July 24, 2015

After 50,000 cover letters, here’s how not to do it.

We get roughly 2000 résumés a year. We’ve been in business since 1987. Doing the arithmetic, we’ve had a look at – and passed judgement on – maybe 50,000 cover letters.cover letters

Most come via email these days, but we still get our share of envelopes, telegrams, pizza boxes, packaged desk toys, DVDs and other strange and strained creative efforts. Given the long odds, applicants have applied a wide variety of tactics to stand out. Elegant stationery? Check. Page torn out of a 3-ring binder? Check. Beautifully typeset infographic? Yep. Seven-page note scrawled in pencil? Doggerel? Music video? Um, yeah, those too.

You’re welcome to visit Cover Letters From Hell, our long-running compilation of the wildest and weirdest of these. It’s good for cringes and giggles, of course, but it also serves an educational purpose: hey, kids, here’s how not to do it. For example, how rare it is that we see a cover letter with zero defects? <1% actually arrive with no errors in spelling, punctuation, grammar or usage. Granted, we’re tough graders, but the inability of job applicants to edit themselves is a red flag for how they would communicate for us on behalf of clients. Two strikes and you’re out.

So the question (or plea or whine) comes up often: why not tell us how to do it right? Publish the winners, or list the 6 Rules for Cover Letter Success. Give us a template to follow.

Um, no. We hire exceptional and creative people, not template followers. If we would publish the requested How To, we’d arm and unleash people with cookie cutters. The result would be less than inspiring.

Besides, there is already something somewhere out there that provides an off-the-shelf formula, because we see variations on the same opening sentence roughly ten times a week: “My (attribute), (attribute) and (attribute), combined with my (attribute), make me an ideal candidate for (company name).”

If you find a blog post or self-help book that gives you that sort of “foolproof” formula, and you follow it, we’re likely to have already seen it – often enough that you should rethink the word foolproof.

If you can’t sell yourself in a letter without using training wheels, it’s time to reconsider your plans for a career in a creative business. Try fry cook, maybe. They love candidates with (attribute).