Writing Compelling Physician Cover Letters
Published: Oct 26, 2011
Career Resources articles posted on NEJM CareerCenter are produced by freelance health care writers as an advertising service of the publishing division of the Massachusetts Medical Society and should not be construed as coming from the New England Journal of Medicine, nor do they represent the views of the New England Journal of Medicine or the Massachusetts Medical Society.
Career Resources Editor’s Note: Making a positive first impression is a crucial first step in landing a desired job. One challenge of cover letter writing is to follow a prescribed format yet simultaneously set yourself apart from your peers. This can be accomplished by clearly and concisely articulating your core professional goals and your commitment to the calling of medicine.
— John A. Fromson, MD
By Bonnie Darves, a Seattle-based freelance health care writer
The cover letter is usually the first bit of written communication from job seekers that hits the desk of a hiring physician, staff recruiter, or human resources professional. As such, it can make the difference between getting an interview and your dossier landing in the “maybe” pile.
Although writing a cover letter may be an unfamiliar challenge for many residents, it’s not terribly difficult if you follow three basic rules: Keep it short, make it clear, and cover the basics. “Think about the needs of the reader,” says James W. Tysinger, Ph.D., deputy chair for education in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Texas Medical School and author of Resumes and Personal Statements for Health Professionals. “Let the reader know right away who you are and why you are writing.”
Brevity, Personalization, and Passion
Tysinger recommends starting the letter with a simple introductory statement such as “I am a third-year family-practice resident at [insert program name]. I seek a position as a family practice physician in your practice” (or “in your fellowship program” or “at your institution,” as the case may be).
Ideally, the cover letter should be no more than three paragraphs that fit on a single page. “Simplicity is best,” Tysinger says. “Letters that go on for two or three pages, or that try to impress rather than inform, may cause the reader to lose interest.”
To increase the chance that your application ends up atop the “active” pile, whenever possible personalize the letter and indicate that you have some knowledge of the position and institution, says James St. Clair, a senior search consultant with J&C Nationwide in Atlanta. Always write to the appropriate person, St. Clair advises, and unless you’re answering a blind ad, avoid salutations such as “to whom it may concern,” which may give the impression that you’re uncertain about yourself and the process.
Both Tysinger and St. Clair also urge physicians to briefly mention why they are interested in pursuing a position in a particular region. “You want to create a compelling tie to the area rather than simply stating that you’re looking for a position as a general internist,” St. Clair says. If you or your spouse is a native of the area where the practice is located, for example, you could add the following: “My husband and I grew up in [name the city], and we are eager to move back there.”
Mazie Blanks, a 30-year veteran of the physician-recruiting field who now recruits for the Permanente Medical Group in Northern California, advises ratcheting personalization up into the realm of passion. “The cover letter is an opportunity to differentiate yourself from others,” Blanks says. “Show some passion, because people want to hire physicians who love what they do.” Because personalization and passion are so important, Blanks also discourages physicians from using cookie-cutter cover letters, such as those included in “one-size-fits-most” software packages.
Cover Letter Do's and Don’ts
Pay attention to basic details. Spell all names, titles, and addresses correctly and ensure the letter doesn’t contain any grammatical errors. Make sure your contact information is listed accurately.
Write directly and avoid generalities. Rather than “I would like to express my interest in the position that is currently available at your practice,” write the following: “I seek a position as a gastroenterologist at your clinic.” Specifically mention the appeal of the practice opportunity.
Highlight special expertise. Subspecialists and some specialists familiar with new procedures should briefly explain their expertise and/or the number of procedures they’ve performed.
Briefly address any time gaps in training or practice that are evident in your CV to prevent potentially negative reader assumptions.
Request confidentiality, if necessary, and make sure contact information (which may include e-mail addresses) directs respondents to channels that are suitable for confidential communications.
Obtain professional writing or editing help. If writing isn’t your strong suit, ask a program director or a professional writer to help you craft the letter. Remember, poorly written letters often give a negative first impression.
Use high-quality, easy-to-copy paper. White or off-white, 24-pound paper is best because the cover letter and CV are frequently photocopied and routed to several individuals. Avoid colored paper or paper with a high rag content, both of which may reproduce poorly.
Writing tips and sample letters. Writing Help-Central, at www.writinghelp-central.com, provides tips for writing clear, concise cover letters and other documents. The American Medical Association (www.ama-assn.org) and the American Academy of Family Physicians (www.aafp.org) also provide helpful resources for physicians entering the job market.
Books and guides. The following books specifically address the physician job search:
Resumes and Personal Statements for Health Professionals, 2nd ed., James W. Tysinger, Ph.D., Galen Press, Ltd., 2001.
Physicians’ Resume and Cover Letter Workbook: Tips and Techniques for a Dynamic Career Presentation, Sharon Yenney, American Medical Association, 1998.
Strategic Career Management for the 21st Century Physician, Gigi Hirsch, M.D., and Mike Scott, American Medical Association, 1999.