Saturday, May 21, 2011

Cover letters are for more than just jobs!

The importance of writing a good cover letter cannot be overstated. While resumes have an important blow-by-blow of your actual experience and contributions, your cover letter is where a prospective employer gets to know you, can start seeing how your personality meshes with the culture, how smart you are, and all the intangibles that really make the difference between getting the job and not.

In asking "Is the resume dead?" the Evil HR Lady (with the help of the fabulous Alison Green and yours truly) makes the case for a biographical cover letter. Above all, the cover letter should communicate everything you want them (your potential employer) to know about you that you don't mention in your resume. It should tell a story about how an awesome person developed all these cool skills and now wants to dedicate themselves heart and soul to X company.

But this skill is definitely not limited to the cover letter.

Sure, developing your writing skills is always good. Being a strong and mistake free writer and communicator (a goal sadly just beyond the horizon for the vast majority of us) will help you in pretty much everything you ever do ever. It will aid you in getting a job. It will help when placing your order at McDonald's. But it will also help you get an apartment.

I live in (or around) Washington, DC. and am looking for a place in the city. The area that I'm looking at is hyper competitive, despite high rent. And yet, I've had a pretty decent response rate (and have had two places offered to me).

When a person posts an apartment on Craigslist, they're looking for three things in a future tenant:

1. The ability to pay rent on time and in full.
2. The ability to not be noisy or annoying.
3. The ability to not be weird or crazy.

Really, other than the first one, those are the first things that an interviewer will pick up on in a job interview. But they won't know that you're not crazy because you say "Additionally, I'm not at all crazy." Quite to the contrary... people are often suspicious when you just bring something like that up.

The ability to communicate that you are a serious (yet fun), honest, stable, intelligent, awesome and not crazy person without saying directly that you are those things is crucial in both the cover letter and that initial email to a prospective landlord. There are many ways to do that, but pretty much all of them involve simply being a good and practiced writer. Some tips for the job and/or apartment search:

1. Know your audience and tone. It might suprise you, but I think the audience for the apartment search and the job search are mostly the same. Your tone should be professional but not stilted. Use colloquialisms. Don't use the word "ain't." Write like you would talk, were you in an interview (or chatting in the kitchen you hope to be yours). That is to say, I would never balk at using the word "awesome" in pretty much any situation, as long as the topic were actually pretty awesome. So I have no problem using it in a cover letter, in an interview, or in a eulogy (I haven't done this, but I'm sure I will). The more authentic your writing is to your personality, the more that personality will shine through.

2. Be specific. Sure, you have attention to detail. But nobody will believe you if you just come right out and say it. Give an example of your incredible attention to detail and how it saved the day. Don't say you're a good neighbor, give an example of the old lady who used to share a wall with you and how she said she'd never heard any noise from you, ever, even when you had friends over. Demonstrating your good traits is how they know that you're not a liar, or crazy.

3. Be honest. Nobody is the perfect candidate for a position. There is something about you that is less than ideal. Come right out with it. And don't give a shit answer like "Sometimes, I work too hard." Even if it's true, be honest about it: "In the past, I've actually missed deadlines because I can be a perfectionist, and I wanted it to be absolutely perfect before I turned it in. So I may need guidance about how important or flexible a given deadline is." You see that? Now they know an actual flaw that you have, and they also know that you're aware of it and will be willing to worth with them to resolve the issue. Same with a rental. If you don't get paid until the 3rd of the month, bring that up and make sure that you can pay rent by the 5th and still be fine. My biggest flaw (in terms of the housing market) is that I'm a hermit crab. In an area where group houses are common, there are plenty of people who want a fun, social roommate, and it's better to know in advance if your personalities won't mesh, or if they really want someone who will just stay in their room most of the time.

Once I really started putting more thought and effort into the emails I wrote to prospective landlords, I noticed a distinct uptick in the number of responses I've gotten. I've also had several places that I was planning to look at but didn't because I was honest about my needs and circumstances, and we were able to go our separate ways before anyone wasted their time.

Personality goes a long way, and the ability to express that personality in written and verbal forms will help you in all walks of life. Has anyone else had an experience where they got something they wanted because they were willing to open up, or because they applied job hunt tools to other aspects of their lives?


  1. Awesome. I'm about to apply for an internship and was questioning if I should write a cover letter or not (they didn't ask for one, but they didn't say not to!), and this has inspired me to do so. Thanks!

  2. Thanks for the backup on using the word "awesome" in this context. I let one slip in an interview with some very serious, straight laced looking people. Turned out my interviewers were actually a pretty laid back, fun group, my "awesome" came across as enthusiasm (which it was, I think what I do is exciting), and I got the job. And that was only one of several things I thought I had done to blow that interview. I really like my job, but I'm still a little confused as to how I pulled that one off. Good luck on the house hunt!

  3. Sarah: ALWAYS do a cover letter. It is by far the best way to distinguish yourself in a crowded room! Good luck on the internship!

  4. Wonderful treatment of the just, yes Cover Letters not just for jobs..agree with you!