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Shotgun Cover Letter

A: Applying for jobs sucks. What you may not realize is that hiring sucks, too.

Sorting through job applications is a soul-killing prospect. Sturgeon’s Law is too optimistic to describe the experience. Easily 99% of job applications are tedious, overstuffed, boring messes.

It’s like panning goat shit for gold. There’s the promise of reward, and a little bit of novelty — hey, look, goat shit! — but pretty soon the proportion of gold to shit gets tiresome. It doesn’t take long to start worrying more about getting to the end of the pile than really inspecting it closely. Any application that doesn’t immediately glimmer, well… it just looks like more goat shit to me.

This is the sad, dehumanizing reality of job hunting. Applicants don’t get a ton of attention each, and even brilliant people get overlooked when they undersell themselves.

That’s why a strong cover letter is the most important part of your application. I only look at the portfolio if the cover letter tells me it’s worth my time. And you may not want to hear this, but the first time I look at your résumé will be fifteen minutes before your interview.

Everything rides on the quality of your cover letter.

Luckily for you, the aforementioned pile of goat shit drags down the curve significantly. Writing a cover letter that gets you noticed only takes a few considerations.

Don’t call me “Hiring Manager”

When you address your cover letter to “Hiring Manager” or “HR Department”, it tells me that you’re using the same cover letter verbatim in multiple applications. This is called “shotgun job-hunting”, and it’s annoying as hell. It tells me that you don’t particularly care where you work, and you don’t have any consideration for the person who has to read your shitty application.

You might be surprised how easy it is to find out who’s in charge of hiring for a position. Ask somebody at the company over email, or Twitter, even. If that doesn’t pan out, address your letter to the company or the specific department you’re applying to. I happily field plenty of email that starts with “Dear Mule”; I’ll answer to a lot of names, just so long as I can tell that you meant to write to us.

Speak to the job description

Not all job descriptions are as good as Mule’s, but they’re always a valuable resource when you’re applying for a job. The description is peek at the rubric by which applicants are judged. When I read your cover letter, I’m comparing you to the notional person we had in mind when we wrote the description.

We’ve laid out what the right person for the job looks like; now tell me why you’re that person. You have one key advantage over the fictional person dreamt up in the job description — you’re real. Prove it with concrete examples.

Show me that you’re a human

Something about a business environment really screws with some peoples’ writing. All their contractions fall out, they pad their sentences with buzzwords, and they start saying the word “utilize”. Protip: it doesn’t mean what you think it means.

Another common mistake I see is turning the cover letter into a list of qualifications. That’s what your (as-yet unread) résumé is for. What I’d rather see is a brief description of what you do and why you’re special. Remember that this is only the first step of a process. You can show off your credentials later down the line.

There are ways to sound confident and competent without also sounding like a robot. Aim for a tone that conveys formality without being stilted. When in doubt, consult with the best book on writing ever written.

Nobody hires for fun. They hire because they need someone bad enough that they’re willing to shovel through goat shit to find them. Believe me: I want you to succeed.

Finding a good cover letter is a moment of joy for me. It portends an end to suffering, sure. But it’s also — I hope — the first tiny kernel of a long and productive working relationship.

Keep that in mind when you apply for jobs. You are signaling your wish to spend countless hours of your life on a company, with the people at that company. You are writing a letter to your future beloved coworkers. They want to find you as much as you want to find them. Don’t make them look too hard. 💩

(MoneyWatch) Looking for a job? I may be able help. Having hired a few folks recently, I've noticed a trend in the job applications I've reviewed.

We're talking about cover letters. You know -- the document that makes your very first impression with HR and the hiring manager. I personally glean a lot from the cover letter, and have pulled together some cover letter-related tips for anyone on the job hunt.

Pictures: Body language -- 23 must-know moves

1.Be sure to include one. Many people seem to think that since cover letters are optional, it's okay to omit them. I've even seen some trendy new job-hunting advice recommending that cover letters have fallen out of style, and so you should only submit a resume. No! The cover letter is your opportunity to own the narrative, to tell the hiring manager why you're a great fit for the job and passionate about getting an opportunity to prove yourself. If you don't include a cover letter, the hiring manager needs to scan the resume -- which takes time -- to try to figure out if you have the right skills and experience for the position. That also requires parsing language that might be specific to your last company or industry and translates poorly to the local dialect of the company you're applying to. Bottom line: If you don't take the time to send me (the hiring manager) a cover letter, your resume almost certainly goes directly into the recycling bin.

2.Don't be arrogant. Your cover letter tells me things about your personality that aren't apparent in the resume. Regardless of how skilled or talented you are, I'm going to have to work with you every day after I hire you. It's important that I feel that I can get along with you. Indeed, many companies ensure that peers get a say in hiring decisions to ensure they feel good about the candidate as well. So don't lead your cover letter (as I have recently seen) with arrogant boasts or bulleted quotes from former employers, as if you were listing features on a product sell-sheet. Don't make silly claims like, "I will get a perfect score on any evaluation you give to me." Just be yourself -- unless "you" really is that arrogant guy, in which case you should tone it way down.

3.Don't shotgun applications to every job regardless of your qualifications. This should be common sense, yet I frequently see submissions from people with absolutely no experience whatsoever applying for fairly senior publishing jobs. For instance, someone recently applied for a role as a senior writer at my company and cited experience as a salesclerk and call-center operator in the cover letter. I know there's no real downside to this strategy, in the sense that the worst thing that can happen is that you don't get the job, but remember that it takes time to send these pointless applications. Focus on roles you understand and are qualified for, and be sure to customize your cover letter accordingly. If I'm hiring a writer, your cover letter shouldn't tell me about your experience inventorying ice cream sandwiches.

4.Double check your grammar. Don't rush through your cover letter. Check it for grammar and spelling. Yes, those things matter -- a lot. Likewise, avoid exclamation points. I know not everyone is as sensitive to this as I am, but if I see an exclamation point in a cover letter ("I am very eager to get this job!"), I automatically put the candidate on probation. If I encounter two or more exclamation points in a single cover letter, the individual is highly unlikely to progress to an interview.

5.Double check the job you're applying for. There's absolutely nothing wrong with applying for multiple jobs at once -- even multiple jobs at the same company. But if you do, read your cover letter very carefully and make sure you revise the details so it accurately reflects the role you're applying for. Recently, I've gotten several cover letters that were written for the wrong position. The candidates simply applied for a different job first and forgot to update the cover letter when they sent it to me. Granted, even that's not as bad as attaching a photo of Nicholas Cage.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user marshillonline

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