Buy the book(!) and a FREE cover letter Twitter chat tomorrow!

By Rachel on in Housekeeping

Hi loyal readers!

Cover Letters for Creative People is now available for purchase!

This week only, it’s 50 percent off if you visit this link.

ALSO, tomorrow I’ll be hosting Jackalope Jobs‘ #Resuchat on Twitter.

If you’re looking for an entry-level job, this chat will answer all your questions. Or as many as I possibly can in an hour, anyway!

The Twitter chat is at 8 p.m. EST on Tuesday, April 9.

Read more details here.


Why It’s So Hard To Write A Good Cover Letter, Reason #43: Bad Advice!

By Rachel on in Rage, What not to do

Are you trying to write a cover letter, but you’re stumped?

Have you looked for advice online?

Yep. You’re in trouble.

I realize what a position it puts me in, as a person giving advice online, to say you should stop seeking advice online. But hear me out.

I recently saw a link from a resume-writing company giving advice on cover letters. I’m not going to link to this post because I don’t want to give them any more traffic. But here’s what it said:

If you’re a great fit for a particular company or position, don’t be shy about saying so in your cover letter. For instance, if you know that a company just adopted a new IT software system, you could write, “Although I am not an IT professional, my affinity for rapidly learning new software programs has served me well in previous positions. In addition to utilizing technology to complete my work quickly, I am often called upon to assist my peers in learning new systems as they are adopted.”

Another way to show your personal fit is to refer to the benefits of working for a particular company. Are you looking for a large organization that offers tuition reimbursement so you can get your M.B.A.? Say something like, “I particularly appreciate [Company’s] dedication to the professional development of its employees, as demonstrated through its tuition reimbursement program, because I would eventually like to further my education.”

If I were a jobseeker, I would never give this company a penny of my money if this is how they write their cover letters.

I’ll pick apart both sentences.

#1: Telling them you’re a great fit.

“Although I am not an IT professional, my affinity for rapidly learning new software programs has served me well in previous positions. In addition to utilizing technology to complete my work quickly, I am often called upon to assist my peers in learning new systems as they are adopted.”

This is the most grasping-at-straws sentence I have perhaps ever read.

If you’re a great fit for the job, you should be talking about how your primary skills match up with the job requirements. If you were looking for a doctor, would you go to the one who advertised having the most successful surgeries? Or would you choose the doctor who bragged about how good she was with accounting software?

This isn’t to say soft skills aren’t important, but puh-leeze. Focus on the important stuff first. Unless you’re applying for a job where the main requirement is learning new “software programs”, focus on the core strengths you bring to the table.

Extra points taken off for wordiness and thesaurus-ese, as usual. Instead of “my affinity for rapidly learning new software programs,” how about “I pick up new software quickly”? And instead of “In addition to utilizing technology to complete my work quickly,” how about….leaving that out entirely?

“Utilizing” (or “using,” as we cool kids like to say–no really, stop saying “utilizing”) technology is basically a requirement for every job these days, so saying this is the same as saying “I’m barely competent.”

You should absolutely tell employers why you’re a great fit. This is not how to do that.

#2: Talking about their benefits in your cover letter.

“I particularly appreciate [Company’s] dedication to the professional development of its employees, as demonstrated through its tuition reimbursement program, because I would eventually like to further my education.”

DO NOT DO THIS. If any resume/cover letter/recruiting firm tells you to do this, run screaming the other way. Yay, they have great benefits. You don’t want a hiring manager thinking you’re applying only for the paycheck, or the tuition reimbursement, or the health insurance. Find something else to focus on that shows you’re an interested and engaged candidate. If you can’t think of anything interesting about the work they’re doing, are you sure you want the job? (Yes? You’re broke? Fine, but still don’t talk about how much you want their bennies.)

This is why people get stuck. They read shitty advice online and follow it. So now I’m asking you to read my non-shitty advice and follow it. I know, I know. But hey. How well has the old way been working out for you?

Isn’t it time to try something new?


What Do Employers Want In A Perfect Candidate? Yep, It’s That Cover Letter.

By Rachel on in Job applications

If you’re wondering what is going through an employer’s mind when you apply, read no further than Giraffe Resume founder Eric Olavson’s post detailing the top ten qualities of a perfect applicant.

Yes, interviewing well is required (#5 and #6), as is sending a thank-you note (#10). But the top quality is having a good cover letter.

Olavson writes (emphasis mine):

I think an ideal job candidate would write me a cover letter that really shows excitement in the company that I created from scratch. We’ve got some great information on our website about the company. (I spent a lot of time and money putting that stupid website together, so please use it.)

At least I would like to see that the candidate read through the website and understand what we do. Unfortunately, most candidates just turn in a generic cover letter or don’t bother to write one at all. If they won’t go to the trouble of writing one, then I won’t go to the trouble of hiring them.

Generic cover letters or no cover letter = career fail.


It’s (Not) All About You

By Rachel on in What not to do

Saw a cover letter recently that made me cringe, so, of course, deconstructing it on this blog is the way to go.

So the writer cannot be located/identified, I’m only going to pull out snippets from said letter, and of course all identifying details have been changed or removed.

The letter began with a short intro. The writer described his life history and what he’s been working on lately, and finished with the sentence: “Lately I’ve been thinking about beginning a new chapter.”

Second paragraph:

Honestly, I’m hoping to land a job where I can work eight hours a day, go home, live a simple life, and afford some medical insurance. I don’t want to have to own a car, for I’d love to be able to walk to work, walk to get most anything I would need at supermarkets, walk to the gym, and walk to some coffee shops.

If you’re an employer reading this, guaranteed you’re thinking, “Big F(reaking) Deal.” The employer doesn’t really care whether you want to own a car or not. He doesn’t care what you want from the job. He doesn’t care whether you will walk to the supermarket. He cares what you will do for the company.

The third paragraph was much of the same: I need to do this, I want this. Out of a five-paragraph cover letter, only three sentences are halfheartedly dedicated to the author’s qualifications:

I could adapt well to a variety of work environments. I have always been ready to learn something new. I’ve always provided loyalty and excellent attendance for my employers.

That’s it. Nothing else.

The irony is that the author’s resume is quite varied and shows, indeed, an aptitude for picking things up quickly. According to the resume, this person has worked in 11 industries(!!), has management experience, and is not afraid to get his hands dirty.

So how could we improve this letter? Big first step: it’s not all about you. This writer clearly has the professional credentials to succeed. He should put those front and center and explain how they’ll help the business with its professional goals.

Big second, related step: this cover letter is being blasted out to any and every employer, and the writer is essentially saying, “I’ll take anything.” Even if that’s true, you’ll get far more bites if you customize the letter to the specific situation. (In other words, if you don’t have a specific company in mind in your letter, how will you know which of your credentials to mention?)

Here’s an example, not from this particular letter/situation.

Say you’re applying for a social media community manager job. That sort of job requires you to learn new things fast and juggle a lot of unrelated projects. If you have experience in 11 industries(!) and juggled two part-time jobs at the same time, for example, you might say:

“I’ve held jobs in 11 industries over the course of my career, and each time I’ve switched gears, I’ve had to pick up the basics quickly. Thanks to that experience, I’ve become good at on-the-job learning and figuring out how to teach myself what I don’t know I don’t know.”

Except you’d say it better, because it’s yours. Make sense?

Thoughts? Questions? Comments? You know where to put ’em. And don’t forget to follow me on Twitter for the latest updates.


A Huge Misunderstanding

By Rachel on in Job applications

Here’s a short one. I saw this written as a comment on another blog recently. After the original writer had proclaimed the importance of a good cover letter, a commenter wrote this:

How can you write a cover letter for every job application when 99% of them go into the black hole? Isn’t your correspondence with the hiring manager your chance to demonstrate your competency? Isn’t that better than a cover letter?

This demonstrates a huge misunderstanding of what a cover letter is. As readers of this blog know by now, your correspondence with the hiring manager is your cover letter.

To go a little deeper: lots of people ask whether they should write their cover letter as a Word document and attach it to their e-mailed application. In 99% of cases, the answer is no. Instead, just write the cover letter in the e-mail. Why is this such a hard idea to understand? I think I’ve figured it out.

Your cover letter doesn't need to be this serious. Thanks to the Beinecke Library for putting this image up under a Creative Commons CC-SA license.

Your cover letter doesn’t need to be this serious.

I, along with most of my readers, am a product of the American education system. At some point in your education, you were taught How To Write. This is how you Write: You choose a Topic, write an Introductory Paragraph including a Topic Sentence, use Transitions to move to the First Of Three Supporting Paragraphs and basically this is all bullshit. It’s a very good start if you’ve never understood how to organize your ideas on paper, but nobody ever tells you that at some point, you have to stop writing that way. I write for a living and it still took me a long time to figure this out. (I did figure it out before people started paying me, yeah, but it took longer than it should.)

So writing a cover letter doesn’t have to be this big, formal thing where you Write with a Capital W. Writing a cover letter should be…

Well…

Correspondence with a hiring manager.

Easy.


Adding Personality To Your Cover Letters, Part 2: Personality, Not Arrogance

By Rachel on in What not to do

Dorsey Shaw, an editor at Buzzfeed, posted this image the other day, with the caption: “Never ever ever ever try to get a job with an email like this. Not ever.”


We have to agree.

For the purposes of this blog post, we’re going to assume that this e-mail was sent to Shaw and that the applicant was trying to get an in at Buzzfeed, though we don’t know for sure that that’s the case. But assuming as much…

First, the applicant didn’t manage to understand the “reverse mullet” concept (that a company that projects a “party” front might be all business in the back). But really? No company wants to get arrogance as a substitute for funny.

Even obviously tongue-in-cheek as it is, this e-mail exudes arrogance.

Congrats to the writer for trying something different. Honest. But dude (or dudette), tone it down just a teensy bit next time.

Here’s an excerpt from a representative Buzzfeed job ad (this one in the company’s music vertical):

BuzzFeed’s music vertical needs a hard-working associate editor for a full-time paid position in the New York office. The person will work closely with the music editor on research, content creation, and idea generation. We’re a new kind of media company for the social world. Our technology powers the social distribution of content, detects what is trending on the web, and connects people in realtime with the hottest content of the moment. Our site is a rapidly growing hub for media that reaches over 25 million monthly unique visitors.

This is an excellent opportunity to work on a fast-paced, quickly growing site in its beginning stages and add clips to a portfolio. All candidates should have an open mind about a wide range of music, a sense of humor about music and pop culture, and an interest in covering music in a way that is accessible, appealing, and not at all snobbish.

Pretty sober, right? This from a site whose current front page story (as of the time of writing this) is “When Seals Open Their Mouths They Look Like Someone Just Said Something They’re Horribly Offended By.” Pretty stark contrast.

When you write your cover letters, try to match the company culture, not what you think it might be by looking at their website.

As a side note, that job is, as of press time, still open, as are many other jobs on the editorial side….good luck!


Adding Personality To Your Cover Letters, Part 1: Know Your Audience (And How Do Mullets Figure In?)

By Rachel on in Job applications

Me & My BrotherWhy is a mullet pictured here?

In the ebook, I talk a lot about writing a letter with personality, and about fitting your letter to its intended audience. If you’re funny, and you’re applying for a job at a startup, it’s OK to be funny in your letter. (If you really are funny, that is.) If you’re applying at The New York Times, you probably want to be a little more sedate.

But sometimes, the front the company projects isn’t at all how the company culture actually is. Plenty of places that produce serious work have crazy office cultures. They present a business front to the world, but inside the company is all party.

So what to do? Turns out you can get a pretty good idea for the tone your letter should strike by reading the job ad. Take CollegeHumor.com. Funny place, right? Check out the site’s ad for a marketing intern*:

Marketing Intern

Are you a fan of collegehumor.com and interested in experiencing what it’s like to be part of the CH marketing team? Cool story, bro. But seriously, we are looking for someone resourceful, organized, focused and driven, who spends way too much time on the web, so that they can spend even more time on the web. Are you this awesome person?

As a Marketing Intern, you will learn about all of the behind-the-scenes work that keeps CH.com thriving and successful. Generally speaking, you will:

Learn how to use Google Analytics and other web analytics tools to compile and trend site performance
Brainstorm creative new ways to attract a larger audience through display, text ad, email, and social campaigns
Learn how to syndicate original content to secondary content portals
Become (re)acquainted with the lingo and protocol of the interwebz
Learn how to promote individual pieces of content
Apply what you’ve learned in your courses to actual Sales and Marketing group’s operations
Get insight into trends and developments in online media and technology at large
Candidates should be very detail oriented and have an interest in media and entertainment, and have a pretty thorough understanding of tech, pop and nerdy internet cultures. Extra points if you’ve ever had to use the internet to promote something. Please include the exact days and times you are available. This is an unpaid internship and you must be eligible for school credit, and able to commit 3+ days a week.

TO APPLY:
Please email your cover letter and resume to quay [at ] collegehumor.com

This isn’t your typical job ad, but it’s also not that out there.

This says that while CollegeHumor.com’s front end is home to some of the funniest content on the Web (I admit it, I’ve spent too much time on their ridiculous videos), the site is all business in the back. Kind of like a reverse mullet I guess. (Pictured: a regular mullet.)

When you write your cover letter, are you going to spend three paragraphs dropping the latest memes? Are you going to stick clipart on your resume? Nooooo. The language in the ad is pretty sedate, so while they’ve signaled it’s OK to say “interwebz,” you shouldn’t go overboard. Play it straight.

In Part 2, we’ll dissect a cover letter whose writer didn’t understand about mullets. #Fail, unfortunately.

*By the way, this is, as far as we can tell, a legit, currently-open ad, so apply away.


Less Is Truly More

By Rachel on in Job applications


You wanna know one of the best ways to make you look smarter in your cover letter?

Say less.

I don’t mean be all mysterious. I don’t mean leave out information. But like Mr. Strunk and Mr. White have been saying for decades, just say less.

One of the biggest mistakes people make in a cover letter is to write wordy. They say “It would be my pleasure to be considered for an open position at your company” when what they mean is “I’d like a job.” They say “Could you give me some information as to the proposed salary range for this position” when what they mean is “How much does this position pay?”* And they say “Due to the fact that I have been working as an intern at an online periodical focusing its coverage on the environment, this is a subject that is of importance to me” when they mean “My internship at an online environmental magazine has made me care more about clean energy.”

Wordiness is one of the easiest mistakes to spot in someone else’s cover letter, but one of the hardest to root out in your own, unless you’ve had lots of practice.

So try it. Try shortening one of your cover letters. Then Read this chapter of Strunk & White. Listen to Tip #10 of Roy Peter Clark’s 50 Writing Tools podcast. See what you missed the first time around.

Can you team up with an editor colleague and red-pen each other’s letters?

Good luck. And if you post before and afters here, I’ll take a look.

*Don’t ask about pay in your initial cover letter. But you may end up e-mailing back and forth with a hiring manager later and the question might come up.


What Can and Can’t You Reuse In A Cover Letter?

By Rachel on in What not to do

kaminsky_toy_close

Since a good cover letter is customized to the job you’re applying for, it’s not a good idea to reuse the same letter more than once.
That said, certain parts are…not boilerplate, exactly, but maybe a little less important to customize.

For example, you may start your cover letter very straightforwardly:

“Please consider me for your open editor position at Widgets, Inc. I’m a skilled editor who has been working with technical written materials for five years, mostly related to widgets.”

You would then segue into a paragraph or two that is specific to the job listing…you know, “I’ve always admired the Widgets, Inc. brochures and thought that they struck a nice balance: they explain the complicated technical aspects of your product without ‘talking down’ to the reader at all.”

And you’d close with “My resume is attached. I look forward to meeting with you.”

Clearly, the first and last paragraphs are ripe for reuse. But you might want to think twice before you simply copy and paste.

What if you want to reuse your Widgets, Inc cover letter at Chocolate Teapots Inc, you’ll want to revise your first paragraph:

“Please consider me for your open editor position at Chocolate Teapots, Inc. I’m a skilled editor who has been working with technical written materials for five years, including a stint in the chocolate industry, where I discovered my passion for cocoa-based dishware.”

As I sit here typing this out, it sounds banal and obvious. But here’s what many people do:

“Please consider me for your open editor position at Chocolate Teapots. I’m a skilled editor who would be a great asset to your company.”
“Please consider me for your open editor position at Widgets, Inc. I’m a skilled editor who would be a great asset to your company.”
“Please consider me for your open editor position at The Turtle Foundation. I’m a skilled editor who would be a great asset to your company.”

The more you make your letter reusable, the more generic it has to become. And the more generic it is, the less useful information it gives a hiring manager. And the less useful information it gives a hiring manager, the less chance you have of getting a call.

Thanks to Jenna.kaminsky on Flickr for the Creative Commons picture.


How to Stand Head and Shoulders Above the Crowd: Follow Instructions.

By Rachel on in Job applications

One could be excused for thinking that if a job listing doesn’t specifically ask for a cover letter, you don’t need to send one. (It’s a common misconception.) But when an ad specifically requests a cover letter and you still don’t send one…what the heck are you thinking?

Quick quiz. If you do this, you’ve just sent a message that you:
a) lack reading comprehension skills
b) can’t follow simple instructions
c) don’t understand “attention to detail,” an important trait in nearly every job
or d) all of the above?

Good answer.

So it’s pretty obvious what you should do. The number of people who do not follow instructions when applying for jobs is absolutely, mindbogglingly huge. As Woody Allen may or may not have said, 80 percent of success is just showing up. He also may have said it was 90 percent, 99 percent, or some other number. But the point remains: By simply meeting basic expectations, you put yourself at the top of the pile–in my book, anyway, and lots of hiring managers agree.

What should you do instead? Let’s say you’re applying for a job. Read the listing two or three times. Draft an e-mail. In fact, type the e-mail into Word or just a random text file…or type the e-mail into your email program, but delete the To: field. This removes the possibility of an accidental premature send, as well as removes the temptation to send the mail as soon as you’ve finished writing it.

Read the listing twice, at least. Look for specific items you’ll need to include with your application (a certain number of clips? A copy of your transcript?) and also for specific traits or skills needed in the job. Make sure that your application includes all those specific items and that your cover letter mentions how your skills line up with what the job asks for.

It’s not hard, but not many people do it. Be one of the best.