I have absolutely zero experience with how big brand hiring processes work, but I’m confident in saying that the trick to getting an interview at a small-ish tech/creative shop is to write a fantastic cover letter.
That’s not saying that all good cover letters get interviews, but it is saying the opposite — a bad cover letter probably won’t get you past step one.
So here are a few tips to writing a good one, brought to you by someone who has written and read a few in his time.
Sell your beliefs more than your past
The biggest mistake people in cover letters is to present their work/education history as proof that they deserve something. Every business — even the tiniest ones — are complex beasts with unique needs and aspirations. But most importantly, nearly every job you’ll find in a small business will be completely different. Even jobs with the exact same title.
Your past matters in the sense that you can successfully do a thing, but thousands of people can do a thing, and half the time that thing will evolve into something completely different as the years go by. The trick is to give your prospective employer the feeling that your way of thinking will add value to the existing team.
What do you believe in? What’s important to you? What do you bring to a team dynamic?
Everyone likes a compliment, but your cover letter isn’t the time for that. Instead, you should be selling yourself as a completely independent thing. Don’t mention the company you’re applying for in any way other than the fact that you’d be really excited to work there.
Here’s why: they’re looking to hire someone for a reason, and you probably don’t know what that reason is. The last thing you want to do is accidentally compliment something that’s unpopular internally.
Oh, you like our homepage? Your first task was going to be to redesign it… maybe we’ll go with someone who’s a little more forward-thinking.
Seriously, you’re not going to get very far with compliments in a cover letter. Use that space to sell yourself.
Edit out lazy storytelling
Humans are storytellers — it’s one of those things that makes us different from monkeys. But not many humans are good storytellers. Instead of weaving together interesting sentences, many of us default to simply documenting things that happened.
First, this happened. Then, that happened. After that, this other thing happened, and now I’m here applying for this job.
Even if your winding tale technically proves the case that you’re a good applicant, part of the challenge is to seem remotely interesting. Remember that the person running the hiring process might be digging through dozens of applications every day — if your letter is boring, you’re going to fall through the cracks.
So don’t make it boring. Edit out anything that doesn’t immediately answer why you’re a great hire. Also, be selective about including things that are already in your resume — no one wants to read your resume in sentence form.
Apply for the job in front of you
What employers are looking for is someone who thinks deeply about the position that’s open. If you’re a designer who also dabbles in development and copywriting, that’s great. Please spend your cover letter space explaining the design stuff — the rest is of lesser importance.
And please don’t start your letter with, “I have a CompSci Ph.D., so I’ll be perfect for your support position.” All that says is, “I really want a dev job, but since this support job is open, I guess I’ll do it for a few months.” Training people is hard work — if it seems like you’re going to be dissatisfied with the role within the year, we’re probably just going to hire someone else.
Use your cover letter to build the case that you want the job in front of you. Every position is vital to every employer, so treating anything as a bridge to something “better” is probably going to be insulting to the hiring manager, who, by nature, has probably spent a career doing the job you’re already trying to get out of.
Use up some of that white space
Try to remember that even though cover letters have largely moved to email, they’re still rooted in old-school letter writing. Imagine taking the time to hand-write something — you wouldn’t just put down a couple sentences and call it a day, and you also wouldn’t write out a long-form treatise.
Say what you need to say. Take your time. Just not too much time — there are other applications to get through.
Get the details right
- Spell the company name correctly (pay attention to current branding).
- Follow the instructions provided in the job ad.
- Explicitly acknowledge any requirements for the role if it’s not clear initially that you do meet them.
- Unless specifically requested, don’t send anything as a .doc file (no one likes .doc files, and they’re not very secure).
- Don’t be gender specific… definitely don’t start your letter with “Dear sir”.
- Further to that, try really hard to find out who you’re talking to. “Dear Recruiter” when our entire team is listed on our About page isn’t going to impress.
- Have someone proof your writing. Even if you’re a professional writer.