Writing Your Cover Letter
Cover Letters for Animal Trainers
After my article on resumes, 4 Reasons You’re Not Being Asked to Swim Test, I was bombarded with people asking me for help with their cover letters. Lots of you sent me your cover letters to review, and what I found was… none of them stood out! To help you guys out, I have created this article so that you can create a cover letter that won’t get thrown in the trash.
First, this is a major point you should all understand: Hiring managers at marine facilities receive HUNDREDS of applications, so they are looking for reasons to throw them in the trash. They simply cannot read every application in detail, so they MUST narrow the field by quickly looking for glaring mistakes.
Personally, I have owned and managed a few small businesses in my life, so I’ve also hired a handful of people. Some of them applied with cover letters, and again, they were all pretty generic. I have yet to read a cover letter that really made me want to hire someone! Today, let’s change that!
If you want to be hired as a professional animal trainer/care giver/rescuer, you cannot be like everyone else. You need to be one of a kind – both as a person and on paper.
That being said, there are some general rules when creating a cover letter.
To start, I asked my dear friend Scott Vedder, who’s the best-selling author of Signs of a Great Résumé, to weigh in. Here’s his advice:
Scott Vedder, Cover Letter Expert says…
A cover letter is your safety net. A résumé might be fine on its own, but a cover letter helps ensure recruiters like me see precisely how your experience relates to an opening. Your cover letter indicates that you understand what an employer’s looking for and that you’ve got related experience. It’s a preview for what’s to come on your résumé. You should always customize your résumé and your cover letter for each job application. A great cover letter will help ensure your résumé speaks for itself.
Your cover letter is great place to use more keywords from the job posting. Recruiting software scans résumés and cover letters for keywords to identify which candidates are the closest match to the job requirements. The more keywords you have, the more likely your application will be flagged as one with related experience.
A well-written cover letter can help answer some common questions recruiters have. If you have an out-of-town address, you can explain that you’re relocating to the area and that you already have a temporary housing plan. If you have some common, understandable gaps in your employment history you can explain that you may have recently transitioned from the military, that you were caring for a family member who is now independent again or that you recently graduated from school and you’re ready to begin working full-time.
Scott Vedder – Best-selling author of Signs of a Great Résumé, Fortune 100 Recruiter and Résumé expert recognized by the White House and Pentagon. For free résumé and cover letter tips visit www.ScottVedder.com.
Thank you, Scott!
I also took the time to reach out to my network of animal care professionals (the ones who do the hiring). I asked them share their ‘do’s and don’ts’ of cover letters.
Specifically, I reached out to my friend and animal trainer extraordinaire, Michael Hunt. Michael Hunt is a 23-year veteran in the field of animal care and training. He is a past-President of the International Marine Animal Trainers’ Association (IMATA) and is currently the Director of Animal Training for Georgia Aquarium and Marineland Dolphin Adventure. In that role, he oversees the training, animal management, and staffing for the facilities’ dolphin programs.
In short, you need to listen to what Michael has to say. He’s the guy deciding whether or not you get asked to swim test.
The questions I asked him are in bold and his responses are italicized.
Michael Hunt on Cover Letters…
1. What do you like to see in a cover letter?
First, let me start by saying that every hiring manager is different – and it’s fair to say that others in my role might be looking for different things. I know that doesn’t help narrow it down for aspiring trainers, but for me, my number one recommendation is that applicants follow the oft-given advice of my mother, which was “neatness counts.”
So, what does that mean? I like to see a cover letter that is neat, has well balanced (or justified) margins, and a clean font selection with appropriate point size. There is also something to be said for the applicants that invest in quality stock résumé paper (an inexpensive purchase at any office supply store) for their submission. Bottom line: it’s easy to pick out the applicants who took the time to “get it right.”
To be honest, aside from the first impression of neatness, I don’t spend a lot of time on the cover letter initially; I typically flip right to the résumé and work my way back to the cover letter if I want to learn more. With that said, I prefer the body of the cover letter to be concise and serve as both an introduction *or* conclusion depending on which document I read first.
Here’s an example of what I would want to see in the body of the letter:
“I am writing in response to the online posting for the position of (position title). I am interested in learning more about this career opportunity with (name of aquarium).
My experience includes (pick three or four highlights to include here – examples include: support roles in show and husbandry training with California sea lions, proficiency in diet preparation and area cleanliness, and proven track record of exemplary guest service and team building skills.). These qualifications make me an excellent candidate for opportunities with (name of aquarium’s) program.
Enclosed is a current resume, which describes my qualifications in greater detail. Please contact me if you will require additional information. The best method of contact is via (email, telephone, etc.) at (include contact information). I am looking forward to talking to you soon regarding joining your team.”
Honestly, it’s as simple as that.
2. What is the one thing (or multiple things) you hate seeing on a cover letter?
Apparently it is customary in Europe to include photos or head shots when submitting for an open position. This is not the case in the United States, and I would not recommend including a photo unless it is specifically asked for.
Believe it or not, I have received submissions with emoticons. I doesn’t matter how much you love dolphins – any use of an emoticon or clipart in a cover letter is going to get it a one-way ticket to the recycle bin.
Poor Font Choice
You would be amazed at the font choice of some of the cover letters that I have received over the years. Obviously, Times New Roman or Arial are a touch boring – but Comic Sans, Brush Script, and Copper Plate are either unprofessional or too busy. Instead, I recommend a font that is similar to the Georgia collection.
3. How creative can an applicant be with their cover letter? Can trying to stand out backfire?
Instead of putting the energy into being creative, I recommend putting energy into creating a résumé and cover letter that are a “twin set.” It’s sort of like picking out a coordinating outfit from the closet – you want each document to compliment the other in terms of font, point size, paper, and spacing. To me, that’s what creates a standout.
4. In the hiring process, how important is it for a trainer to have an awesome cover letter? Can an aspiring marine mammal trainer get away with just a good resume?
Again, every hiring manager is going to approach this differently, but I look at the résumé first and the cover letter as a follow-up after looking over the résumé. If a résumé doesn’t grab my attention within the first few seconds, I am generally on to the next folder.
A good résumé is important, but what matters most is the experiences that you’ve had as a foundation for the submission. In other words, the most neat, well-crafted résumé/cover letter of an applicant with absolutely no internship or work experience is going to get less priority than an average résumé/cover letter of an applicant with relevant work experience.
5. Do you have any stories of a great cover letter/terrible cover letter that come to mind?
I’ve seen so many, that it’s hard to remember them all. I will recount a story of a decent submission that I received several years ago which piqued my interest enough to move the applicant on to round 2 of the hiring process.
Here’s the story (names have been changed to protect the innocent):
Following the initial screening of the submission paperwork (résumé, cover letter, application, etc.) I made a phone call to the applicant to communicate that they had moved forward in the process and we wanted to have them come onsite for a swim test and interview. When I dialed the number, the call rang twice then when to voicemail. I still can’t believe what happened next – it went a little something like this…
Me: DIALING THE NUMBER
Me: RING RING
Voicemail: “Wassssssssssssssssssssuuuuuuuuupppppp! You’ve reached Carly’s phone. If you’re hearing this message, it means I’m either drunk, passed out, or sleeping. So at the sound of the beep, you know what to do. Peace out!”
The bottom line is that it doesn’t stop with a good résumé or cover letter. Your “brand” is defined by who you are on paper, in person, on Facebook, and, yes, even on voicemail. Don’t miss out on what could have been an amazing career opportunity because you’re unprepared in an area that you didn’t think to consider.
More Advice from Industry Leaders
I reached out to another veteran hiring manager at a major accredited marine mammal facility. I asked for advice on constructing cover letters, and trust me, this comes from a person whose advice you WILL want to follow:
- I have zero tolerance for grammatical and/or spelling errors.
- I love seeing an interest in my specific company or better yet my specific department within the company.
- Something that makes it obvious: this is not one of 30 or 40 letters sent to a slew of recipients.
- Brevity works; get to your talents fast and tell the reader why they don’t want to miss out on what you have to offer.
- Proof of dedication and being a team player… not in those words, mind you.
What Your Cover Letter Should NOT Look Like
I am going to write what I consider to be a “typical” cover letter – i.e. NOT what yours should look like!
What’s Wrong With The Cover Letter Above?
1. Spelling and Grammar
As our experts mentioned above, you MUST proofread your cover letter! Sounds obvious, but people don’t do it! In the example above, there are multiple spelling and grammar errors. Remember, they are receiving hundreds of these, which means they are looking for reasons to throw them in the trash. Don’t let spelling and grammar keep you from your dream job. Have multiple people proofread your cover letter.
2. Too Long and/or Redundant
This cover letter is unnecessarily long. Imagine having 350 of these on your desk. Would you read them all? No way! Keep your cover letters short, sweet, and to the point.
3. It’s All About “The Dream”
Listen, I get it. This is your dream job. I totally understand that you’ve wanted this since you were just a wee child. However, your future employer already knows this, and they don’t need to hear about it. They don’t want to hear about it. Every cover letter talks about how this is their dream job. To stand out, leave this piece of information out. We’ll talk in a little bit about what to include instead.
4. Desperate Sounding
It is easy to appear “desperate.” Instead, focus on sounding desirable. Be professional and talk about why you are the guy or girl for the job! Remember, they want to hire the best, not the one who wants it the most.
5. No Mention of Experience
In my book Wear a Wetsuit at Work, I discuss “The 3 E’s” to landing your dream job. One of the three “E’s is Experience. This is your chance to brag a little! Tell them what you’ve done and showcase why your experience makes you the perfect candidate for this position. Experience speaks volumes. Who would you hire? The girl who “loves dolphins” or the girl who has already assisted with the training of three husbandry behaviors for Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins?
6. Incorrectly Formatted
A properly formatted cover letter should look something like this. You can find plenty of other examples online, and honestly, there’s a lot of flexibility in the format as long as you are including the following information:
- Personal Contact Information. This can be included in the signature of your cover letter or in the header. Typically, this appears at the top of the page – aligned to the left or right.
- Employer Contact Information. You earn points when you address this to the appropriate hiring manager rather than to a generic department or company. Do your research, and figure out the appropriate person and their title.
- Date. This may sound silly, but make sure you use the current year!
The letter above is just like every other letter. That being said, I am now going to talk about how to standout in a cover letter. In my opinion, after you have covered the basics (proper spelling, formatting, etc), “standing out” is what makes a great cover letter (and will increase your chances of getting a swim test).
What Does a Good Cover Letter Look Like?
To me, a cover letter is more than just listing experience. That’s what your resumé is for, right? The cover letter is your chance to show them who you are! Show some personality and get creative! Let your resumé talk about all the requirements, technicalities, and internships.
If I were writing a cover letter today for an entry level training position, it would look something like this:
Please tell me you can see the difference between this cover letter and the one before it! I had this professionally proofread, so there are no spelling or grammar errors. There is no redundancy, no mention of “my dream,” shows professionalism, and is properly formatted.
You’ll notice that I did not mention the position I’m was seeking. You can absolutely add that, and if you are applying to be a trainer at Georgia Aquarium – you absolutely should. You heard Michael!
This letter may be a bit too long, but this will give me a better chance to show you my thought process behind creating this cover letter.
See how the format makes logical sense? The facility address and contact is on the left, just above your “greeting” to the appropriate contact. The applicant’s information (i.e. your information) is right-aligned and near the top of the page. Your contact information also appears in the signature. You could include your contact information under your address if you like, however, I prefer to have it in the signature. My reason for that preference is that after they finish reading your letter, they may want to contact you. If they do, their eyes are already at the bottom of the letter and that’s exactly where your phone and e-mail are!
NOTE: If the hiring manager is female and you’re unsure whether or not she’s married – it’s safest to use “Ms.” in the greeting, which can address someone married or unmarried.
This cover letter is 8 sentences but is broken-up multiple times. Studies show that breaking up your paragraphs as much as possible makes things easier to read. I have been trying to implement this in the writings for this website.
Is it working?
I hope so.
Now let’s walk through my reasoning behind each line:
When asked about my performance as an intern at XYZ Zoo, supervisor John Adams, said,
“Jane Doe is the best intern I’ve seen in a decade, learns quickly, and has the foundation to become a leader in the field of animal care and training.”
There are few things more influential than a recommendation – especially if it comes from someone who is respected in the industry. By opening with an approval from a supervisor at a respected Zoo, you are sure to get the reader’s attention.
Because the animal care community is so small, chances are that the reader knows the supervisor. This makes the recommendation more personal and may prompt the reader to contact the supervisor. It’s worth emphasizing that this, like everything in your materials, should be truthful! As long as this recommendation is accurate, you now have the reader on the phone with your former supervisor – selling her on why she should hire you! It doesn’t get better than that!
I also spaced-out the quote so that it really stood out.
Ms. Contact’s Last Name, I know your department has a strong focus on rescue work, and I applaud you and your team for last week’s successful manatee release.
I opened this sentence with the reader’s name. People like to see their name and hear their name. So, I like to use the reader’s name at the beginning of the cover letter, once in the middle, and one more time at the end.
If you have subscribed to my newsletter, you will notice that I use your name many times when I send you e-mails. It makes things more personal.
The most important thing about this line is that it shows you’ve done your research on the company, and this isn’t a “copy and pasted” letter. It is specific to this job and facility.
You want to be careful to not overdo it here. Flattery is one thing, but sucking-up is another. Excessive compliments will get your letter thrown in the trash!
This line simply tells them you know what’s going on in their department and that you keep up with their current events.
I just completed a 6 month internship where I was able to work closely with a 15-person rescue team.
This sentence is perfectly tied into your previous statement and gives more reason on why you brought up their recent manatee rescue. More importantly, it shows them that you aren’t just talk.
I specifically included the number of people to showcase that you can work in large groups effectively. Animal care is a team effort – you have to be a team player. Numbers also tend to add more value to writing. They act as a kind of statistic and give specifics to an otherwise generalized writing.
I also opted to not write out the numbers. I think by using “6” and “15” as opposed to “six” and “fifteen” makes the sentence stick out more.
I prepared hydration and feeding tubes, collected chuff samples, and assisted veterinary staff with blood draws. I also implemented new procedures to ensure area cleanliness.
This sentence shows you know some industry jargon, and more importantly, it demonstrates understanding of the most important part of animal care – husbandry!
Then, I quickly jumped away from training and moved to cleaning – a huge part of any entry level job. You want to be a well-rounded candidate. Notice, too, that I didn’t say “I kept the area clean,” but instead, I went a step further and “implemented new procedures.” Now, you better have done these things if you say them! You don’t need the reader calling your supervisor and asking about the procedures you implemented only to have him/her say, “I have no idea what you are talking about.”
It is very important that you understand that your cover letter should be tailored to the specific job. If you were applying for a job as a show trainer, then focus your cover letter on that – not rescue. If you are applying for a higher-level job, then you don’t need to mention you know how to clean – they assume you do. Tailor your writing.
While I have a basic foundation and experience of marine mammal training and care, I look forward to learning the practices and techniques from your pioneering facility.
For an entry-level position, most facilities are looking for someone who has the basics but can be molded and trained. Because every facility trains slightly differently, they usually don’t want someone who is already “stuck in their ways.”
I added this sentence to show the reader that you have the basics down, but you’re also ready, willing, and able to learn their techniques.
I added the word “pioneering” as it does stroke their ego a little bit. Of course, if you don’t think their facility is “pioneering” then don’t say that! Additionally, you’d better be ready to explain why you think their facility is pioneering if you get asked to interview.
Please find my resumé and references enclosed.
Some people simply add the following in their signature to indicate an enclosed resume:
However, I don’t like the way it looks, so I just spell it out. I also included references, because I think they are incredibly valuable. Be confident! Even if they don’t ask for it – include them! If they don’t want to read them, they won’t.
Thank you for your time, Ms. Contact’s Name!
A simple “thank you” at the end is an easy and pleasant way to end your letter. I also added their name one last time, just for good measure.
When you are typing your cover letter, press the Enter/Return key 3 times after “Sincerely.” Then type your name and include your contact information if you wish. That will ensure you have space to sign your name to the letter.
You should absolutely sign your letter! If you are sending your cover letter digitally, then scan a signed copy to your computer or input your signature into the document.
How Creative Can You Get?
For me, there is no limit on creativity. However, in reality, too much can backfire. I am sure there is a hiring manager out there who would not like a statement from a former supervisor in a cover letter.
As Michael pointed-out, every person has unique likes and dislikes, so I urge you to do whatever it is that “feels most like you.” For me, I am comfortable going slightly against the norm. In fact, I may even do something like this or incorporate some of these tips in my cover letter.
I really hope this helps you with your cover letters! If you have questions, please subscribe to my newsletter. Once you subscribe, I’ll send you a copy of the exact resume I used to get my job at SeaWorld!
Best of luck, guys and gals!