Let’s talk about the purpose of a cover letter. It’s to a) explain your intentions in applying for a certain position and b) concisely summarize the skills and experience that make you qualified for the role. But we sometimes see cover letters that have extra sentences like, “In an ever-changing media landscape, it’s important to create properties that can be adapted into multiplatform content that is accessible on a variety of screens. Netflix’s commitment to providing high volumes of on-demand programming on multiple devices has led to the success of its premium content and has made the company an industry leader.” How do these statements fit in to our two main components of a cover letter? They don’t. Making broad generalizations like these is a huge (and very common) cover letter mistake.
There is nothing more annoying than being schooled in your own industry or company when reading a cover letter. If you take this approach, the reader will roll his eyes at your assessment of his company. You also run the risk of being wrong in one of your assertions. You might admire Netflix’s content, and by your standards, it could be a successful company. You may even have a guess as to the strategy that led to its achievements. But you don’t work there. How could you possibly know the complex decisions that were made that contributed to a company’s success or demise? You don’t even know how that company measures “success.” You might love one of its programs and think it’s doing well because all your friends talk about it, but in reality, it may be underperforming with its intended audience. If you’re making incorrect assumptions about the company in your cover letter, a hiring manager will wonder where you got your information and if you even understand what type of job you’re applying for — will you be happy at a company whose mission you’ve completely misjudged? Even if you’ve made an accurate statement, it’s basic information the hiring manager already knows — you’re just stating the obvious and wasting his time. Current employees presumably understand their company function and industry best practices, and they don’t need you to remind them.
This brings us to our next point — sweeping generalizations are a waste of space in your cover letter. The hiring manager wants to hear about YOU, not some tidbit that you could have found on Wikipedia. A cover letter is not the place to go into depth about your knowledge of an industry — save that for the interview. If there’s something specific about the company’s mission or culture that you read about on its website or heard about from a friend that works there, and you can tie it into your background, it’s fine to (briefly!) mention that in a cover letter — that's highlighting your passion and unique perspective. But stay away from more general statements. Spend those precious sentences speaking about your experience and qualifications instead.
In 2016, no one expects you to have a one-track career. Career transitions are very common and completely acceptable. However, too many job applicants submit cover letters that lack an explanation of why they're trying to make a career jump or resumes that fail to showcase relevant skills.
Consider the following example: A resume comes in that lists two years of work experience as a realtor, one in a medical office, and an internship at a record label before that. The cover letter lists some generic strengths and, actually, if the hiring manager was looking for a realtor, she’d have found her guy. Only she’s not looking for a realtor, she’s looking for a coordinator in the distribution department of a major studio. And she’s also not a mind reader. So the hiring manager has no idea that the job applicant has always been interested in entertainment but needed a more stable job after college for whatever reason. Since she's hoping to hire someone who's passionate about entertainment, she's already questioning whether she should bother to bring the candidate in for an interview. Don't let that happen to you. All it takes is one quick sentence to explain your intentions in a cover letter, so make sure your goals come across clearly.
But the cover letter isn't our candidate's only problem -- his resume bullet points don't match the qualifications listed in the job posting. The hiring manager doesn’t have the time to assess what skills a realtor might have that could benefit her company, so his resume goes straight into the trash. The realtor made the mistake of basing his bullet points on the most obvious aspects of his previous position instead of refocusing his resume to target the job he wanted. He should have thought more about the skills he mastered as a realtor that are applicable to a coordinator position. “Managed a database of properties across the Los Angeles area and generated analyses and reports to present to upper management for company development” aligns with “Manage database of theatrical exhibitors; run reports and analyze ticket sales across demographics” a whole lot better than “Sold houses.” Don't force the recruiter to read between the lines -- spell it out for her.
To recap: If you’re transitioning across sides of the industry, back into entertainment, or out of an unrelated field, explain your interests in your cover letter and make connections between your previous job responsibilities and what the posting is asking for. Your resume is a sales tool, and the recruiter is your customer. Target your messaging, and convince her that you can handle a career transition.
You’d be amazed at how many cover letters we see that look more like a college admissions essay than a professional job application.
Ever since I was a young boy, I’ve dreamed of working in film. As a child, I used to write scripts and perform them for my family in the yard…
If the opening of your cover letter sounds anything like this, you’ve got some work to do. This type of cover letter typically comes from undergrads applying for their first internship, and if they’re lucky, the hiring manager will look past it -- ”Oh, they seem smart but just didn’t know any better.” But in most cases, this cover letter will get thrown in the trash, or worse, printed out and passed around the office for all the assistants to laugh at during a stressful day.
College admissions essays and cover letters are meant to serve completely different purposes. Colleges are looking for well-rounded individuals with unique backstories who can contribute to a diverse community. Employers, on the other hand, want candidates who have targeted goals and meet specific qualifications. Furthermore, unlike college admissions departments that dedicate months to carefully identifying the perfect freshman class, hiring managers are quickly filtering through tons of resumes to fill a variety of different slots. If you’ve wasted two paragraphs with flowery language about your love of film, they’re never going to get to the relevant part of the cover letter that lists your actual skills. Instead, you should keep your cover letters concise and to the point and show that you’ll easily adapt to a busy office setting. An office isn’t the same type of nurturing environment as a university campus, so it’s time to grow up and save those college admissions essay-writing skills for when you have kids.
One of the biggest challenges in Hollywood is making the jump to scripted development from unscripted (also from production or any other non-development job). Most people trying to make this transition feel like their resumes pigeonhole them, and they’ll be stuck on the wrong track forever. But don’t get discouraged -- it’s not impossible to get into scripted development. There are two things you’ll need to do: Prove that you can do the job, and prove that you really want the job.
Proving that you can do the job comes from having the right skills listed on your resume and a strong explanation of your reason for switching tracks in your cover letter, plus getting the right points across during your interview. On your resume, list script coverage and any other type of story evaluation experience you’ve had during your internships or previous jobs. If you’ve never learned how to do script coverage, get someone to teach you, and read as many scripts as you can in your free time. In your cover letter, express your desire to switch tracks. During your interview, you’ll need to sound informed, and even if you don’t know everything about scripted development, show that you’re capable of learning quickly and are enthusiastic about the job. One way to do this is by developing a list of your favorite writers -- look up who wrote some of your favorite movies and TV shows and talk about them in the interview. You’ll also want to be familiar with the writers the company you are interviewing with has used in the past. Additionally, you’ll probably be asked to write sample coverage or provide script notes during the final rounds of your interview. Come in prepared to talk intelligently about what you liked and didn’t like in the script you were given, and if you have the opportunity to write it up, get someone more experienced to proofread the document for you. Organize your thoughts clearly and concisely, and most importantly, have an opinion.
Proving that you want the job requires networking and references. Make a list of companies that you're REALLY interested in, learn everything you can about them, and try to set up informational interviews with people who work there. LinkedIn can be a great resource. Also, tell everyone you know that you are looking for a job at that specific company (or a few specific companies), regardless of where they work in the industry. The best possible situation is for someone to recommend you with a message about how truly excited you are about that company. Make sure people are aware of your dream job.
Above all, don't let anyone tell you that you can't do the job -- that's just silly. If you really want the position and know you have the skills, go for it! It’s not always the easiest jump to make, but if you’re persistent, you’ll eventually land in the right place.