In this article, I’m going to layout a very simple formula for writing a cover letter. This isn’t the typical advice you get around the internet. I’m not going to talk about formatting, generic tips, and why you should proofread. Instead, I’m going to show you the psychological friction you encounter when an employer reads a cover letter and how you can get around this friction to book the interview.
By the end of this article, you’ll know:
- Why employers don’t call you back
- The biggest mistake most cover letters make
- A simple psychological truth about how to get employers to respond to your job application
In my own job search, I wrote many bad cover letters. And this just made me more desperate, the job applications flying out week after week. After trial-and-error, I hit the sweet spot and discovered how to write a real cover letter that persuades a boss to hire you. That cover letter got me “hired instantly” as my boss later told me and started my career.
Now, as a living, I work in direct response advertising—which is the psychological science and art of getting strangers to give you money for a product.
And that is exactly what a cover letter is: you are asking a stranger to give you money for a product (your work as an employee).
So that leads us to the concept of the Crocodile brain.
The Crocodile Brain—Why Employers Throw Out Your Cover Letter
Oren Klaff, author of Pitch Anything, raises millions every year in capital from investment firms. So he knows a few things about getting money from people. He has a principle called the Crocodile brain. While Klaff talks about the Crocodile brain in the context of pitching for investment capital, it does have a very relevant application to writing cover letters.
Let me explain.
According to Klaff, all the information you provide a person enters their brain through the most primitive part of their brain, the Crocodile brain [the brainstem].
This ancient part of our brain has been hard-wired to mistrust strangers. Think about it. When you meet someone new, especially if they are trying to sell you something, your defences spring up.
Klaff says the Crocodile brain filters information in a very, very simple way: if it is not novel, ignore it. If it is not visual, ignore it. If it is not related to movement, ignore it. If it is not dangerous, sexual, food, ignore it.
“The Crocodile brain is interested in survival,” says Klaff. “If your pitch looks like it is going to use up resources, it ignores it.”
So, when an employer receives your job application or cover letter, they have one giant, nagging question:
Is this person here to take away my resources?
The biggest mistake new grads and job applicants make is to underestimate the economic request of a cover letter.
You are literally saying—pick me, give me thousands of dollars every month, and I will do a good job. I want to stress this because you need to think about the perspective of the employer.
So before an employer even considers you, your letter needs to get past the Crocodile brain.
Here’s the secret to writing a cover letter. Show the employer that your letter is offering resources—not threatening to take them away.
You will get a much better response and will get past those ancient evolutionary defenses. If you offer something, the employer will see you as a potential ally bearing gifts, rather than a hungry stranger clawing at the gates.
Avoid Language that Threatens an Employer’s Resources
Here are some common phrases people often use in cover letters. All of these produce a negative psychological trigger in the employer, making them instinctively ignore your request.
YOU SAY: While I don’t have any practical experience in the field, I do have a BA, MA, and PhD in English.
EMPLOYER HEARS: This person might be smart but needs to be shown how to apply this intelligence to business. This will cost time, money, and energy. And it will benefit the job applicant more than me.
YOU SAY: I’m a recent graduate from Ohio University and very interested in YOUR INDUSTRY. I’m a hard worker, excellent writer, and won many awards in university.
EMPLOYER HEARS: This person has never had a real job. Their only frame of reference is university. They don’t really know what my business is about and would need training.
YOU SAY: I don’t have any directly related work experience, but I have done several similar jobs and would love a chance to learn.
EMPLOYER HEARS: Please give me a chance, Coach. All the risk and effort is on them.
How to Get a Job With No Relevant Experience
Read your last cover letter—are you asking for a chance? Do you make promises but don’t offer anything concrete? Are you asking the employer for resources?
Let’s now take a look at how you might write a cover letter even though you don’t have any practical experience in the industry.
The context is a recent grad applying for a marketing job with no experience. Here is how we can reframe the request from taking resources to offering help.
Hi! My name is _____.
I’d like to apply for a position at your company.
First, the bad news. This would be my first ‘real’ job in marketing. I’ve never worked in an office, as I’m a recent grad.
Second, the good news. I know that it is expensive and time-consuming to train new employees, especially new grads. So I’ve worked hard to try to make myself as employable as possible.
In the last three months:
- I’ve read three books on marketing per month, including the Principles of Marketing, Intro to PR and Marketing, and How to Write Press Releases.
- I’ve volunteered at a local non-profit, helping them out with their communications initiatives.
- I’ve researched all of the clients listed on your company website and have a basic understanding of the work you do.
- I’ve learned about WordPress and blogging and so could update the company blog.
- I’m an excellent proofreader and editor and would be happy helping out with brochures, blog posts, or anything you’d like to pass onto a junior writer.
I also know that one of the tasks that a new employee can do at a marketing firm is to write Press Releases and so I’ve trained myself to do that. Attached are three samples of Press Releases.
As I know it takes time and money to train an employee, I’d be happy to start with a two week unpaid internship so that I can demonstrate my skills and show you how I can help.
I’m also open to starting on a trial-basis—just give me a few small projects and I will work hard to impress you.
The big point: show concrete ways you can help an employer. Frame your cover letter from asking for a job, to offering services. And try to disarm the employer by reversing risk.
Practical Cover Letter Takeaways
In sum, make sure you offer resources instead of asking for a chance, training, or career advice.
Here are some practical ways you can offer resources, even if you have no related work experience:
- Tell them the industry books you’ve read—you are at least demonstrating theoretical knowledge that could be put to work.
- Tell them the clerical work you could do. For example, proofread documents, edit the blog, write help articles for a product, or write basic HTML. These are the clerical tasks employers are glad to pass onto new employees.
- Suggest a trial period of employment. This is risk reversal. An employer doesn’t want to be stuck with a bad employee, especially if you don’t have the skill-set needed. Take away the risk of saying yes.
- Tell them how hard you are studying on the weekend, learning the industry.
- Talk about any online courses or blogs you read that might be relevant to the job position.
You can get more advice on cover letters and applying for jobs with no experience in my eBook How to Find a Career with Your Humanities Degree in 126 Days.
Here are the exact steps to getting a job, even if you have no experience, are broke, and don’t know where to start.
How to Find a Career With Your Humanities Degree in 126 Days is a 18 week challenge (126 days) where you are shown the exact steps and actions needed to get out of ‘liberal arts career limbo.’
The 126 Day challenge begins right where you are—broke, no idea of what you want to do, working a crappy job, and nothing more than a degree on your resume.
Week by week, the book offers a step-by-step program, helping you turn the big goal of finding a career into smaller, manageable daily actions.
I read How to Find a Career With Your Humanities Degree in one sitting, and those few hours were worth more to me professionally than three years of grad school in the humanities (at a top-tier school, with full funding, etc.). James’s unsentimental, relentlessly practical advice helped me find my way out of the ivory tower and into a career that actually rewards my intellect and efforts. If you don’t thrill to the idea of a glorious future of perpetual adjuncthood (if that), you owe it to yourself to check out this book
— Andrew, former Ph.D. student
James, your ebook is truly excellent. I am loving it, and finding it very useful. This is the most practical career resource I think I have ever seen.
— Recent liberal arts grad