Job applications What not to do

Can you reuse a cover letter?

It’s…not a good idea.

If you are thinking of reusing a cover letter to apply to more than one job, don’t.

I’m not talking about carefully picking and choosing parts that can be reused. (That’s a post from last year that explains how you can reuse at least some of your cover letter, so your hard work doesn’t go to waste.)

What I mean is copying and pasting an entire letter, changing only the company name (and that only if you remember to–yikes).

I hire (some) people now for one of my gigs. I have received applications with no cover letters (deleted), so-so cover letters (deleted), and honest to god bad cover letters (BALEETED). Once I received a great cover letter. “It all started with a murder on the roof,” it began. Ooh, I’m intrigued.

I was less intrigued when I got the same cover letter about a week later for a different position.

Are you creative and good with words only once in your life? Was that cover letter your only creative output, ever? Of course not! So why would you send the message that it was?

It takes a little bit of extra time to write or customize a new cover letter for each job, but it’s totally worth it.

Job applications

How and why to write a cover letter with personality

DSC_0051What’s your personality?

Are you serious? Funny? Hard-working? Creative?

Your cover letter should show (a little) of your personality. Dial it up or down depending on the job you’re applying for.

Here’s a job posting for an experienced reporter to cover energy policy in D.C.

Congressional Quarterly is looking for an experienced reporter to cover energy policy. We seek a versatile, exacting and enterprising reporter who can track and translate developments in energy policy online and in print. This is a demanding beat that will go to a journalist with demonstrated abilities and an eye for enterprise. A track record of covering federal energy policy and Congress is strongly preferred. The reporter we want is able to produce copy with news, sweep and depth, and juggle multiple assignments for, CQ Weekly and Roll Call.

Here’s a posting for a web startup.

If you know LA or SF better than the back of your hand, Rundown wants you as our new city editor.

With 10 editions and over 1 million subscribers, we’re the fastest-growing daily email newsletter around. If you have two to three years experience writing and editing lifestyle and/or men’s magazine-style content (plus hands-on experience with web-based content management systems), we want to meet you.

Here’s one final posting for a startup seeking a community manager.

Tripfilms ( is a building an online travel channel that brings travel experiences to life with informative and inspiring videos from real travelers. We’re a profitable, 6 year old NYC-based startup.
We are looking for an eager, creative, and energetic community manager who can also coordinate our social media and community development efforts.

Candidates must be able to enjoy Chipotle, BBQ, and musical talents are a plus!

The amount of personality you show in your cover letter will vary greatly depending on which of these jobs you are applying for.

If you are a fun, easy-going person, then in your cover letter to Tripfilms, you could gush about your favorite styles of barbeque (in addition to spelling out your qualifications, of course).

If you are a serious, hard-driving journalist who works 75 hours a week and is never away from your smartphone for more than a minute, you might mention that when applying to CQ, but might come across a little too intense for the other two ads.

Toning your personality up or down in a cover letter isn’t the same as using a fake personality, though.

A wise woman once said that a job interview is like a first date. She told me that if you go on a first date, and your date says he likes rock climbing, unless you love rock climbing too, you shouldn’t pretend you do. Otherwise, you might get into a relationship with this person and find yourself climbing mountains each weekend, but your relationship is built on a lie and won’t make you happy.

The same goes for jobs. If you pretend to be a workaholic because you assume that’s what the position requires, you’ll be really unhappy when it’s 8 p.m. on a Friday and you’re covering a meeting instead of doing what you’d really like to be doing. If you pretend to love BBQ but are actually a vegetarian, you might be miserable at Tripfilms–or at least teased a lot for eating TofuBQ (which really ought to be a brand name; you’re welcome).

To sum up: Tweak the amount of your personality in your cover letter. Best of luck!

Job applications

Cover letter writing is a muscle.

It’s one that you can improve with practice. It’s also one that can atrophy very quickly.

Believe me. I’ve been there. I’ve sat in front of the empty Microsoft Word document fearing that whatever I was about to type would be so stupid.

Photo by flickr user Aaron Cannon:
Photo by flickr user Aaron Cannon
But being able to write a great cover letter for that job that you just saw posted, without spending three weeks agonizing over each word, is important. If you wait three weeks, you’ll almost definitely miss out! So if you’re jobsearching, your cover letter “practice” is as important as your gym routine.

Here’s what BrightPlaces, a career advice blog, has to say about all this:

“We normally don’t read cover letters, we don’t talk about them and we feel relieved once we managed to complete ours. Since we lack the knowledge about what makes a great cover letter we quickly start to feel afraid about the topic.”

What will get rid of the fear? Practice.

I’m not saying you need to sit down and write fake cover letters. That won’t get you very far.

But if you’re jobsearching and see three great opportunities, and then you decide you only have time to apply for one today…stop and think. Maybe you do have time. If you knock out two or three cover letters in a day, even when there’s only artificial time pressure, you’ll get much better at writing fast, so when you do need to be fast, you’re ready.

In November, thousands of writers band together for NaNoWriMo–National Novel Writing Month. The goal is to write 50,000 words–the length of a fairly solid novella or a very short novel–within 30 days. That’s about 1,667 words per day if you don’t take any breaks.

The people who succeed at NaNoWriMo have a few things in common. One: they’re all crazy. (I know this from firsthand experience). But two: the only way you can get to 50,000 is to shut up your inner voices that tell you what crap you are and just WRITE. And at the end of it, you have a pretty crap novel (although Water for Elephants was originally a NaNoWriMo novel) but you’ve built up your writing muscles. Super important.

This isn’t an invitation to be sloppy. Don’t forget to proofread. Twice. But it’s an invitation to tell that inner voice to shut up, write, and flex your muscles.

Job applications

A cover letter critique: Take risks. What do you have to lose?

A reader e-mailed me his cover letter. I agreed to send him some suggestions in exchange for permission to put some of them into a blog post. So: this cover letter is 100% real (except for the redacted parts) and 100% posted with permission.

April 25, 2013
Morgan Edge
News Director, WGBS
2 Main Street

Dear Morgan:

It was a pleasure meeting you briefly late last year when you came to give a talk at Metropolis University to the master’s in journalism class. I’ve now completed the program and am looking for job opportunities in news reporting.

I’ve a curious and critical mind with regards to news judgment and the experience of working in fast-paced newsrooms through internships in Metropolis at WKRP, WXYZ and KBBL. I’m also very comfortable using an ENG camera and with computer programs including iNEWS, QNews, Avid, Final Cut Pro, Photoshop and Adobe Audition.

As you can see on my blog and in the demo reel, I’ve covered a wide range of stories – from human trafficking and the grassroots INM movement, to a local dance group chosen to perform at the 2012 London Olympics.

My work was recently recognized by the Metropolis Association of Journalists. A short documentary I hosted and co-produced on voter apathy has been selected as a finalist for the 2012 Student Award of Excellence.

Please find my resume attached for further details on my background.

The reasons I would like to work at WGBS are the focus on local stories and that an independent station is able to successfully compete with the big networks in Metropolis. I would love to speak with you regarding what I’ve to offer and possible opportunities with WGBS.

Thanks for your time. I look forward to hearing from you soon.


Jimmy Olsen


Okay, Jimmy, so this is not an objectively bad cover letter. I count exactly zero “to whom it may concern”s and no “it is my pleasure to apply for the open position of” crap.

It’s also great that you have a contact at WGBS to address your letter to, because it looks as if WGBS doesn’t have any open postings at the moment and you’re applying “cold” in case there just happens to be an opening at the time your cover letter and resume crosses Morgan’s desk. However…did you actually meet this guy, or were you one in a hundred students who filed through to shake his hand after his talk? The former will help you get much farther. The latter, not so much, but it probably can’t hurt. Either way, applying cold like this is a long shot, but you’ve got little to lose.

But because you have little to lose, you may want to try taking more risks. This cover letter isn’t bad, but it’s also not awesome. Your second paragraph detailing your qualifications tells me little more than I can find in your resume. Presumably your resume will also list your awards (4th paragraph), so the only paragraphs that tell me something new about you are the third and fifth.

As for the fifth graf (“The reasons I would like to work at WGBS…”) Your heart’s in the right place, but this feels forced. Actually, forced isn’t the right word. It feels slotted in, as if the rest of your cover letter is a template. (Jimmy, you sent me two cover letters, and each is relatively different, so perhaps this cover letter is not a template–but that’s how this paragraph feels.)  Don’t leave this bit til the end.

And as for your reporting chops…you’re a student who covered human trafficking? Say that again. Human trafficking? Okay, Jimmy, I’m not Morgan Edge and I don’t know what’s running through his head, but holy cow, I would want to know more about this. Again, you have little to lose. What about putting this shit right up top there? Maybe not above your hello to Morgan (depending on how thoroughly you actually met this guy), but right the hell below it. How did reporting on human trafficking affect you? What was it like? What did you learn? Tell a story with your cover letter. Don’t necessarily skip over your qualifications, but Morgan can look at your resume for details. Maybe you want to dedicate two paragraphs to human trafficking and a sentence to your internships, tech skills and awards.

Anyway, that’s what I’d do. What do you have to lose?

Job applications

How to write a cover letter for a “creative” job: show, don’t tell

Too many people, when applying for a job that says “attention to detail is a requirement,” simply write, “I have great attention to detail.”

Show your attention to detail by sending a perfect cover letter and resume with no mistakes.

Too many people, when applying for a job that says “writing skills are important,” just write, “I have excellent writing skills.”

Show them by writing excellently.

Too many people, when applying for a job that requires creativity, say “I am creative.”

Horsepuckey. * Show me. Either write one hell of a creative cover letter or do something outside the box.

Know your audience. A government contractor looking for “creative problem-solvers” may define creativity differently than does the startup ad agency.

To that startup ad agency, a #hireme campaign may be old hat. To that contractor, it may be very creative. Maybe too creative. Think about the skills you’d be expected to use on the job, and use them in your application.

Don’t just say you’re creative. Or a good writer. Or whatever. Show how you are.

*Insert your preferred expletive here.

Job applications

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

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.

Job applications

A Huge Misunderstanding

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…


Correspondence with a hiring manager.


Job applications

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

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 Funny place, right? Check out the site’s ad for a marketing intern*:

Marketing Intern

Are you a fan of 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 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.

Please email your cover letter and resume to quay [at ]

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

This says that while’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.

Job applications

Less Is Truly More

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.

Job applications

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

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.