Tales of a Disgruntled Graduate: A View from the Front Lines of the Post-College Job Hunt

Writing Cover Letters: The Convergence of Art and Science

If colleges and universities really understood the process of getting a job, they would require a course on cover letters for all students during their senior year.  The course would introduce the form and techniques of writing such a piece and teach how to influence employers through clever manipulation of language and formatting.

You see, the moment you pick up a pen or poise punctiliously over your keyboard to write a cover letter marks the exact convergence of art and science; a cover letter is the graceful expression of fine-tuned training and detailed study.  (Or it would be, had you taken that course.)  You must walk the line between the two, the art and the science – but delicately, a trained acrobat of the highest caliber.

You must balance perfectly and accurately between personality and professionalism, between freshness and formality.  First, you must tread the tightrope of your skills in a way that highlights your experience but does not make you sound overqualified.  After all, no one wants to watch the world’s best compete in the beginner’s round; by the same token, you may be too skilled to file all day (even if you need the money).

Secondly, you must be modest, but you must prove yourself an asset to the team: a fire-eater, contortionist, and trapeze artist in one.  Just don’t brag about it.  And, for the final flourish of your routine, you must do all this within the traditional bounds of a cover letter, yet somehow stand out among a circus of applicants turning tricks around you.

When a cover letter is required, then, it is clearly unacceptable to toss something together in a few minutes.  It takes time, consideration, and much more skill to jump through these hoops than people realize.  But if you analyze how, exactly, each sentence will reflect your personality and abilities, you can become so engrossed in considering how you will be perceived that you begin to question everything you write.

The thing that gets me is the phrase “a great sense of humor.”  Who is the judge of that?  Everyone thinks they have a great sense of humor, but it’s not always true.  And when is it appropriate to slip in these personality traits?  Before you mention your excellent communication skills?  After you’ve shared an anecdote about your accomplishments?  The timing is as delicate a thing as sliding a flaming baton down your throat: One false move and you’re gone.

And that’s the goal, isn’t it?  To stay in the ring.  To keep jumping those hoops until you get the job.  Then you can finally look back on the whole thing and laugh, if only to prove that you have a great sense of humor after all.

In the meantime, as you continue juggling employment opportunities, remember that balance is key, and don’t worry about the number of hours you’ve spent writing and revising cover letters.  It’s a full-time job in and of itself.

In fact, the next time someone asks how the job search is going, you can tell them you’ve joined the circus.

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