I once wrote a cover letter. It was seven pages long. It broke every rule you’ve ever been taught about cover letters.
This cover letter landed me an internship, which got me a job, which started my career. Most of all, this cover letter taught me an important lesson about getting a job.
The first rule of a cover letter is . . .
The employer actually has to read it.
This is why starting your cover letter with “I’m a recent grad from the University of Nobody Cares” is a terrible way to present yourself.
Another generic applicant.
Why my weird cover letter worked
I knew that if I could hook the employer, get them to read beyond the first paragraph, then I might have a chance. I was also applying to an ad agency and they look for creative applications.
So how do you hook an employer who gets dozens of applications every day?
Most cover letters try to establish the mind rationality of the applicant. I decided to take a different direction.
In the opening paragraph, I framed my cover letter as a trainwreck and told the employer that this was either going to be the absolute weirdest and worst cover letter they had ever read. Or they were going to hire me. Either way, the page was going to be turned.
Why write a weird cover letter?
Because nobody was responding to my generic ones!
I was sick of writing bland letters that got no response.
And so I said, fuck it. I’m gonna write exactly what I think for as many damn pages as I want and explain why I think I’m a good hire and they can either take it or leave it.
And so the first four words were:
“My fingers hate me.”
Interested to know what I wrote next? I guess the employer was because the cover letter got me an interview.
The next words were:
“My fingers want me to write a bland boring cover letter. Instead, I’ve sent you the longest, weirdest, and high flautent cover letter you’ve probably ever received.”
“This cover letter is seven pages. I’m going to talk about middle earth, the poetics of advertising, and the aesthetics of selling fruit . . . oh, yes, it’s going to get weird!”
“Even if you read this cover letter and don’t hire me, you’ll at least have a hilarious story to tell at cocktail parties about the worst cover letter you ever received.”
I then wrote seven long pages about my views on advertising, ads I liked, and my lack of experience.
Why did this cover letter work? A few reasons. The most important: it stood out. Second, it demonstrated my skills in direct response advertising (which is about getting people to open your sales email or read your sales page).
Third, I wasn’t a complete idiot. I wrote intelligent things about advertising and told the employer that I had just come from grad school and was used to living in poverty. “I don’t care about how much you pay me, just give me some experience and I’ll hit this thing harder than anything I’ve ever done in my life.”
I received an email from the company within a few hours of sending it. A few weeks later, I was working at the company and got my start in advertising.
When I left the company, my boss read a few paragraphs from the cover letter. She had kept it.
I’d include the original cover letter but lost it over the years.
The take-away? If you aren’t getting a response to your cover letters, then try something different. My approach might not work for you but don’t just keep on sending the same bland cover letter again and again and again.
Why is your cover letter not working? Why aren’t they not calling you back? Figure out that and rework your strategy.
Step 1: get the employer to open your email.
Step 2: keep their attention.
Step 3: show a bit of personality so that they like you. You don’t have to go as far as me but just talking about your degrees is a boring way to sell yourself.
I explain the practical steps in my book as well as in this article, which is one of the best I’ve written about cover letters.
Image credit: Harold Bloom