If there’s one question guaranteed to come up in an interview, it’s when an interviewer or hiring manager asks you to explain a difficult situation you were in and how you handled it. However, it can also be beneficial to give them this insight well in advance, such as your cover letter.

Many candidates fall at the first hurdle by not sending a tailored cover letter to a company alongside their resume. In the cover letter, it’s beneficial to explain why you’d be a good fit for the role. To do that, you should define a moment where you were in a difficult situation and how you eventually overcame it. While the interviewer is likely to bring this up in person, highlighting this early will leave you time to prepare your answer.

If you’re struggling to articulate this in your cover letter, here are tips for describing difficult situations at work and how you solved them to help you land your perfect job.

Why do you need to emphasize highlighting a difficult situation in your cover letter?

Doing so lets you shine and shares just how valuable of a potential team member you’ll be. From an interview’s perspective, they want to know what your problem-solving skills are like. You should share a difficult situation at work and also your solution in your cover letter because you can tell a story. At the same time, it’s also a good way of showcasing your written communication abilities.

It shouldn’t be a stressful experience, either. You’d be sharing an actual example — something you experienced rather than telling an imaginary story. This is also the perfect opportunity to show off your personality in your cover letter. It’s the first instance where a hiring manager will understand you on a human level rather than judge you blindly based on a document.

There’s nothing wrong with showcasing your vulnerability in your cover letter when describing a difficult situation. It’ll show your honesty and how you reacted; that’s what an interviewer will want to know. However, make sure you explain how you overcame the problem and what lesson you learned from that, too. 

Tips on what to include

To leave an impression in your cover letter, make sure to include the following when describing the difficult situation and how you overcome it.

Choose a work-related situation that’s real

The interviewer won’t be impressed if the example you list in your cover letter is something personal between friends, for example. It’s meaningless. You need to choose a real situation that happened in your current or previous role. It could be mass redundancy, resulting in you running a department. Or it might be strict deadlines. Whatever it is, it must be work-related to show how you responded in a professional setting.

Be descriptive but concise

This is a challenge when explaining verbally, let alone trying to explain it all in a cover letter. The difficulty here is no interviewer is going to sit down and read pages of a cover letter. They have their day-to-day jobs to do but also look through other resumes. In your cover letter, when you describe an actual difficult situation at work with a solution, you need to find the right balance of being descriptive but also concise.

Try to avoid any filler statements. Be impactful and straight to the point, so the interview instantly knows what the problematic situation was and what your role in the solution was, too.

Showcase your thought process

In your cover letter, try not to mention the difficult situation and then the end result. The part in the middle is arguably the most crucial as it shows interviewers what your problem-solving abilities are like. When typing out your difficult situation, make sure you showcase your thought process step-by-step, so the readers know the actions you had taken.

Highlight your technical, communication and leadership skills

A crucial part of describing a difficult situation and how you overcame it in your cover letter is to make sure you have a key role in it. If you were a follower and didn’t play a significant role, it won’t impress the hiring manager as it only shows you’re a good follower. Instead, choose a situation where you were a leader and steered the ship. In the cover letter, also showcase your communication and technical skills. This is the best way to have interviewers pay attention.

The ending should be positive

Finally, when describing a difficult situation in your cover letter, make sure the outcome is positive. You’re trying to sell yourself and your skills in the cover letter. If you do a great job of setting yourself up for success with a hard-hitting problem and all of the right actions — but the outcome is negative and didn’t work out — that’s the only part the hiring manager will tend to remember; not necessarily all of the positive steps beforehand.

Tips on what not to include

The cover letter is a powerful document. As important as it is to be honest in it when describing a difficult situation, there are certain aspects you should avoid mentioning as it could damage your chances of securing an interview.

Don’t list problems you created yourself

If there was a difficult situation at your current or previous role that started because of your actions, avoid adding it to your cover letter and think of an alternative instead. There’s every chance you took all of the correct steps to remedy the situation and the way you overcame it was both positive and commendable. However, the interviewer is likely to only remember that you created a problem in the first place and won’t want to risk having that in their company.

Avoid any negativity

When describing a difficult situation, it’s easy to fall into the trap of only focusing on the negative aspects because a challenging situation revolves around negativity. However, you should flip this mindset and put your focus on the positive aspects instead when adding this to your cover letter. Explain the steps you took, how proactive you were and what the positive results were.

Don’t blame others or talk negatively about them

Another mistake to avoid in your cover letter is to avoid blaming others or talking down to them. The situation you describe in your cover letter might have been started by a different person or a group of people. You might have stepped in to help fix the problem in what was a complicated process before eventually overcoming it.

Focus on that. If you blame others or speak ill of others, it leaves a bad taste in an interviewer’s mouth as it shows you can’t be trusted and that you’re a poor teammate. You shouldn’t need to mention others at all in this scenario, let alone speak negatively of them. Focus on yourself and the actions you had taken.

Ignore any drama

Linking in with the previous point, if the difficult situation involved a lot of drama, ignore it and avoid mentioning it in your cover letter. This isn’t the time to let out all of your grievances and frustration. The last thing you want is to impress a hiring manager with your resume and cover letter, only to let pettiness and drama hinder your chances of securing a possible sure-fire interview and job offer.

Don’t come across as overly brash

Don’t mistake this for downplaying your strengths. If the difficult situation and how you overcame it shines you in a positive light and highlights all of your strengths, include it. Interviewers will want to know the skills and strengths you showed in that situation to reach a positive conclusion.

Although, there’s a fine line between showcasing your strengths and coming across as too cocky. Avoid the latter as interviewers don’t like people who come across too brash and that they were the savior in that scenario. They like humble team players who value the importance of teamwork, rather than focusing on themselves.

cover letters

Use the STAR format

The STAR format is something you can use in a cover letter and also in your interview. It’s a great strategy to adopt when answering or revealing behavioral answers or scenarios, allowing you to outline your talking points directly and always ending on a positive note.

  • Situation: Explain the context of the difficult situation you’re describing
  • Task: Highlight the challenging part of the situation, but only focus on the main, top-level points
  • Action: Reveal your step-by-step process on how you handled the situation
  • Result: Showcase the positive, impressive results that you achieved based on your actions

Doing it this way in your cover letter will show the interviewer you’re the right person for the position. If you still need some extra help on getting prepared for interviews and applying for roles, VanHack can help.

Using the platform, you can film videos so interviewers can get to know the real you — the person behind the profile. The VanHack Premium Academy goes one step further, helping you prepare for interviews with mock interviews and example answers designed to help you impress. Get started today.

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