative approach to nursing cover letters

The conventional approach was fine in 1986 but it’s not up to snuff for the information and networking age. Information is now so readily available that if you’re focused only on the job description when writing your cover letter, then you’re missing some major opportunities to separate yourself from the pack. And separating from the pack is the primary goal of this alternative approach to nursing cover letters because it will greatly increase your potential for landing the interview.

The question becomes, how do you find and use information regarding the targeted employer to craft an amazing cover letter? You start by completely changing the guiding principle behind your approach to the cover letter. Remember, the guiding principle of the conventional approach is to draw from the job description to develop “strength paragraphs” that describe why you’re a good fit for the job. Again, this a passive approach that steers nursing candidates to rely on information provided by a job description that is often vague and confined to the minimum requirements.

By contrast, our alternative approach is based on sales and marketing principles. After all, a cover letter is a sales vehicle, plain and simple. You’re using it to sell yourself to the employer. This sales based approach to cover letters fosters an aggressive mind-set by recommending that you seek out additional information beyond the job description which will be used to help you develop your sales pitch.

Now there are many different approaches to selling things. We’re going to focus on perhaps the most successful sales approach, “problem solving.” Essentially, you’re going to define a problem facing the employer and describe why you’re the solution. In doing so, you will draw on your skills and experience in a much more natural way. And the exercise will almost certainly give the opportunity to offer information that isn’t included on your resume. Trust us, this is much easier than it sounds!!

Start by researching the employer

Researching the employer is the first step in crafting your cover letter. Begin with a visit to the employer’s web site. Look for a blog or a “News Room.” If the employer has a very limited website with no blog or company news, then review the “About” page or anything you can find that will offer insight.

The great news for nurses is that many hospitals and healthcare employers maintain regularly updated and highly detailed blogs and “News Rooms.” Check out this example from Swedish Medical in Washington state. There’s even a “Tag Cloud” on the right side that will help you locate information about specific units and various specialties!!

Next, find the employer on all the major social media channels. Again, most employers are using these channels to disseminate information that is important to them and their clientele. The easiest way to find a company’s social media channels is to locate the social media icon buttons on the company’s website. You know, the buttons that typically say something like, “Connect with us.” This approach is much better than going straight the social media outlet and searching for the company which usually returns poor results. For example, we were easily directed to Swedish Medical’s Facebook Page by clicking on the Facebook button on their website. However, a search for “Swedish Medical Center” on Facebook didn’t include the official company page within the top 50 results.

Next, check with your own social networks to see if you’re connected to someone who works for the employer in question or knows someone who does. Don’t be afraid to post an inquiry on your own social media accounts to find out if anyone you know has any connections to the employer in question. You might be surprised by what you find. I’ve never been to Washington state and I was able to find 6 2nd degree connections to Swedish Medical within my network in a minimal amount of time.

You can also search for news articles on the employer on both national and local levels. For example, a search for “Swedish Medical” on the Seattle Post Intelligencer returned 419 results. A search of Google’s News database returned 97 results.

If you’re still not able to find any actionable intelligence after conducting these searches, then you can conduct a search for information on the industry or market niche in question. Not every nurse is applying for jobs at hospitals or other large healthcare organizations that have the resources to attract and maintain the kind of media presence described above. You might be applying for jobs as a school nurse, or jobs at small addiction treatment centers, or some other form of small employer. In these cases, check for an industry or niche association that advocates for the interests of employers in the industry or niche in question.

Identify actionable intelligence

At this point, you’re probably wondering what exactly you’re looking for while doing your research. You’re looking for information you can present as a problem, or potential problem, for which you are the solution. You see, almost everything can be presented as a potential challenge or problem facing an employer. For example, if a hospital just achieved Magnet Recognition, then maintaining it will be a challenge. The same goes for any award or recognition an employer has achieved. Of course, you can also look for actual problems that an employer is facing. For example, an employer may have a high employee turnover rate, or they maybe in the process of attempting to achieve some goal or milestone, or they may be undergoing an EMR conversion in the near future.

Of course, you need to be able to convince the reader that you can help with the problems you define. So merely defining a problem isn’t enough. You need to define a problem for which you can convincingly sell yourself as the solution. Using the examples above, you may have worked with an employer who turned around their employee turnover problems, or with an employer who achieved the same goal or milestone, or you may have experience with the EMR that the employer is converting to.

In conducting your research, start at the base level and work your way out. For example, if you’re applying for a Staff Nurse position in a hospital’s Intensive Care Unit, then start with trying to find information that is pertinent to the unit. These problems will likely be in line with your expertise. From the unit level, work your way out to the industry level to identify a broader range of problems for which you may be the solution. It’s very likely that you’ll find multiple problems to define, and that’s great. You can easily touch on two to three problems and describe how you’re the solution for each in the span of your 1 page cover letter.

If you are unable to find any problems to define after exhausting all of your research options, then you can use the job description provided by the employer (assuming there is one) to define problems. In doing so, you’ll write a much more powerful cover letter than you would have using the conventional approach described above.

Why is this alternative approach to nursing cover letters better?

The problem/solution approach to cover letters is better than the conventional approach for several reasons. First, you’ll differentiate yourself from the pack. Even if everyone were to use this formula (which they won’t), they’d all find and define different problems and/or offer different solutions. Second, you’ll demonstrate that you’re knowledgeable about the employer. Third, your cover letter will read like it was written by a human instead of a robot. Your cover letter will actually be interesting to read!! Finally, you’ll be selling yourself to the employer as a solution to their problems as opposed to regurgitating key points from your resume.

How to write the best nursing cover letter

To recap the steps:

  1. Consider your angle when framing your cover letter. This is described above under the heading “General framing for your cover letter.”
  2. Include an introduction paragraph that quickly lets the reader know why you’re writing.
  3. Define problems and describe how you are the solution. Sell your skills and experiences as solutions. Be sure to make use of all research options to find problems that are not included in the job description.
  4. Close the deal in a conclusion paragraph that describes the next step. Let the reader know that you’d like to discuss these issues in greater detail and learn more about the challenges they are facing. Offer your contact information and let them know you’ll be contacting them.
  5. Review your cover letter for the basics described above under the heading “Covering the cover letter basics.”
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5 replies
  1. Sarah Lawton says:

    Do you have a sample cover letter? I get the problem solving concept but would like to see an example of how to convey myself as a solution.

    Reply
  2. Adrienne says:

    Thank you for these blog posts!

    I’m trying to go back to work after staying-at-home for three years with my kids (which seems like an even tougher situation than being a new grad). Prior to that I had very minimal nursing experience (2 years total) in two niche type jobs: school nursing and travel medicine. I’d like a job in mother/baby and know people on the unit. Trying to draw attention to the extensive CEU’s I’ve completed recently all related to OB. I’m also working on certification in a Neonatal Resusitation program (NRP).

    Two questions:

    1. Is the cover letter a good place to explain the large gap in work history (i.e. being a stay-at-home-mom)? Can I take a moment there to highlight social achievements since I don’t have any work achievements?

    2. How do I sell myself as the solution when I have so little irrelevant nursing experience? (maybe there’s no answer for this)… what i do know is that the competing hospital in the area just opened their own Labor and Delivery and are recruiting OB nurses from the hospital I’m applying to.

    Any advice is much appreciated!

    Reply
    • Kyle Schmidt says:

      Great questions, Adrienne. Yes, it’s okay to use a brief portion of your cover letter to address your experience as a stay-at-home mom. You may even use some of what you’ve learned as a stay-at-home mom to relate that you’re the solution to a problem the hospital faces, or a goal they’re trying to achieve. Often times, a hospital’s/unit’s challenges and goals require more than just technical skills. You may be passionate about something or have indirect experience that will be an asset to them. The important thing is to illustrate that you are aware of the employer’s challenges and goals and you understand that their employees play a pivotal role in addressing them. I hope this helps!

      Reply

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