You know what's terrible? If we were hanging out, I bet you'd saying something like, "Oh, walking into the kitchen and seeing an epic battle between a centipede and a cockroach take place on the very counter where I cut my carrots.
Yes. You're right in general, that is terrible, but in this instance I'm referring to writing cover letters.
Writing cover letters makes me incredibly uncomfortable, and although my level of neurosis is greater in some respects than that of my peers, I have a keen hunch that not many people enjoy the experience of crafting a good cover letter.
Every cover letter I've ever written has been bookended by hours of the worst nausea I've ever had. Creating a document meant expressly to sum up yourself or your work AND impress a total stranger can be exceptionally difficult. I mean, as we've all learned from that guy at the bar/club/school dance/on the bus: Trying too hard to impress can lead to one's downfall.
So, how does one write a good cover letter?
The first step is to avoid Googling "how to write a good cover letter." This is a recipe for disaster.
Every one of those sites offers the most obvious and generic advice for writing a cover letter:
- Really sell yourself (I make awesome cookies)
- Explain why you would be good for the job (I don't like to eat said cookies as much as I enjoy making them)
- Avoid spelling errors (I would love to have this jorb)
- Give a short overview of your experience, etc. (I've had a million summers of lawn mowing experience)
Sometimes, you'll even run into the worst (and most poorly written) advice you've ever received. One website offered this advice:
"A postscript or P.S as it's usually referred too, is the final, sizzling summary that can condense everything in the letter that you've tried to communicate already. Most importantly, don't forget to end your P.S. with a direct request to be interviewed for the position being offered. Now THAT'S how to end your letter effectively and exactly how to write a good cover letter. Once these simple concepts and ideas are put into practice, many new doors of opportunity will open up for you."
I would suggest not doing this. Use your precious P.S. space for your preferred professional contact information, even if you already have it at the top in a lovely header. This will reiterate how best to get ahold of you for an interview. Also, if you write a concise and lovely cover letter, you likely won't need to sum everything up in a section outside of your brief, and gracious final paragraph.
Although I'm not a professional cover letter writer, and I don't read too many professional cover letters, I do read a lot of cover letters that accompany submissions. The letters for submissions needn't be as professional as those for employment, generally they tend to show similar mistakes. With that in mind, here are a few practical tips that might actually be useful to you:
The best way to stand out is to be your self, I think. The very thing that will draw potential employers to you in your cover letter is the thing they will be looking for in your interview, and in your subsequent employment with the company. Aside from a little light grooming, why base that long, future relationship on a lie?
Do your research. Don't submit a cover letter containing the names of employees that no longer work at the company. "Dear 1989 Van Halen, I'm so excited to work alongside David Lee Roth..."
(Kind of unrelated but again, do your research. Submit work to publishers/literary journals that fits their schema. Don't submit your fanfic about Indiana Jones to a place that exclusively publishes work about Biggie Smalls.)
Don't fib too much about your familiarity with a company/publisher. If a company has only been in existence for 7 years, don't claim to have been a fan of their product for 15 years.
Try not to throw your colligate weight around too much in your cover letter. If you graduated from Columbia summa cum laude, you don't need to bring it up right away; let that information hang out exclusively in your resume. You're brilliant; it's not a big deal.
On that note, be humble. Let your work speak for itself, but not too loudly. Your talent and hard work will be self-evident – you don't need to cheerlead it until it snaps.
Here are a few good websites for getting advice on writing cover letters for both writing submissions, and professional employment:
Word Smitten keeps it simple and pure.
Dumb Little Man suggests you adapt your letters to the situation.
FakeResume.com Interview Basics is a site that is kind of hilarious and filled with silly bits of advice (chief among, them that one should submit a fake resume or cover letter) but he brings up a good point: send your interviewer a Thank You card. Seriously. This is awesome advice.
Well, this seems like a good place to stop giving advice. This post is already kind of long, but I'm going to share with you anyway the only cover letter I've ever been proud of – my cover letter when applying to Paper Darts. Why am I going to share it? I mean, I don't think it will be that useful to you. But, for me, it'll be nice to know that something I worked on, and stressed about made it out of the vault more than once. Similarly, I'll be wearing my wedding dress to work this week. All week.
**You may notice a spelling or grammatical error. Don't judge me. Who are you, my prospective boss?**