Cover Letters

March 22nd, 2006 by Potato

I hate writing cover letters. Trying to sell yourself in three paragraphs, and professing your undying love for some job/scholarship/research project you’ve barely heard of is difficult at best, and that’s when it’s not ringing the “pants on fire” alarm bells in your head.

However, I think I’m getting fairly decent at it since I’ve had so much forced practice (writing not only my own, but also some for friends/coworkers). I find it easier to write them for other people, for a number of reasons. There’s less stress since I’m not personally involved (still plenty of stress, especially writing for someone where I really care whether or not they get the job, but not as paralyzing as when writing my own). It also involves more discussion back-and-forth by necessity, which can help hash out some of the details before putting fingers to keyboard. And finally, call it low self-esteem, protestant modesty, or whatever, but I have a lot more trouble promoting myself than I do a friend.

Some people definitely need help with their cover letters. For starters, you’ve got to realize that they are fairly important. Yes, some businesses don’t read them at all (and even say that ones sent will be thrown away, preferring stark forms alone), but most do read them, and pay rather close attention. Typos are caught, especially if they involve professional jargon, or words that were on the job posting. Depending on who you ask, formatting is least important, as long as the prose is professional and clear.

It seems ridiculous and perhaps wasteful at first, but you really do need to tailor your cover letter for each job that you’re applying to. If you’re a fresh graduate without many skills or life experience, it can be difficult to do this, since if you aim to sell about 3 points about yourself, you may only have a pool of 3 total. Nonetheless, your motivation statements can be modified for each new letter, even if your personal ones aren’t. A friend of Wayfare has been having trouble getting any interviews recently, despite being a very talented person who is a very hot commodity internally within the company. Turns out she’s been using the same fill-in-the-blanks cover letter for the last 4 years (not even updating it with a blurb about her current position!).

So, this has been a busy cover letter week for me, having hammered out two already, and another one to come tomorrow morning. Might as well make it a bit of a cover letter workshop then. I think it would be best to do so in the comments section, but if you’re not comfortable with that (or don’t want your copyrighted, guaranteed hire letter to get out into the ether) then feel free to email me. I know at least one of my friends needs help with hers, and given the number of people who seemed less than perfectly satisfied with their current jobs in previous comments, I suspect there may be a few of you out there updating your resumes and wondering what you should staple to the front of it.

The natural question to ask at this point is “why should the broke, technically jobless, and unemployable grad student be giving me advice about my cover letter?” to which I answer that first, even if I don’t apply for jobs with my cover letters, I do hammer out dozens of them every year for scholarships and grants. I also see a number from the other side, vetting potential undergrad lab monkeys assistants. Most impressive of all, I got my NSERC rejection letter today. I know what you’re thinking, getting rejected from NSERC doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. However, note that I got it today, today being late March. That means I made it to the final round (or the next-to-final round) — the writing of my application brought it to near the top of the dung heap, where it was only upon the very close examination of the final few applications that they realized I still haven’t finished my MSc and thus must suck and/or blow (or, perhaps more properly, don’t do enough of either; a third hypothesis holds that I’ve become too valuable to the daily functioning of the lab to risk graduating away, possessing numerous valuable and moreover, unique skills. Recent data has disproved this hypothesis, as weeks of severe illness went completely unnoticed by coworkers).

Before getting into the workshop, I will sing some high praises for your thesaurus. There are many beautiful, long, and confusing words in the English language, and it’s great fun to bandy them about with reckless abandon. Often, there are a number of near-synonyms that can be used with increasing degrees of exactness, and proper selection of these can get you places, cleverly stretching the truth in cases without necessarily fabricating statements from whole cloth. As much fun as big or obscure words are, it’s important not to indulge your logophilia too much; it’s important that your letter sound at least vaguely like yourself and more importantly, that the slope-skulled middle-management type who’ll be hiring you not feel like they’re being talked down to. For example, the humour on my site is biting, sarcastic, sardonic, hostile, cynical, and full of non sequiturs. These aren’t quite synonyms, but they’re related and all seem to describe the same thing (or a few related things). We’d probably want to pick just one word when describing it, and depending on who we were pitching the idea to we might pick a different one. If trying to sell some of it to a TV network that airs a lot of terrible reality TV, we might pick hostile and biting, perhaps throwing edgy in as well, since it’s a buzz-word amongst those types. A magazine editor might be more receptive to non sequiturs and sardonic, while an “alternative” web portal looking for cheap content might prefer sarcastic and cynical.

To take a real-world example, Wayfare says “I have also been responsible for a number of broader marketing initiatives, including designing an advertising layout, presentations, and in-store signage…” for a cover letter aimed at getting a job that involved getting information out to the public from time to time. This sentence makes it clear that she has experience making signs and giving presentations, and should have the required (rudimentary) layout skills. If she were instead to try to get a marketing job, she would probably blow this sentence up, naming programs used for creating those presentations and signs (powerpoint and photoshop, say), as well as possibly dropping the names of stores or magazines where these promotions ran. Likewise with web experience, if the job doesn’t require it simply stating “created and maintained a website…” can be enough to let them know you’ve done it, which often means you have enough knowledge for that position. Adding more, such as “created a website involving PHP, SQL, and Flash” makes it sound like you’re volunteering to redo the company website in your spare time if the job is for a non-web position. Likewise, you’ll need to specify those types of things if a job is largely focused on creating and managing web content (throwing something together in HTML and putting it on Geocrappies doesn’t quite cut it these days).

Anyway, leave some comments or send me an email, and let’s get a cover letter workshop week going!

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