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Easy, Breezy…Cover Letters?

Sep30

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Dear Amy,
First of all I wanted to thank you for your past advice for job searchers. Thanks to you I know to Always. Wear. A Suit. On interviews. Unfortunately, I need some help just getting to the interview stage so I can bust out my new, charcoal grey beauty.
So you have probably gathered, I am one of the billion or so Americans currently looking for a job. I have sent out hundreds of resumes and cover letters with no luck, and am beginning to wonder if I need a new approach.
I’ve always believed that cover letters should sound completely professional. They should focus on your work experience and skills. But many of the job postings I’m replying to say that one of the requirements for an employee is a sense of humor (usually it’s listed as a bullet point, right after “proficient in Excel and Word”). Up until now, when addressing their requirements in my cover letter, I’ve been ignoring the sense of humor. I mean, how DOES one convey this? A knock-knock joke? A sentence that reads, “I can assure you, I do enjoy a naughty limerick.” I have no idea. So I ignore it, figuring that my love of LOLs will be evident during the interview process.
But. Sigh. There ARE no interviews. Do you think I’m shooting myself in the foot by not addressing part of the job posting? Is there a professional way to make it clear that I love mocking Paris Hilton around the water cooler?
Thank you oh Amalah!

While using obvious, outright humor in a cover letter can be risky (if blogging has taught me anything is that you can accidentally offend ANYONE with ANYTHING), it definitely sounds like your cover letter could using a little punching up, a little creativity. Those strictly by-the-book letters are not going to make you stand out these days, when HR departments are getting stacks and stacks of them. Your experience and skills may be impressive, but they may not be enough to make you truly unique.
And when you’re sending out hundreds of letters and resumes, sometimes…that shows, a little bit, in your letter. I lost my job after 9/11, after the dot.coms went dot.boom, and I was completely unaccustomed the the Brave New Job Market of the time. I mean, I used to get interviews WITHOUT a cover letter at all! For writing positions! I didn’t even officially have a college degree yet! But if I stuck my resume out the window with enough technical buzzwords on it, demonstrating that I did indeed understand this double-u-double-u-double-u-dot Internet stuff, I could at least earn the right to show up and embarrass my under-qualified self in person.
Not so, once I really, REALLY needed a job. I wrote up a cover letter using some boring online template thing, a letter just like I’d been taught to write in college, and sent that sucker out over and over again. Sometimes I just swapped out company names and job titles, with cursory edits to include the most relevant experiences and skills. It probably reeked of a form letter and put hiring managers to sleep. I did have a couple versions of my resume (for technical writing, general editorial, marketing, etc.) since I was too terrified to care too much about a specific career path anymore. But as the weeks ticked by and the phone stayed silent, I realized that I needed a new approach.
So…I started writing custom cover letters for every. Job. Posting. I replied to. Like you’re supposed to do. I sent out fewer resumes per day and week, but quality over quantity seemed like it was worth trying. A few things I learned from my experience (and later, when I landed my dream editor job and actually became the interviewer/hiring manager myself):
1) Don’t just read and respond to the job posting. Research the company, as if you’ve already landed the interview. Spend time on their website. Make sure you have a clear idea of what they do/sell/produce. This will also help you gauge what KIND of cover letter will be appropriate. Are they a big Fortune 500 with a conservative business culture? A law firm? Best to stick with a short, professional letter. Are they a small innovative design firm with a ping-pong table and an emphasis on being “cool?” Scrap the traditional letter and send something more creative.
2) On that note, incorporate the company into your letter. Not just “my previous experience with blah, blah, blah is relevant to your needs because blaaaaaah.” Maybe include a paragraph about your experiences with their products, about something they’ve done as a company that’s inspired you. Make sure your letter suggests that this is a job you want because you really want to work there and you know you would kick ass at it, instead of: This Apparently Relevant Job Showed Up On My Monster.com Auto-Search Email Alerts.
3) AVOID THE MEANINGLESS AND INANE. Oh, my God. The number of boring cover letters I read that opened with either “Dear Sir/Madam, My name is ” or “I came across your job posting at such-and-such and am submitting my resume for consideration…” Really? You came across our JOB POSTING? Clearly, you are brilliant, as everybody else is just randomly submitting resumes for no particular reason. Cover letters should always, always be under one page in length so make sure to cut the pointless jabber.
4) Try to learn a little about the hiring process. If possible, figure out if your resume goes directly to the hiring manager or if it will get filtered through HR. Stuff sent through an HR department needs to clearly state how you fit the stated qualifications, above all else. Make your first sentence something relevant, like “I am an editor with 10 years’ experience in both web and print publishing.” BOOM. Main criteria pile, here you come. If you are submitting your resume directly to the actual person conducting actual interviews, you still want to make sure you’re hitting the main requirements, but this is the time when it might be worth incorporating a little more creativity and displaying that asked-for sense of humor.
5) Appropriate creativity will get you noticed. My company published subscription-based monthly financial newsletters. I knew that we weren’t the dream job for entry-level editorial assistants. Most of them thought of “publishing” as books or Vogue or The Washington Post. And a lot of bland, bored cover letters told me that. So if, say, someone took the time to write their cover letter and resume IN THE FORM OF A NEWSLETTER (true story!), you KNOW they were getting called in for an interview, even if other candidates were a bit stronger “on paper.” Other ideas I’ve heard involve writing a Top Ten Reasons Why You Should Hire Me list, or sending your letter and resume packaged like the company’s product. (Specifically, inside a cereal box that an ad firm represented, and the letter opened with “It’s true. I’m a better prize than a secret decoder pin.”) Sense of humor? Check!
Of course, it’s risky. “Noticed” does not equal “hired.” You’re pulling a stunt and it may rub an grouchy HR person the wrong way. They might assume you’re trying to gloss over a deficiency in your education and experience…or they may send your stuff right over to the hiring manager in a “dude, you’ve GOT to check this out” kind of way. Which…might be a little farther than your resume would have made it otherwise. If you aren’t getting any interviews to begin with, you might want to gamble a little bit, since what else have you got to lose?
(Besides being the next Aleksey Vayner. Tip: Don’t submit anything that could end up on YouTube.)
Humor in a cover letter doesn’t have to be wacky, though, or uber-obvious. It just…comes through, when you’re writing something that you’re genuinely excited about. I mean, the email that you sent to this advice column clearly conveys a sense of humor, no knock-knock joke or a naughty limerick required! And I bet you just WROTE THAT, all by yourself, instinctively knowing how to hit that right blend of funny/interesting and get your question plucked out of a hundred others.
Instead of worrying about hitting the “sense of humor” bullet point directly, try scrapping your current (possibly dry and getting a little form-ish?) letter outline and start writing them from scratch for each job you apply for, in a more natural tone, sans any over-thinking.
I know that job-hunting can be soul crushing. Oh God, I know. And sometimes you start putting up natural defenses to keep the rejection and disappointment from becoming too much. And sometimes this shows in your writing, and unfortunately, no one wants to hire someone who already sounds detached, jaded and totally bored with themselves. Let yourself get excited about these jobs and companies and your writing will probably reflect that excitement… AND something a little closer to your actual personality rather than your business-suit-wearing professional alter-ego.


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About the author

Amalah

http://www.amalah.com
Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy's daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it's pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.


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11 Responses to “Easy, Breezy…Cover Letters?”

  1. Amy Sep 30 at 8:29 am Reply Reply

    I used to work at a staffing company. I once received a resume from a college student that included the following, in bold purple lettering, square in the middle of her resume:
    Jaunty!
    Accurate!
    Compassionate!
    Quite organized!
    Unforgettable!
    Independent!
    Exciting!
    She was right about the fifth one. I was unimpressed with her professionalism, however, and I didn’t give her a job (and this was a temp agency – not like we were splitting atoms).
    I think “sense of humor” is inappropriate for a professional resume. Sorry. To me, as a former grouchy HR person, it looks like, “Wow, this person didn’t have enough skills and/or relevant experience to fill a single page, so she had to start including irrelevant crap.”
    And please don’t use any of the activities from your last meeting where you had to do “ice breakers” as above. :)

  2. Olivia Sep 30 at 8:52 am Reply Reply

    This is so timely for me. My cover letter has definitely become a form letter so it sounds like I need to scrap it and start over.

  3. Alison Green Sep 30 at 9:12 am Reply Reply

    Right on. Make it personal, make it clear it’s not the same form letter you’re sending to every other company you’re applying to, and add something more than just summarizing your resume.
    I’m a hiring manager and I get asked this question (and see more frustration from job seekers about it) more than anything else, probably. Schools should teach people how to do this, because no one knows!
    I’ve talked about my own thoughts on how to do a good cover letter here, if this helps. Good luck!

  4. eva Sep 30 at 2:29 pm Reply Reply

    I work in HR! I recommend researching the specific employers you’re interested in, then contacting only the few that really meet your needs as a job-seeker. Sounds hokey, but holding “information interviews” as per “What Colour is your Parachute” can really work. Also join whatever networking group your profession has, for me it’s the “Human Resources Management Association” for my province, and was a great way to get involved in the HR community when I was out of work several years ago, and learn about some of the jobs that were out there that I wouldn’t have otherwise known about.
    And humour? REALLY depends on the industry…like Amy says, it can be so so easily misinterpreted. You do want to be taken seriously if you’re looking at jobs that require charcoal suits:)

  5. Mary Ann Sep 30 at 2:39 pm Reply Reply

    Cover letters are optional on a lot of rungs of the business ladder. For a writing job: probably required.
    For a lot of other jobs, though, they are optional. Two (complete) sentences (using whole words spelled correctly) and an attached resume may actually get you farther than a long cover letter. Time is fleeting when you have a couple hundred applicants to evaluate.
    Amalah’s advice is solid and the big take away should be “make sure your application package shows an awareness of the company and position for which you are applying.”
    The big, slightly-related pet peeve of this grouchy HR person is: Objective statement on the resume which clearly says “I do not want this job.” Objectives are optional, and they really exist to tell me that you want the job for which you have applied. If the objective says “data entry in healthcare” and the job title is “receptionist in financial services”, you’re discarded right off the bat. I would say that up to half of the resumes that I open that have Objective statements get discarded immediately due to objective not matching actual position.

  6. Karen Sep 30 at 3:58 pm Reply Reply

    I’ve asked friends who’ve worked with me in the past to help come up with aspects of my work they found the most interesting. I then used some of their material in my cover letter. It landed me every job I applied for when I moved back to NC.

  7. Catherine Sep 30 at 5:05 pm Reply Reply

    Two big things I’ve learned regarding cover letters:
    1) Address it to someone directly. Call the company and find out who exactly will be reading your letter, and address it to them. This shows that you took that effort, and believe me, people respond better to “Dear Mr. Halpert” than “To Whom it May Concern” or “Dear Hiring Manager”.
    2) Follow up, follow up, follow up. Send your letter, then call the company two or three days later to ask if they received it. Tell them you’re really interested in the job and so you wanted to make sure they got it. This really impresses them – talking to you on the phone makes you stand out as a real person instead of just one of a hundred interchangeable names. I did this once, and the woman on the other end of the line said, “We’ve gotten hundreds of letters…*pause pause*…ok, I found yours, and it looks good — I’ll send it over to HR now”. They called me for an interview that afternoon. I’m sure that if I hadn’t called, my letter would have gotten lost in the shuffle.
    Good luck!

  8. Candace Sep 30 at 5:26 pm Reply Reply

    Yay! This was my question! I was so stoked to see it up on your site. Then I read on… and got less stoked. Because I am indeed going about it all wrong. Ah, nuts.
    This is such a frustrating process and I’ve definitely been going for quantity over quality. From now on, every damn letter is being written from scratch. With lots of research and ::ahem:: I’ll take out that line about seeing their job posting. Opps.
    Thanks so much Amy!

  9. Rebecca Sep 30 at 7:12 pm Reply Reply

    Great advice, Amy. Thank you!

  10. Beth Oct 01 at 9:58 pm Reply Reply

    My first job was as a college admissions counselor. So not exactly the same thing as HR, but there are parallels – you’re still assessing the potential of an unknown candidate. All I can say is: Fresh and new, yes. Arts n Crafts, a resounding, NO. You would not believe what people send in. One girl submitted her art portfolio. On slides. With a slide viewer. Another sent in baby shoes. Photo albums. A diorama in a shoebox.
    Word to the wise: if the preson reciving your submission has to think “how the eff do I file this?” it does not bode well. You will be memorable, but annoying.
    Also check your font. Stick to classic fonts and one font for your total submission. I don’t mean get craft with thriller or joker. But you would not believe the difference submitting something in Goudy Old Style or Garamond can make when in a big pile of Times New Roman.

  11. Beth Oct 01 at 9:58 pm Reply Reply

    My first job was as a college admissions counselor. So not exactly the same thing as HR, but there are parallels – you’re still assessing the potential of an unknown candidate. All I can say is: Fresh and new, yes. Arts n Crafts, a resounding, NO. You would not believe what people send in. One girl submitted her art portfolio. On slides. With a slide viewer. Another sent in baby shoes. Photo albums. A diorama in a shoebox.
    Word to the wise: if the preson reciving your submission has to think “how the eff do I file this?” it does not bode well. You will be memorable, but annoying.
    Also check your font. Stick to classic fonts and one font for your total submission. I don’t mean get craft with thriller or joker. But you would not believe the difference submitting something in Goudy Old Style or Garamond can make when in a big pile of Times New Roman.

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