Applying for chief: How to write a winning cover letter

A cover letter can very well make the difference between getting an interview in the first place or having your application placed in the administrative equivalent of the “circular file”

It’s been often said that the first 30 seconds of a job interview are crucial to the interviewer forming a positive impression of the applicant. While that is certainly true, there’s a horse that needs to be placed before that cart – your cover letter. The cover letter is most likely the first thing read by a prospective employer. It creates an impression of you that will have one of three results: 

1. Catch the employer’s interest
2. Turn the employer off
3. Have no impact at all

In a competitive job market where there are many good candidates for chief of police all vying for a finite number of positions, the latter two can terminate your prospects. 

Personalize to the Recipient
The greenest rookie knows that you’ve got to assume control over a situation on the street. That’s accomplished by being focused, quickly analyzing what the situation calls for, and acting in a direct, professional manner. The same is true with your cover letter. The cover letter needs to immediately capture the attention of the reader, provide information that will keep them reading, and convince them you are an applicant that deserves closer scrutiny. This is greatly facilitated by personalizing your letter to both the recipient and position.

As a chief of police in smaller jurisdictions, I read a lot of applicants’ cover letters. Some were very effective, others shut down my interest. In this era — with instant access to information on the Internet — there is absolutely no reason for a “Dear Sir or Madam” heading. When I got those letters, my immediate thought was that the applicant wasn’t truly interested in the job as they couldn’t take the time to do the simple research to determine to whom they were applying. 

Often times a job posting will indicate a specific person to receive your materials, possibly the Town or City Manager or Mayor. If so, address them by name and title. If the job ad simply says “Human Resources” go online — or even call! — and find out who the head of HR is, and address your letter to them by name. 

Even if the addressee passes it off to someone else for consideration, you will have made the effort and distinguished yourself from those applicants who didn’t.

Personalize to the Position
Every letter of application should be personalized to the specific qualifications of the job. Again, the actual advertisement / job posting notice is your best source of information. Read the ad thoroughly, and underline specific skills and abilities for which they are looking. Those are points you will need to highlight in your letter, to enable them to see that you are a viable candidate. 

Then go back and re-read the ad, looking between the lines for clues of what to emphasize. While some jurisdictions will use cookie-cutter position language, others will actually tell you what’s important to them in a chief of police. 

What’s the first thing the ad talks about? Do they begin with the notation that they are looking for a “working chief” — a chief who also works the street, handles calls, and covers shifts? Is there a subtle emphasis made of the need to establish solid relationships with the citizens and businesses? Is there specific mention made of budget management and grant acquisition? Jurisdictions will frequently note such things in their ads because of a need that wasn’t met by the chief you’re trying to replace. Personalize your letter in a way that serves to illustrate your expertise in such areas, and allays their concerns. 

It’s perfectly acceptable to keep a standard application letter on your computer, as long as you only use it as the framework for your personalized letter. While your pedigree will remain the same, what you emphasize will vary slightly from application to application.

Personable and Professional
Many of the rules for writing an effective resume hold true for writing a great cover letter. Your letter needs to appear neat and professional: standard margins, standard font, proper business format and nothing “cute.” 

Don’t overwhelm the reader with volumes of information, and try to keep it to one page in length. Your resume will provide them with more details — your cover letter is designed to pique their interest in you by presenting yourself as the answer to their needs, and getting your foot in the door for an interview. 

As with your resume, always proofread! Nothing undermines a good candidate faster than a letter with spelling errors (“What? The applicant doesn’t know how or care enough to use spell-check?”) or grammatical mistakes (“They did go to school, right?”) Once you think you’ve got it right, give the letter to someone else to read for clarity and any mistakes you may have missed.

You are seeking a professional job — presenting a cover letter befitting a professional candidate will go a long way toward helping you achieve your career goal of becoming chief.

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