Everyone knows you need to submit a great cover letter with your job application.* But you might not know that that great cover letter doesn’t have to be written in “business block” form. You don’t even have to use Microsoft’s “Clippy.”
A nontraditional cover letter can take the form of a list of quotes, a table or chart or an infographic. It doesn’t even have to be a letter at all, if it succeeds in getting a hiring manager’s attention.
Here are five examples of nontraditional cover letters (and some non-letters) that landed people interviews:
1. The chart
Try listing the job ad’s requirements on the left and matching them to your qualifications on the right, like in this example, which landed a recent grad a position at a major metropolitan newspaper.
You don’t have to crack jokes (here’s an example of a more formal approach), but you do have to actually make an effort to read the job ad and think about how your qualifications make you a match.
Hiring managers say they like this format because it saves them time. If you’ve done the work for them of showing how your skills make you a fit, you’ve saved them from having to puzzle it out.
2. “Getting to Know Charlie”
Charlie Drozdyk, author of Jobs That Don’t Suck, wrote a cover letter called “Getting to Know Charlie” where, instead of talking about his work experience, he quoted friends and family members saying somewhat bizarre things about his personality. (He even quoted his first girlfriend as saying “He’s cute, but I can’t imagine dating him.”)
Since Drozdyk was applying for entry-level copywriting jobs, where good writing and a sense of humor are important, he managed to get four interviews with this letter.
3. E-stalking your target
In some industries (like advertising), people Google themselves all the time. So Alec Brownstein decided to turn that to his advantage and buy ads that would display next to the names of creative directors at top New York ad agencies.
For a total outlay of $6 (ads for such unpopular keywords are cheap!), Brownstein got a job.
4. Eating the company’s dog food
In business, “eating your own dog food” refers to a company that makes its employees use its own products (you know Apple employees can’t get away with using Android phones).
In your job search, eating your dream company’s dog food can make you a killer candidate. Hanna Phan decided she wanted to work for SlideRocket, a company that makes presentation software (like Powerpoint). Instead of submitting a traditional application, she made her cover letter into a presentation using SlideRocket’s software. She tweeted it to the CEO, and she heard from him an hour later.
5. Faking the company’s dog food
Chipotle doesn’t make a product you can use in your job search (well, unless you get hungry). But Bianca Cadloni wanted to work there. She built a website called “Will Work For Guacamole” that mimicked the look of a Chipotle napkin. The spot-on visual branding, combined with an aggressive Twitter campaign, got her noticed.
While she didn’t land the job with Chipotle, she was offered a marketing internship at a different agency, which ultimately turned into a paying job. (“Thank you for not hiring me, Chipotle,” she wrote.)
Ultimately, whether you decide to use social media as your cover letter, write a nontraditional letter or try any other gimmick is a judgment call. A startup might be more receptive to getting funny objects in the mail or seeing you show up at their office in a gorilla costume; an established magazine might prefer a more traditional approach. So long as you do your research into the company, you’ll be equipped to take the right risks.
And remember: while it seems like these nontraditional cover letters are everywhere, that’s just because nobody ever writes a news story about how a simple, well-written letter scored someone a job.
What are your favorite nontraditional cover letters?
*Yes, yes, the debate still rages. It’s kind of like the global warming “debate” at this point, though. Just write one.
Rachel Kaufman is the author of Cover Letters for Creative People, an ebook about nailing the perfect cover letter in your job search. Get your own copy here.
Dear Sir or Madam,
OK, let’s start there. In this day and age, with baby boomers entering retirement, OMGs, LOLs, friending, liking and tweeting, there just aren’t that many Sirs or Madams left. Plus, it’s a pretty big indicator that I’m just part of a form process, cut and paste rote as you go through the labor of looking for your next job. You took the time to write a cover letter, which is a plus, and you’re organized, which is a definite plus, but you just don’t care that much about me. That’s a turn-off.
We’re currently on the search for our next great art director. We’ve had a great response, and I empathize with the highs and lows of a job search. There is no question — it’s a tough market out there. So it’s doubly frustrating to see the applications that don’t stand out as it’s amazing to see the ones that do. That frustration led to this tweet,
and this open letter.
This is so obvious that a few weeks ago, I wouldn’t have mentioned it. But the evidence in my mailbox tells me otherwise. For a job in a relatively small firm based just outside Manhattan, posted on Linked in and Behance, I got 300+ applications in a little over 3 days. That’s a lot of applications to plow through. That means late hours for me. That means I’m grumpy. So the applications that are creative stand out. It’s subjective — but the winner in this category was from a robot.
R Owen sent a detailed application together with a link to his fabulous portfolio. Unfortunately, this robot is based in Atlanta, which is too much of a commute.
The creativity needn’t just be in the application or portfolio, it can be in the way you apply. The Google Adwords application of Alec Brownstein is a way to go. He rented this space, “Hey, [creative director’s name]: Goooogling [sic] yourself is a lot of fun. Hiring me is fun, too” and landed a job at Y&R, all for 6 bucks.
So before you apply, think, how do I make a grumpy person smile?
Put your Portfolio on Show
A creative person is judged by their work. Their body of work is their best asset. “My eyes are up here” won’t stop people looking for and looking at that asset. So you have to put it on show. Behance and Coreflot are great places to do this. At a minimum, your work should be featured in one of those two places. A great personal website, like TEMAN EVANS oeuvre complète is a must as well. You don’t have to know code to get this done.
At the time of writing, Linked In does a very poor job of featuring a portfolio. So if you are applying through Linked In, my advice is to feature your offline portfolio, and highlight the link to it as much as you can. In the cover letter and in your resume. Think about putting it in your Linked In headline, and in your summary. Make it stand out. Don’t make me look for it, it just makes me grumpier.
It’s a social world out there. Even if it’s not directly part of the job requirements, most creative positions going today will do something with social media. Having a solid linked in profile, robust online portfolio, and being socially connected and recommended can put points on the board for you in a screening process. Recommendations from recognized companies? Bonus points. Have your own Tumblr, blog or twitter following? Double bonus points. Created a video or two that’s gone viral? Triple bonus points. Just one word of advice, don’t post anything online that screams don’t hire me. Chances are they won’t be found, but drunken party photos and extreme political rants might be embarrassing to explain at the first interview, if you get that far.
We’re hiring for chemistry. Not the test-tube kind, but the “will you fit in around here” kind. The “will you make the place better just by being here” kind. It’s fuzzy and difficult to do. It’s also a two way street. As a new employee, you want to fit in and add value too, so finding a place that suits you is as important as finding a place that pays you. Letting your personality shine through should happen in the interview(s) but can start in the application process. It could be a line or two in your cover letter. In our case, we posted an ad with the headline, “How many Art Directors does it take to change a light bulb?” Obviously designed to attract attention (which it did) but also an invitation for applicants to play with. The majority of ones that replied showed a little of their personality, willingness to take a risk, or put a smile on a grumpy screeners face.
Sweat the details
Nothing will undo your good work quicker than the details. Typos. We’re hiring a visual person, someone whose forte is pictures not words. But I’d like to think that you can use spillcheck. Also,pay close attention to people’s names, it’s highly likely that they know how to spell it correctly. You want to get in touch with Mary, not Marry her. ‘Nuff said.
Everything is a remix
According to Kirby Ferguson, and I agree with him.
Starry Night + Serenity by Twenty27 Design
Creative work is often inspired by something else. That’s no bad thing, it’s why memes take off, styles are born and how the web grew so fast. But there is a fine line. Showcasing work in a range of styles is a plus, because it shows your versatility. We’re always interested in people with great PowerPoint skills, useful in the corporate world but rare in a designer. So an animated stick figure jumping out of a plane and making James Bond and ninja style moves — all rendered in PowerPoint, was very exciting to see. Only problem, we’d seen it before. When we saw it again in an interview passed off as their own work, it was, to put it mildly, a little embarrassing. Needless to say she didn’t get the job.
Bonus advice to companies hiring talent – Be Creative
Scanning Glassdoor or LinkedIn for other creative positions, the standard job ad reads a little like a “help wanted.” By swapping out the odd word and qualification you could as easily be hiring an engineer or an accountant. If you’re formal and normal in the ad — you will get you formal and normal in the interview. Spend time with your recruitment ads, they’re a great place to show off your culture and extend your brand, as well as find the right person. That’s what Goodby Silverstein & Partners did when they put out an ad for the greatest job in advertising. Working as an assistant for Rich Silverstein.
* This is not scientific, peer-reviewed or even expert advice. It’s just my opinion.
Gavin is a founding partner at fassforward consulting group. He blogs about PowerPoint, Presenting, Communication and Message Discipline at makeapowerfulpoint.com. You can follow him on twitter @powerfulpoint.
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