Job hunting for some veterans must feel like going on a fishing trip to a lake with no fish. I once received this sage angling advice from a friend, “The fish are out there—if you’re not catching anything, you’re probably doing it wrong.”

Unfortunately, one often is not receptive to making the changes necessary to succeed until they first concede failure. Enter greenhorn Ryan Wallace. After returning from an overseas deployment, I went on leave with my wife on a whirlwind family tour which ended at the home of my grandfather-in-law, Dick. An avid fisherman, Dick, suggested we take to the lake to bring home supper. Not wanting to pass up a challenge, I readily agreed. While he collected the rods and tackle boxes, Dick directed me to the pantry. “Grab a bag of marshmallows and your favorite can of corn.” I unquestioningly complied, sacked the goods in a plastic bag and followed Dick out to his beat up truck. After a short drive down the dusty road, we arrived at his secret fishing hole on the shores of a small lake. He wasted no time affixing the hooks and weights to each of our rods. After settling into a comfortable lawn chair, I watched as he ripped open the bag of marshmallows, punctured one, and ran it several inches up the line. “This is your bobber—if it goes down, then you got one.” I nodded and strung a marshmallow on my own line. After retuning my gaze to Dick’s demonstration, he reached into his pocket and pulled out his own can of corn and proceeded to open it. He picked several pieces from the can, threaded them on the hook of his line and cast into the lake. He then tossed me the can opener and said, “That’s all there is to it!” I starred at the can opener in my hand, slightly dumbfounded. Noticing my hesitation, he queried, “What’s wrong?” Knowing I wasn’t going to live this one down, I sighed, “Remember when you told me to pick my favorite can of corn…” I slowly lifted my can to his gaze, until I could see his realization turn from curiosity to amusement and eventually erupting in all-out laughter. “Well son, it might be your favorite, but you’re not going to catch many fish with cream corn.”

If you are not using the correct bait, you won’t catch fish. In the job hunting arena, a poorly constructed cover letter won’t get you any “nibbles” from the hiring manager. Here are some specific suggestions to improve the effectiveness of your cover letters:

Submit one.

Not adding a cover letter to your resume or job application package is like fishing with no bait. While most application materials are fairly dry, the cover letter brings life to your application. It allows you to highlight your creativity, passion, and show yourself as a real person to the hiring manager. Failing to submit a cover letter can be interpreted as an act of laziness. Similarly, don’t use a boiler-plate or generic cover letter. It is easy to tell if the letter is targeted to the specific company or merely the latest Xerox from a template.

Keep it short and focused.

In fishing, if you let out too much line, it might get tangled and you’ll be forced to cut it loose. The longer the cover letter, the less likely it is to be read by the hiring manager. Keep your cover letter short and focused. Get to the point and don’t make the manager dig for meaning.

Address it correctly.

Failing to specifically address a cover letter to the hiring manager is like making a crummy cast—it’s not going to put you anywhere near the fish. Don’t use generic salutations such as “To whom it may concern” or “Dear Sir or Ma’am”. Take the time to research the name and business address of the hiring manager. This information may be available on the company website. Alternatively, don’t be afraid to contact the HR department. Remember, just like your resume, a cover letter is a marketing document. When you receive marketing mailers at your home, do you respond positively to letters addressed to “Current Resident”? If it’s not important enough for a company that wants my business to address me by name, then I put such documents in my inbox (trashcan) for “further review”.

Grab Attention.

If you don’t put a hook on your line you won’t be catching any fish. The opening paragraph of your cover letter is the most critical—it must immediately grab the attention of the hiring manager. Start with a strong opening sentence. This is the place to name drop or highlight your personal connection to the company.

Forbes recommends including a story in your cover letter. What brought you to apply at the company? Do you have a special connection with the company’s product? Veterans generally have no shortage of good stories—just be sure to keep them relevant to the job! If I were applying for a position with the Apple Company, I might tell an attention-grabbing story like this:

“When I deployed with the military, my iPod deployed with me. My iPod served as my sole form of entertainment. It kept my music playing while working out in the hot desert sun. I filled it with a library of movies that kept me entertained, as if I were at home. Most importantly, it never let me down. That iPod allowed me to breeze through many long months, making an arduous deployment just a little brighter!”

Show your value.

In the second paragraph, you need to reel ‘em in. Keep the manager’s attention by showing your value to the company. Clearly establish how your experience connects with the position. Louis Lavelle from Bloomberg Businessweek explains that managers are looking for “WIFM”—What’s In It For Me. Specifically focus on how you can solve the company’s problems. They key here is to highlight your qualifications and skills, without rehashing content in your resume.

Prove you understand the company.

If you don’t know anything about fish, how do you expect to catch one? In the third paragraph, you need to demonstrate your understanding of the company, its goals, strengths, challenges, opportunities, or threats. This proves you have carefully researched the company and are not merely applying in the blind.

Directly address suspected hiring issues.

Occasionally, when reeling in a fish you will snag your line on some seaweed—pull through without losing the fish! Directly address issues that you feel may impact your hiring desirability. If you are overqualified, be prepared to show your passion for the position and emphasize your commitment to stick around and not jump ship at the first sign of better opportunities. If you are lacking in certain skills listed in the job posting, address how you are actively shoring up those deficiencies through education, training, or other activity.

Share your passion.

Live bait catches fish! A “dead” cover letter won’t get you anywhere. Dig deep to reveal your inner fire and passion for the position. For more seasoned veterans, avoid using the “R” word (retired) at all costs. For veterans, “retiring” from the military is usually synonymous with starting a new career, however, the term does not have the same connotation for civilian employers! You want your cover letter to exude energy and ambition. Show that you still “got game” to keep up with the young bucks! I am reminded of a quote from the movie Men of Honor, where the protagonist is asked how after recovering from an amputation, he would keep up with men half his age. His response illustrates the same exuberance needed in your cover letter. “The question is, sir, can they keep up with me?!”

Explain what you will do next.

“The game’s not over until the fish is in the cooler.” Now that you’ve successfully captured the attention and interest of the hiring manager, you need to close your letter with an action. Start by summarizing what you bring to the table. Finally, close by suggesting a meeting or indicate when you will follow up. Be sure to follow through with your contact commitment!

Good fishing! “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”


Thanks to Ryan Wallace of Aviation Management

Go to, click on the “Looking for People” tab, then view “Veterans Solutions” to see more for information on our Veterans Solutions for Employers. Please join our LinkedIn group, Veterans Hiring Solutions for Veterans and Companies at If you have specific questions about hiring veterans or the incentives for doing so, contact me at [email protected].