When it comes to writing cover letters, many people find themselves at a loss, wondering, "How can I write something that will stand out from the crowd?" Funny enough, it’s not flowery language or an elaborate life story that’s going to set you apart. The most effective cover letter is one that the hiring manager reads and understands with ease. All you have to explain is: Why does it make sense for them to hire you? Here’s a simple structure you can use to get this information across in a clear and concise way:
1. Greeting. “Dear Hiring Manager,” is a safe bet for opening your cover letter, but can you do better? Conduct some research to learn who might actually be reading this letter and try to address it to that person directly for a more personal touch.
2. Intention. The first paragraph of your cover letter should address your intention in applying for this job. Consider the following questions:
3. Qualifications. You’ve probably heard someone say that cover letters are about what you can do for the company, not the other way around. While it’s important to express enthusiasm for the role when you state your intention, you also have to convince the hiring manager that you have the right skills for the role. Take a look at the job posting, and try to figure out what skills the hiring manager values most (hint: they’re usually listed near the top). Then look back through your own experience and explain specific responsibilities and achievements from previous roles that demonstrate those skills. Be selective -- you don’t need to write a novel here. Two or three sentences will do.
4. Wrap up. End your letter by summarizing one or two key points that show how you will be an asset to the team. Indicate that you’ve attached your resume and are interested in discussing further. And sign off with “Sincerely,” or another professional close.
And that’s it! No need to regale us with tales about your childhood dreams or four pages detailing your entire work history. By following this simple structure, you’ll be able to create a persuasive argument that will give the hiring manager the exact information they need to understand your resume, no more, no less
-- Angela Silak & Cindy Kaplan
One of the most important parts of the job application process is understanding how to read a job posting. It seems simple enough on the surface, but job postings can be tricky! Some job seekers misread the posting and end up highlighting all the wrong skills in their resumes and cover letters -- which means they don't get called in for an interview. Others get so intimidated by all the "requirements" that they never bother to apply. This really boils down to a misunderstanding of what qualifications are most important in a posting -- how can you read between the lines to figure out what a hiring manager really wants? Here are six steps for breaking it down:
1. Read beyond the title. Many jobs will use similar titles for totally different jobs -- producer, for instance, can mean just about anything! Read closely to make sure the description sounds like something you'd be interested in doing, in a department that makes sense for your career trajectory.
2. Assess the general responsibilities and requirements. Without digging into the nitty gritty of specific skills, do you understand the job on a macro level? Can you picture the day-to-day of the role? Could you explain the basic functions of the job and why you're interested in applying to your best friend? If there are a bunch of acronyms you don't understand or you can't envision how the department fits into the company's business model, that could be a red flag that it's not right for you. But if it mostly makes sense, read on.
3. Analyze the qualifications. You don't need to meet every single one of the qualifications listed to apply -- most of the time, companies will list more than are actually necessary in order to weed out super unqualified candidates. However, you should be able to meet around half of them (more if they only list 3-5, less if they list 10+). Some requirements will matter more than others -- generally, the most important ones will be listed near the top of the posting, so make sure those skills are covered in your resume and cover letter. Specific technical skills and software proficiency are more important for some jobs than others (i.e. you'll 100% need to know Avid for an editing job that requires Avid proficiency, but for a creative director job, Avid might be more of a "nice-to-have"). Look at the job posting to see what skills and keywords come up most often, as those are the most critical to the job.
4. Consider the seniority level. Contrary to popular belief, the number of years of experience is actually the least important qualification in a job posting. If you have four years of experience and the posting calls for 5-7, apply! You may have done enough in your four years to merit the job. The listing of years of experience is meant to indicate the level of the position -- entry-level, low-level, mid-level, senior, or executive -- so think about your own experience in those terms instead of in dates. If you have 10 years of experience and apply for a job that only asks for four, be aware that the salary might be lower than you'd like it to be. If you're applying for something that requires far fewer years of experience than you have, you'll need to decide if you would feel challenged enough in that role.
5. Measure your interest. You may understand the job and be capable of doing it, but do you want to? There are often clues to the true nature of the position in the job posting. "Thick-skinned," for instance, is code for "The boss is a jerk who will yell at you." A job posting that lists a ton of different responsibilities -- like a posting for a marketing associate who is responsible for monitoring the front desk, ordering office supplies, planning events, submitting payroll, writing a blog, monitoring social media accounts, designing flyers, creating pitch decks, sourcing new clients, and "other tasks as needed" -- is likely the company's way of rolling multiple jobs into one for the same low pay and long hours. Even if the posting doesn't include these red flags, consider the responsibilities alongside your own preferred work tasks. If you hated making data-driven decisions at your last job, you probably don't want to spend a significant chunk of time making data-driven decisions at your next job, even if you're good at it.
6. Prove you read the posting. You'll need to communicate to the hiring manager that you read the posting with this level of intensity. The way to do this is to mirror the posting in your resume. Read the job posting and your resume as a call and response -- add the question "Can you" to the beginning of each listed responsibility and write your resume bullets as though the words, "Yes, I can, and the proof is that at my last job, I..." appear before each one. This will show the hiring manager that you didn't just shoot off your resume to hundreds of job postings hoping one stuck, but rather that you're invested in this specific role.
Remember: Applying for a job is not a commitment that you'll take it if it's offered, so you don't need to get caught up in analyzing the posting endlessly to make sure it's truly the perfect dream job. If the posting is vague, or the interviewer presents a different picture of the job than the one you understood from the posting, or the company gives you a weird vibe during the hiring process, or you get a better offer elsewhere, it's okay to walk away! Take it one step at a time: Read the job posting thoroughly, submit your best application, and take it from there!
-- Angela Silak & Cindy Kaplan
You may have moved to Hollywood with a very specific goal in mind – you wanted to be a screenwriter for half-hour comedies, a development executive at a premium cable network, or a high-powered agent. And setting a goal like that is a big deal, something that you’ve probably put a lot of pressure on yourself to achieve. If you’re able to achieve that goal and are totally happy in your career, great! But for many, that’s not the case. If your career isn’t going the way you’d planned, have you failed?
Sometimes you start down a path, and on the way, you discover something else that you’re really passionate about. But you haven’t reached your initial goal yet – do you give up? What if you’ve reached the goal and aren’t happy in your job – has all the time you’ve put into your current career been a waste? The decision of what to do next is entirely up to you, but don’t get down on yourself or feel like a failure because your career trajectory isn’t going as expected. Think about everything you’ve learned along the way and the people you’ve met. There are probably quite a few specific things you can identify that have had a profound impact on your life, and none of them would have happened if you hadn’t gone on this journey. And through this learning experience, you’ve also learned what you like and don’t like, and that can help you determine the next best step. Maybe you stick it out, make a few changes, and things will get better on your current path. Or maybe you pivot and find an entirely new job, maybe even in a new industry – that’s perfectly fine!
The most important thing to remember is that careers evolve. It’s rare to see someone advance on a linear trajectory that was technically “perfect” – there was likely an unpleasant job or departure from industry norms along the way, and it’s all a learning experience. Industries evolve as well – there are new types of roles popping up all the time, so something that didn’t even exist when you set your original goal could now be a possibility, which is exciting! Embrace it. If your career evolves away from your original goal, you’re not a failure. You’re a human with diverse interests and a range of capabilities, and that’s something to celebrate!
-- Angela Silak & Cindy Kaplan
"ASK HR" is our advice column where we answer readers' questions about pressing work dilemmas, job search queries, resumes, and navigating Hollywood. If you have a career-related question, email us, and the answer could appear in a future newsletter! All submissions will remain anonymous.
Dear Hollywood Resumes,
I work at a small company where each person is basically their own department. My title is "director," but I don't have any direct reports, and I worry it may be misleading as I apply for jobs at larger corporations. My role is probably more aligned with "senior manager" at those firms, but I'm concerned that if I apply for those roles, hiring managers may think I'm taking a step backward. But I'm not sure I'm qualified for the director-level jobs! Should I amend my title on my resume to say "senior manager" or something more vague, like "consultant?" My actual title is publicized on company materials, so the discrepancy would come up if a potential employer searched for me. I feel so confused!
-- What's in a Name?
Dear What's in a Name,
Oh, the realities of working at a small company! You often find yourself collaborating with people outside your department in a bigger way than you would at a corporate level, you own more projects than would be assigned to you at a larger company, and yet, you don't have any of the org chart familiarity or team management experience your corporate counterparts can claim. We bet your boss just made up your title at some point or another -- small companies often don't have an HR infrastructure that funnels people up the ladder in a specific way.
The thing is, corporate hiring managers know that small companies operate differently and may not have the same title structures. Instead of changing your title, make sure they have context about your company and role in your resume. You definitely don't want to have one title on your resume and another all over Google -- that'll confuse the hiring manager and make it seem like you have something to hide. Instead, use the first bullet under your job heading to paint the picture of your office -- something like "boutique production company" or "start-up" will clue the hiring manager into what your role actually means. And sure, you may not have direct reports or management experience, but you do have a large role if you're handling the responsibilities of an entire department solo! Don't sell yourself short: Being at a small company means you know how to manage every touchpoint of a project, you're used to working with a cross-functional team, and you're directly involved in multiple areas of the business. That may be a value-add to the corporate team you're looking to join.
Every now and then, we recommend changing the title on a resume to something more generic that better describes the role (this usually happens when someone has a title that's very company-specific and could confuse a recruiter). But in your case, you should keep the director title! Regardless of whether a job posting is calling for a senior manager, a director, or some other title entirely, remember that hiring managers are more interested in what you accomplished in your last role than what was written on your business card.
-- Angela & Cindy