A *solicited* opinion on cover letters

(Cross-posted from Medium)

a table with two signs attached to the front: Bad Advice: 24 cents. Free Advice: 25 cents.
photo: rda

A fellow alumna of my programming bootcamp DM’d me on Slack today to this effect:

Hey, sorry to bother you, but I had a question, saw you were online, and highly value your opinion. I just got my first referral (yay!), but I don’t know if I should send a cover letter with my résumé. I’ve gotten mixed answers.

Aw, gee, shucks. I am ever ready to give an unsolicited opinion, as friends and foes alike would probably attest, but it’s nice to be asked!

My response

In general, one should always include some kind of covering note. Even if I’m sending my résumé to someone so they can pass it over the transom, I include a version of what I would put in a cover letter,

  • highlighting how the job matches my experience and interests,
  • pointing out anything relevant that might not be obvious from looking at my résumé, and
  • touching on why I’m interested in working at that company.

Then if that person wants to, they can either forward the whole e-mail or cut and paste, per their discretion. The goal is to make it easy for them to refer you.

And if you’re applying through an online form but then adding a referrer’s name, you should still include a cover letter, because you never know whose hands your application will actually end up in.

Pro tip: Use your imagination

Composing a cover letter as if you’re sending it to someone whom you know, for them to forward on, is a good way to avoid the zombielike tone that tends to make such letters awful both to write and to read.

Imagine someone who likes you, someone who wants you to succeed, someone who cares, and give them the information they need to pitch you to their boss.

Because that’s essentially what’s happening. Everyone wants to be the person who finds the person who gets hired—even when there’s no referral bonus involved. They want to be able to fill that position. So they’ll be excited if they see a note that lets them believe that you might be that person.

green peas arranged in a spiral
visualize whirled peas • photo: Tim Ellis

Applying for jobs can make you feel worthless and like everybody’s slamming doors in your face all day, but in reality it’s not all antagonistic, behind those closed doors.

Even if you don’t know for sure who’s going to be reading your cover letter (and you did at least try to research this using teh Google, didn’t you?), it helps to imagine that you know them, so you can strike an appropriate tone of warmth, respect, and poise.

[Intellectual property theft alert: I expressed similar sentiments when I first discovered this correlation between readable cover letters and relative familiarity with the recipient, nearly a decade ago. If you wish to read that crankier batch of advice, which was issued from the perspective of a hiring manager who had no HR department to screen candidates, see the post Job application tips on my non-Medium (Maximum?) blog.]

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