Cover letters are the WORST.
The first time I tried to write a cover letter, I was literally lying on the floor of my apartment almost in tears. It was a slow and painful progression up from the floor to pacing my living room, then to sitting in front of my computer with fingers hovering over the keys. Then an impromptu, stress-releasing dance party (they’re the best). Back to the computer, out for coffee, back on the floor, perusing internet comics for inspiration, back to the computer. Still nothing.
It took a week to finally finish one. A week’s worth of asking advice from my roommates (which initially gave me a cover letter that included gems like the following: “I am sooooo much awesomer then anyone else you would hire. Word to your mother, homey G’s.”, “My life goal is to travel to mysterious places and hum the “Indiana Jones” theme song while racing down stair cases and cracking my bull whip on random people”, and, perhaps most inappropriately, the lyrics to Juvenile’s “Slow Motion”), more time spent on the floor and in impromptu dance parties, and on the phone with my mother complaining and whining that I had no idea what I was doing. In the end, however, I pulled it together and sent more than a fair few off to the far corners of the internet, none of which had any rap lyrics.
That cover letter ended up leading my to one of my favorite internships, working with CARE here in Atlanta. But rereading it now, as I am attempting to write more cover letters for real-life, grown-up jobs – I’m pretty sure that it wasn’t the cover letter that got me that internship. I’m not saying it was awful – it could have been, I have no internal barometer for what makes a cover letter “good”. Or “bad” for that matter.
What is it about cover letters that make them so difficult to write? The formality of the letters themselves seem so daunting, and when it’s a blank page staring back, even more so. And it’s not that I don’t know what to say, or the reason I am saying it. It’s just how to say it, and say it well. And of course the obvious fact is this: you are writing about yourself to someone who you simultaneously do not know but want to impress. What if their internal barometer for what is “good” or “bad” is not even close to what you had considered while writing? What if they think all cover letters are inherently a waste of time? Or worse, that all near-college-graduates are wastes of time?
And so, like any Generation Y-er brought up on the gospel of Google: I searched the internet for advice. Google has over 43 million hits when searching “cover letter”. And over 11 million when you search “best cover letter ever”. I’ve found advice that spans from “don’t bother” to 8 steps to a perfect cover letter – and I must have reviewed close to fifty different examples, samples, How-To’s, How-Not’s, and even an amusing failure or two.
But this is the basic advice I’ve boiled down from it all:
- In this technological age, bad spelling just means you are an idiot. No one wants to hire an idiot.
- Don’t rewrite your resumé in paragraph form. If your resume is meant to be a teaser for your interview, then your cover letter should be a short, succinct, and a tease for the tease.
- Avoid the formulaic, copy and paste cover letter. Tailored and meaningful connections to your audience will mean more than “Dear sir or ma’am, Please find my resumé attached for your perusal. I love the work you do at [insert company name here], and am excited to be a part of it. Thank you for your time, and I look forward to your response. Signed Sincerely, [your name here].” Don’t write for a robot and you won’t sound like one, either.
- Using nonsensical buzzwords like “Go-To Person”, “detail-oriented”, or “Team Player” – not only do those adjectives make you sound like you are trying out for a dodgeball team, but they also have lost their meaning. Use real words, and say what you mean.
- Don’t sound like a self-indulgent narcissist. If your letter has more I’s or me’s than mentions of the company to which you are applying, you may be a little full of yourself. If it doesn’t feel natural when you read it out loud, or to someone else, it probably isn’t. The goal is to sound like yourself, unless you happen to be a self-indulgent narcissist. Then you’ve got some bigger problems.
- Everything is sales and you are your best product. So get out there and sell like you mean it.
What advice helped you write a successful cover letter? What makes a cover letter successful? Eye-catching? Meaningful? Thought-provoking? Awesome? and most importantly, employment-worthy? Are cover letters ultimately worth the time, effort, and semi-panics that we invest into them? If you were hiring, what would you look for in a cover letter?
Please share your advice! As I am sitting down and beginning to write some cover letters, I would appreciate any help I can get.