When I was a couple years into my career and trying to leave my first job out of college (starting salary: $28,000), I sent around many truly horrendous cover letters. Recently, I discovered one languishing at the bottom of my “sent” folder, where it very much belongs. When I clicked the attachment, I was greeted with a hefty 482-word missive that now makes me shudder, and the hiring manager who never called me in for an interview probably had the same response.
To be fair to my 24-year-old self, the cover letters that most recent grads write are often doomed to terribleness. If mine is any proof, spinning your paltry work experience into a halfway compelling narrative about your competence is actually pretty hard. So I asked a few career experts to give my sad cover letter a retroactive makeover, to see if there were any lessons to be learned in the process.
I thought I could spot my cover letter’s main failings–it’s overly long, way too formal, and pretentious as all hell (don’t worry, you’ll see it in full in a moment)–but Dana Leavy-Detrick, chief creative scribe at Brooklyn Resume Studio, and Katy Martin, career developer at Dev Bootcamp Chicago, uncovered quite a few more issues.
“The document ultimately struck me as verbose and methodical,” says Martin. Leavy-Detrick agreed. After all those words, she said, she still had “a difficult time picturing who this candidate is, and seeing a unique profile that really grabs my attention.” In other words, I had no personality.
“Cover letters are intended to show you off and really captivate the reader,” Martin adds. “I know one candidate who got a job offer because the cover letter was a playwright-style script of the candidate and an interviewer talking.” I worry something like that might’ve come off as hokey had I tried it, but point taken. (Incidentally, I once rewrote my brother’s resume for him in Chaucerian verse, but that’s another story.) “Be quirky and professional at the same time,” she advises.
Leavy-Detrick suggests that every job applicant embrace an element of storytelling. “The best ones create a unique and compelling narrative around the candidate, and their personal brand shines through.” You can do that no matter what level of experience you have, she says. “Companies don’t just hire on requirements and qualifications–they also make hiring decisions based on culture fit and potential, and neither of those comes through in this letter.”
Both experts also said my cover letter lacks confidence and impact; it starts flat and ends weak. Martin suggests leaving out salary expectations, which I mention toward the bottom, since it risks selling yourself short–you want them to finish thinking about your value, not what you’ll cost. I suspect I only included it because I was asked to, but I could have ignored that instruction.
Leavy-Detrick thinks the bigger problem is where I basically invite them to negotiate me down (I recall worrying I’d price myself out–by asking for a whopping $37,000) before even meeting me. And my call to action is simply for the hiring manager to “feel free to contact me,” as opposed to a more self-assured request for an actual interview.
So how would I have corrected these faults? I asked Leavy-Detrick and Martin to take a merciless red pen to my cover letter, and they graciously obliged. I’ve combined their most insightful edits into a copy here:
For starters, both experts suggest a more powerful intro. “The opening line does not capture my attention,” says Leavy-Detrick, “and it’s also vague.” Martin concurs: “Try to stay away from stating the obvious, such as ‘I am writing to express my interest in a position as a production editor . . .’”
Instead, says Leavy-Detrick, it’s better to open “with an immediate, high-level overview of your expertise and what you bring to the table. If you don’t pique their interest and qualify yourself right away, you may lose your reader.” She points out that there’s the glimmer of a narrative at the start of the second paragraph, which could be spun into a concrete story about why I’m interested in this position at this moment and the perfect person to fill it.
Then there’s the fact that my cover letter summarizes my resume–a common fault. “As you describe your valuable work experience,” Martin suggests, “highlight a specific thing that happened” instead of “just describing your responsibilities or accomplishments. If I know you’ve been in the trenches of this particular problem or worked through this particular incident, it’s much more believable that you’re experienced.”
That would also take fewer words. “The letter is very heavy on text, which makes it difficult to scan,” says Leavy-Detrick. “One solution would be to call out some of your key points as bullets–highlighting the qualities, accomplishments, or skill sets most relevant to the role.” Here are three she distilled from my original letter:
- Several years of editorial experience that includes work on both academic and professional titles.
- Ability to produce results and meet deadlines within a fast-paced production department.
- Proven ability to manage a high volume of project priorities and coordinate deliverables among authors, vendors, and internal editorial and marketing teams.
Clear, simple, easy to eyeball.
Martin just recommends a zippier, more narrative approach overall. Here’s how she’d suggest rewriting it from top to bottom:
New American Library | Richard Bellis, Production Editor Candidate
[email address] • [phone number]
Dear Claire Zion [VP, editor-in-chief of Berkley/NAL],
New American Library has been top of mind for me from the moment I picked up a copy of [title of a book published by the imprint that you’re familiar with]. My appreciation of production editors has grown upon learning about New American Library’s commitment to producing high quality, uniform books while preserving each book’s unique features and challenges. It is a precarious balance to manage, as I learned in my prior production associate role.
The publishing industry is rapidly changing, with the evolution of e-books and other online learning content. You are likely seeking a production editor who can manage multiple projects at once, adapt quickly, and work within a variety of programs and data systems. While working at Palgrave, there were two-week periods in which I was managing 20 authors, multiple deadlines, and many schedules in order to produce 10 books.
My love for the editorial business and a lot of coffee kept my momentum strong through these periods of time. I am eager to bring my insight and my eye for detail to New American Library as a production editor. I have vivid memories of working on a project where I wrote about the history of bathtub creation during my time at Vassar College. I was forced to thoroughly research disciplines far outside of my comfort zone and problem-solve in order to deliver high-quality writing.
[Name of referral] at The Penguin Press has shared more insight with me about how NAL deeply cares about its team. I’m really excited about the potential of joining the New American Library production-editorial team. Please let me know how I can further illustrate my candidacy for the production editor role. You are welcome to contact me by phone at [_________].
All the best to your success,
Not bad, right? I might even have interviewed me.