Why Your Cover Letter is the Most Important Part of Your Residency Application

Alex Barker, PharmD is on a mission to help pharmacists create inspiring work and lives.  He is the creator “The Happy PharmD” He put together this guest post cover letters for your residency application. 

Pharmacy school doesn’t leave you with much energy for anything else.

You invest thousands of dollars and thousands of hours just trying to survive. You’re hungry, and there isn’t enough caffeine in the world to overcome the exhaustion in your bones.

Then somehow, in the face of all this, you have to put together a residency application; or more likely, several residency applications.

If you’re one of the lucky ones, you knew from day one that residency was in your future, and you’ve been gradually preparing for the process. If you’re like me, you weren’t fully committed to the idea of a residency until the final year of pharmacy school, which means you may be in panic mode.

There are a slew of things to think about: updating your CV, coordinating volunteer work, and honing your accomplishments. Plus — arguably the most overlooked yet most important part of your application — your cover letter.

Your cover letter is your very first impression. Though you may eventually meet the Residency Program Director in person, your cover letter is the first encounter she will have with you as an applicant.

The statistics for pharmacy residency are startling, and they aren’t necessarily in your favor. Last year, 6,027 students participated in The Match, and 4,132 were successfully Matched with a residency program. That 69% Match rate confirms why your cover letter absolutely must capture the attention of the RPD.

I applied to nine PGY1 programs and was invited to interview for one of them. It’s still painful to remember, but I quickly established that my uninspired cover letter was the cause.

I figured out the mistakes I was making and figured out how to correct them. Here’s how you can avoid making the same mistakes I did.

Choose personality over professionalism.

RPDs will review dozens of applications, many of which are more similar than they are different. There is no shortage of pharmacy students with good grades, demonstrated leadership, extensive volunteerism, and documented research experience.

The challenge, then, is to distinguish yourself from all the other applicants vying for the same position.

Our tendency is to share the professional side of our personality in an attempt to land the position. Though the RPD clearly cares about your accomplishments and experience, she will see that represented on your CV.

Your cover letter is her first encounter with you as a person, and it will play a huge role in whether you are invited to interview. It’s your only real opportunity to help the RPD understand who you are.

Choose distinct over generic.

Your cover letter may be reviewed by an RPD, a clinical preceptor, or even a current resident. The harsh reality, though, is that the person who reviews it will spend about 30 seconds doing so.

The other harsh reality is that the person who reviews your letter will be reviewing dozens, or even hundreds, of other cover letters as well, and she will spot a generic one immediately.

You must make the most of those 30 seconds by writing a unique cover letter for each position: one that addresses your qualifications for this particular position. You must also address your intent and why this specific position appeals to you.

Your letter must stand out from the many others she will read. If it doesn’t, you won’t be invited for an interview.

Choose specifics over generalities.

I’ve participated on both sides of the application process, and nearly every cover letter I’ve ever seen includes broad statements that could be true about almost every pharmacy student I know.

“I am passionate about patient care.”

“I am a capable leader.”

While these statements may be true, they lack impact because they lack evidence.

If I tell you, for example, that I have experience writing remarkable cover letters, are you willing to take me at my word? Or would you be more convinced if I told you that one of the students I worked with immediately secured interviews after we revised her cover letter.

Would you be more convinced if I told you that, prior to my PGY2 application, I spent time learning about the process, bolstering my accomplishments, and writing noteworthy cover letters that secured three interviews with five of the programs I applied to.

Evidence lends credibility to your words, and credibility matters.

Tell the RPD what your passion for patient care looks like in practical terms. Tell her how your leadership makes a difference to the people around you. Help her get to know you in a way that your CV and your application can’t.

Choose effort over ease.

Don’t lose sight of the endgame. Despite your exhaustion, give your best effort to this process, because RPDs have a lot of candidates to choose from. Give them every reason to choose you.

That effort begins by being selective about whose help you accept.

Many students seek out professors because they are readily accessible and they already have an established relationship. Be aware, though, that many other students are likely seeking their help as well, so they won’t have unlimited time to devote to your letters. Realize, too, that although their intentions are good, they may not have specific experience with cover letters.

Other students seek help from fellow students, who are just as overwhelmed by the entire process. Choose carefully.

Still others seek help from current residents who, though they are a year or two ahead in the process, likely have only their own experience to draw from.

I learned all these lessons the hard way, and I would love to share them with the next generation of pharmacists who can benefit from all that I’ve learned. It’s why I created Cover Letter Mastery, a 12-module course designed to help you write exceptional cover letters.

The self-paced course allows you to study at your own pace, and provides a variety of teaching methods: videos, interviews, worksheets, and guides.

It’s a culmination of everything I’ve learned from being on both sides of the application process, and it includes expertise from RPDs and others who do this on a regular basis.

The entire course is only $50, and you will have lifetime access to the course and all its materials.

You’ve worked hard to get to this point, and your efforts toward residency will determine the trajectory of your career. Invest the time and money to make your applications the very best they can be by making your cover letters extraordinary.

It could very well be the most impactful $50 you ever spend.

Alex Barker, PharmD


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Written By Eric Christianson

December 27, 2017

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