Our Cover Letters, Ourselves

Look at all these women thinking about how not to screw up their cover letters!

Look at all these women thinking about how not to screw up their cover letters!

In the past year, I’ve had the privilege and pleasure of applying to over 200 jobs. I’ve gotten offers on some, been ignored by others (luckily), and turned some down, but the process has helped me–more than any self-help book could–to figure out who I am and what I want in life. With this year of education under my threadbare belt, I’d like to share a few of the things I’ve learned along the way, including some embarrassing anecdotes that might make you feel better about your job application failures.

1. You’re applying to way too many jobs.
Of course you might think more is more, but more is actually just stupid and a complete waste of time. Exactly one year ago today, my Gmail tells me I was applying to two positions: BEERTENDER & FILM PRODUCER. Go ahead and take that in…I either wanted to be whatever a “beertender” is, or, you know, just a film producer, whatever. The next few days after that, I also applied to be a hostess at a musical comedy club, an ESL instructor for a UCLA extension class, an admin asst. at a law office, a film cataloguer at AFI, and a retail clerk at a coffee shop. There are far too many problems with all of this, but maybe the worst one is that I actually never wanted to be any of those things. I know times are tough, and it seems better to cast a wide net, especially with student loans bleeding you dry and with magazines backed by wealthy people asking you to write articles about how poor you are then offering you chump change for the privilege (I did live that irony). But employers actually look at your resume, and if your only experience is in, for instance, the writing and editing fields, they’re probably not going to hire a freelancer who would leave the beertender gig the second someone said, “Content Producer?” Be smart. Craft beautiful cover letters geared specifically to jobs that are specifically geared toward your specialties, and spend the rest of your time volunteering or working at an internship to get more experience.

2. Your cover letters are written by robots.
When I was teaching at Boise State, two of my favorite lessons involved dissecting the language of our emails and texts and learning to write how we actually think and speak. All of this culminated into crafting a cover letter (I tried real hard to convince my students an education in English Comp wasn’t a waste of time.). One of the things I noticed was that every student felt that the more archaic their language, the more professional it sounded, WHICH IS SO FAR FROM TRUE. Robots aren’t reading these, so why would they want to read something a robot wrote? And many times, you’re probably not even using the word correctly. I have to admit that I’d thought for many years that “intact” was two words: preposition and a state of tactfulness…maybe tactileness? I was also guilty of using “resume speak,” describing a task like running a cash register as, “Handled multi-functional POS system and manual registers to calculate totals, including tax, to complete transactions with customers.” I ASKED PEOPLE FOR MONEY, AND THEY GAVE IT TO ME. That’s basically all I had to say, and an employer looking for a cashier would have been cool with it, but instead of saying what we’re really doing, we’re couching it in language that sounds like someone learned English by reading court transcriptions. Employers are human, and they’re not always looking for the most impressive-sounding candidate. Sometimes they just want someone who gets the job done and who can identify a cash register and count to ten.

3. Employers want someone to make their lives easier.
I feel like there’s a disconnect between the job applicant and the employer that truly only exists on the side of the job applicant. I’ve assisted in HR before and can honestly say that most of the cover letters I read looked like they were diary entries, i.e. no audience. What people forget is that if a company is hiring someone, it means they need someone and are most likely short-staffed, and that means at least one person in the company has picked up the brunt of the work, and she is most definitely looking for someone who can walk right in and make her job easier. Basically, what this means is if you spend a whole bunch of your time on your cover letter using big words and rehashing what she’ll already find on your resume into a two-page tome that reads like a coming-of-age novel, your potential hiring manager will look at what you wrote and assume that you will be difficult to train and won’t be able to hold a conversation. Always remember that you are writing to a person, and she’s tired, and she doesn’t have time for cryptic descriptions of your various internships. TELL HER WHAT YOU CAN DO, HOW FAST YOU CAN DO IT, AND WHY IT WOULD HELP HER.

4. You still don’t know who you’re sending this letter to.
The internet exists. LinkedIn, Pinterest, Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, and even Ancestry.com exist, and if you haven’t used them to research your cover letter’s audience (probably not Ancestry.com), then I feel bad for you. Of course, there’s such a thing as doing too much research. I’m guilty of saying, “I spied on the principal’s LinkedIn profile, and his summary said, ‘Cock and Humanitarian,’ and I thought to myself that I could get along with these people,” in a cold email to an employer, and let me tell you that it didn’t work out as I would have liked. But you don’t have to acknowledge any of the weird stalking that you did. All you need to do is gather some information and use it to your advantage. For instance, I helped a friend write a cover letter for a Digital Content Manager position recently, and when I researched the hiring manager, I found that she used social media herself, but rarely updated her accounts, and at the very least had a few similar interests to my friend, which she posted on Pinterest. Because the job my friend was applying for required her to be knowledgeable in social media, I decided it would be beneficial to emphasize that my friend was exceptional in this area and was a frequent poster, commenter, and tweeter, and had been an early adopter of the medium, even writing for her own blog, covering similar topics to the manager’s own interests. Why? Because the hiring manager clearly didn’t have time to maintain social media presences and didn’t have the knowledge to train someone, and she wants to get along and have a good relationship with her new hire. MAKE HER JOB EASIER.

5. Bullet points are sometimes not a bad idea.
Just because you don’t want to squeeze all your details into well-crafted paragraphs and complete sentences doesn’t mean you’re taking the easy way out. Depending on the job for which you are applying, you may need to cover a lot of ground, and if an employer might be looking for stats (how many Twitter followers you have,  the ROI from your campaigns, etc.), they may appreciate your making the info easier on the eyes. But try not to go over 5 bullet points, and keep each of those at one line each. MAKE IT CONCISE.

6. You’re not addressing the job description.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a Harvard grad with a PhD from Stanford if you’re not paying attention to what the hiring manager wrote in the job description. If she uses the phrase “mad multi-media skills,” you need to both match her tone and assure her that your multi-media skills are indeed “mad,” and the easiest way to do this is to give a short list of programs you use. Don’t know Illustrator, InDesign, Photoshop, or Dreamweaver? Teach yourself. Buy a $30 monthly subscription and make some stuff, because anyone can learn those programs with a little effort. (Note: it doesn’t make you a “designer,” but it does mean you have mad skills.) Do you know what CMS means? Look it up, figure it out, and slap it on your resume. These are all tangible skill sets that prove your competency. I know some people who go through job descriptions and turn every qualification into a question, which the applicant will answer in her cover letter. That’s a more clinical way of attacking the problem, but it totally works, and it proves to the employer that you know how to read and respond to information, and how you react to directions in your writing will also display how you’re going to react when your new employer stops by your cubicle and asks you to do something. Let her know that you know how to listen and respond like a normal person.

7. Stop self-deprecating.
One of the hardest things for women to learn is the right balance of self-confidence and humility that acknowledges accomplishments without immediately negating them or seeming like Rain Man/the villain in Karate Kid. It’s probably difficult for both sexes, but women are disproportionately affected by the self-hate virus. Above I was talking about my favorite assignment with students being the one where we dissected our email and text language. The non-shocker of the semester was always that my female students used hedge words to demean what they said, made jokes when they were worried that someone would get offended, and added an exclamation mark to every sentence they thought would have been too “needy” without it. I’m guilty of it, too, which is why I was able to help them find their own language ticks. My only piece of advice for these students was to always say what you mean on the first try. Then set that aside for at least an hour and make sure what you said will get the results you actually want. Take a look at these examples:

“The project I worked on was sort of a big deal, and it taught me how to deal with people and make the best out of situations.”

“I managed a year-long project, overseeing 8 people, and together we did a complete overhaul of some very outdated areas in our company style guide, and it showed me that I love being in management and collaborating with my co-workers.”

The easiest way to convey a high level of confidence is to use specific language. How long was the project? 1 year. How many people did you oversee? 8 people. What did you do in the project? Overhauled a style guide. What did it teach you that could also work for the job to which you’re applying? Your love for management and collaboration. Sorry, those sentences might not be the best examples, but it’s clear to see that the first is passive and the second is in the active construction and much more specific. You don’t even have to tell people what you learned, but it’s definitely good to talk about what you like and what drives you.

8. You’re smothering her.
It’s taken me a long time to figure out how to end a cover letter in a way that gets the exact response that I’m looking for: I want her to call me. And so when I first started experimenting with my ending, I went too far into the pressure zone and said things like, “I look forward to hearing from you,” and, “Please do not hesitate to call or write if you have any further questions about my experience.” Applying for a job is a little like dating. If you start expecting something from the hiring manager, she will be less likely to get back to you. She is busy as hell and doesn’t have time for the needy relationship. In a similar fashion, try not to end your letters with, “And if you feel I am not qualified for the position, good luck on your search for the right candidate.” That’s kind of like being that guy you dated for two days who felt they needed to do a rehash of all your relationship’s faults and mourn for what could have been, only he couches it in this God-speed-you stuff, and you never call him again. The only answer for that is, “Thank you?” The best thing I’ve come up with for ending my cover letters came to me when I was applying for a job that I was totally qualified for that I would have taken, for a company that seemed to be filled with my kind of people. In so many words, I said, “If you think I might be a good fit for the position, I’d love to talk to you guys about the opportunity, and thanks so much for the time and consideration.” No pressure, stated that I clearly wanted the job, and not only that, but that I genuinely cared about talking to them to make sure it was a good fit for both us. And, as always, THANK THEM FOR THEIR TIME. It might seem redundant, but it goes a long way.

So these are my few suggestions, places where I’ve failed, and things that have worked for me. Ultimately, though, if you’re a good worker with experience and specific interests, it might be a while before you find your perfect fit, but it’ll be worth the wait when you’re in a place that values what you do and who you are, and you feel a mutual respect for your employer.

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3 responses to “Our Cover Letters, Ourselves

  1. Hi, Wolfe. I’ve found with No. 2, that most of my cover letters are actually read by robots. If I’ve included the correct phrases, verbatim, a robot sends me a post card that says I’ve been ranked 68 on an equally rated scoring. What’s hard for me is that I can’t write a cover letter that gets past the robots and then still sounds human enough for a hiring manager to get a sense of my personality.

    • Oh, Alex Avila, catcher extraordinaire, that’s why bullet points might be good for the larger corporations who scan cover letters and resumes for key words, but still they mostly only scan the resumes, and the cover letters are read by the real people. If you can get a person who understands SEO and keywording to bulk up your resume, you’d get past the robot overlords. That’s actually why those resume-writing services for like $100 are totally worth it, because all their employees are trained on keywording. Please don’t leave the Tigers, Alex.

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