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How not to write a cover letter

February 11th, 2012
Job Wanted

I’ve been unemployed for too long. As a result of this, I’ve written more cover letters than I ever wanted to have had to write. Now-a-days I rarely write a completely new cover letter, generally I look through the directory of cover letters I’ve written recently and I modify and personalize one which seems similar enough to serve as a basis for a fresh job application. I use version numbering and color coding to track which cover letters resulted in interviews. Certain phrases and sentences get reused as they have proven effective. Writing a cover letter isn’t a science but there are best practices and there is no shortage of advice online for job seekers.

I try to remember what  I was taught at UVIC about how to write cover letter, as part of the Computer Science Co-op program. I’ve read too many online articles giving advice to job seekers, yet I continue to read them. I’ve even collected the best into a single blog post. Experts don’t agree, conflicting advice abounds. I’ve worked hard to improve my writing and to demonstrate I have skills and competencies. I’ve volunteered, I’ve blogged, I’ve tweeted, I’ve studied, I’ve built mashups and WordPress plugins. I’ve tried  to implement a lot of ‘expert advice’.

Here is some older advice and an example from Guy Kawasaki on how he’d apply to a position at Yahoo.

Today two more interesting stories flew by on Twitter. One is an exampled of how not to write a cover letter, the other is yet more advice to job seekers, particularly those that may be overqualified for the position which they are applying.

Laughably Bad Example

A NYU student identified as “Mark” sent a cover letter to J.P. Morgan which then was forwarded on to half of Wall Street. As someone who has done an MBA, this doesn’t surprise me. Some of my classmates sent questionable even dubious emails and applications to major firms which if not as bad as Mark’s were sufficiently damaging that formal announcements were made to the entire class by the Business Career Center condemning this type of mass unsolicited application. Other students in the program also got very upset as it discourages recruiters from considering others from the same program.

I spent a lot of time during my MBA helping my classmates, particularly those for whom English was a second language. Even while I was in China I was regularly sent cover letters and resumes by classmates back in Vancouver. I also was asked to edit a lot of applications by Tsinghua undergrads, staff, even spouses of staff, applying for jobs and overseas graduate schools.

In all my time applying for jobs and helping others, I never used the word “rightest“. I never saw anyone brag about how much they can bench press nor claim “I am not a braggart or conceited“. That sentence would be better, “I’m neither a braggart nor conceited.”  There are obviously a lot of things wrong with Mark’s cover letter, worse than not knowing when to use “neither” and “nor”, Mark realizes this now. He also realizes that even in a city as big as New York, people are tightly interconnected. News can spread at the speed of thought and there are real dangers to electronic communication.

Now just like Angie Varona, Mark was made even more infamous by Gawker Media.

Overqualified?

Like Mark I majored in Computer Science. I’ve also studied Economics and Mathematics. I even got pretty good grades, good enough get into grad school, where I managed an A- average. I completed my MBA degree abroad at the Tsinghua School of Economics and Management which is the hardest school to get into in China. But I’m not as competitive or as boastful as Mark or other people like him in business school or investment banking who seem drawn to it out of greed. I’m similar to Socrates, I’m well aware of how much I don’t know. I’ve made mistakes. I’ve also sent emails I shouldn’t have. I’ve apologized and tried to make amends but some things can not be easily overcome and some people just don’t care or aren’t interested in forgiveness or maintaining a positive relationship.

Do as I say, not as I do. Learn from the mistakes of others. It is much less painful than making the same mistakes yourself.

Like Mark and almost 8.5% of North America I’m currently unemployed. I look at many, many job postings on a daily basis. I’m selective but I also apply to positions for which I may be overqualified in some way, because I want to work. Today I applied to one particular job which was posted on Twitter. A few hours later I got a reply from one of the founders of the company, saying that they would talk to their office manager to arrange a time to discuss the opportunity next week.

Usually it doesn’t work like that. Usually you have to navigate a complicated corporate job site, which may not even let you write a cover letter, then if you’re lucky you might hear back from the firm in the form of generic rejection email. Usually you hear nothing, but you just have to get up the next morning and look for another job for which you may be “a good fit” even if you are perhaps a bit overqualified.

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