Career Resources

Monday, February 20, 2012

Lessons to be learned from a cover letter gone viral

By now, most business students around the world have heard about the horrifyingly egotistical cover letter written for a summer analyst position at J.P. Morgan by an NYU student named Mark. We discussed it in my career planning class last Friday, and my students were unanimously shaking their heads in disbelief at the egotism and audacity conveyed in the letter.

However, a few minutes before handing them copies of the now infamous letter, I was explaining how a cover letter is a marketing tool, a way of promoting your abilities and qualifications to a prospective employer.  I explained that you need to make a case in your cover letter as to why the company should bring you in for an interview. So, I asked them, "Isn't that exactly what Mark did?"  The room got silent. It is a puzzling paradox because Mark did promote himself in his cover letter. The problem is that he took it to the extreme.

While it is easy to ridicule Mark's behavior with smug thoughts of, "How could he have been so stupid?", I'm sure that college students are secretly left wondering, "What is the appropriate way to write a cover letter?" They may become so fearful now of saying the wrong thing that they become paralyzed about cover letter writing or won't send them at all. And rightfully so. I'm sure they fear that their career prospects could as easily be jeopardized with the simple click of the forward button. They are probably equally as fearful about coming across as arrogant or egotistical in their cover letters. However, we have to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water here since appropriate self-promotion is a required part of the job and internship application process.

Having been a college career advisor for six years, I know students struggle with the concept of self-promotion in cover letter writing, and this story is only going to intensify the issue. I think it's partly due to the fact that they have been collaborative team players all of their lives and would never brag to teammates or friends. I always tell them that, although you wouldn't brag to your friends, it is perfectly fine, and necessary, to promote yourself to an employer if you want to get an internship or job. This concept may be particularly difficult for international students to grasp, whose native cultures engender and value humility.

Assuming Mark's cover letter is true, he does possess some excellent qualifications, and some parts of his letter are good.  The major problem with his letter is that his word choices present him as being superior, rather than qualified, "I am unequivocally the most unflaggingly hard worker I know."  And therein lies the problem. There is a huge difference between promoting your qualifications and egotism.

Listed below are my lessons to be learned from this unfortunate incident to protect your cover letter from going viral.

Have your cover letter reviewed by a career counselor. In their eagerness to apply for internships and jobs, some students skip the all too important step of having their cover letters reviewed by someone at their career center, especially when the application deadline is imminent. I always advise my students to have at least their first cover letter reviewed to make sure they're on the right track. Your college's career counselors will be able to give you a reality check and tell you if your cover letter is adequately conveying your qualifications, without coming across as egotistical.

Be careful what you put in writing.  This isn't the first time someone's career has been compromised due to the click of a forward and send button. Several years ago there was a prominent story about a lawyer who was told she would never find work in the legal field again because of some nasty emails she angrily fired off to a lawyer regarding a position she didn't get, who quickly forwarded her emails to everyone he knew in the legal community. This is a great professional lesson to learn in general, and the sooner you learn it, the better.

Don't use a generic cover letter.  Many students are tempted to use the same cover letter for every job and simply substituting the company name.  This is bad practice for many reasons (please see my previous posts about cover letters). With this approach, it is way too easy to forget to change the company name every time it appears in the letter.  This is exactly what happened to Mark when he wrote, "I hope to augment my character by diligently working for the professionals at Morgan Stanley." Um...the letter was addressed to J.P. Morgan.

Assume that your cover letter will be read.  When asked whether they read cover letters, recruiters' and hiring managers' responses vary widely. Some do and some don't, with the latter choosing to jump right to the resume instead. When writing your cover letter, however, you need to go on the assumption that it will be read, and you need to make it as strong as possible.  I always advise my students that their cover letters need to be so strong that, if read separately from their resume, they would make a solid case as to why the student should be brought in for an interview.

By following these tips, your cover letter is sure to gain notoriety...for all the right reasons.


jennysemon said...

This is really very essential tips regarding cover letter.Thanks for this concern.

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Bose said...

The goal of a cover letter is to spark the interest of the possible employer. Thanks
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DiannaJoy said...

Cover letters are generally documents that cover all the major details from your resume. Thanks for sharing such beautiful tips about cover letter which is really helpful for the new conductor.

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OBloodyHell said...

Yeah, like the resume, the cover letter needs to be individually tailored to the company's needs. It should pretty much echo what goes into the headline portion of the resume, but with a little fleshing out -- probably to 2-3x the size of the headline, around 2-3 short paragraphs, by everything I've seen and heard.

Lisa said...

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