Six Ways to Write Cover Letters They Won’t Throw Out

Every recruiter, every editor, every hiring director is different. This makes it impossible to tell job-seekers what the most important part of their package is. It is different in every case.

But this I can tell you: Hiring managers facing piles of applications find ways to streamline the work and to quickly cut down the stack. Lousy cover letters help them do that.

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A lousy cover letter can send your application to the circular file before anyone even looks at your resume or work samples. It is critical to keep your application on top of the desk — or in the inbox — if you are to get a shot at that job.

Here are six things to avoid if you want to survive the first cut:

1. Boring letters make hiring managers think your work will be boring, too. As they plow through all those applications, they are praying that someone will write something interesting. Cut to the chase in your opening paragraph — not the second one — and make a case for why you should get an interview.

Be provocative, be funny, be passionate. Just don’t be boring. Stating your name all over again (it’s in the e-mail or the on envelope) is boring. Writing that you are geeked to do the kind of work this job requires is not.

2. A big, fat mistake is all it takes to get your application chucked. Plenty of hiring managers have said so. Please, have someone edit your letter for you. We cannot edit our own work with confidence. We should try, but we need another pair of eyes and another brain.

3. Meandering letters tell us, even before they get to the point, that the person who wrote them will waste our time or our audience’s time. When you try to put an interesting top on that letter, make sure it gets somewhere fast.

4. Sucking up does not work. How many letters did I get that told me how great my newsroom was? How often did they strike me as insincere or off-point? The cover letter is about you. It is not an opportunity for you to be an apple-polisher.

5. Begging doesn’t work, either. In letters and phone calls, people have told me they would be happy just to sweep the floors in the newsroom if it gave them a chance to work their way up from the bottom. That almost never happens anymore, and hardly any good journalist is happy or proficient with a broom.

So don’t sell yourself short or be willing to compromise on what your job would be just to get in the door. You’re a journalist; ask for a job doing that.

6. Stepping over a line or trying too hard can get you bounced, too. That can include being too funny, too aggressive, too sarcastic — anything that deviates substantially from a straight application. As we try to write compelling, passionate cover letters, we have to make our point without going too far.

It is hard to know how far an individual hiring manager will let you go before he or she says, “Enough!” If you know someone on the inside who can tell you how much this manager will tolerate, that helps. Otherwise, go right up to where you feel comfortable, but no farther. If it doesn’t feel right, stop.

Coming Tuesday: We have a new day and time for our weekly chats: Tuesdays at 3 p.m. ET. This week’s will be about how to be marketable in a constantly changing job market.

Career questions? E-mail Joe for an answer.

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