As I sit here in my hotel room in the 9th arrondissement of Paris (la di da), suffering from a night of overnight on a plane sleeplessness (oh poor me), I can’t get the dozens of bad cover letters I read last week out of my mind. Funny the things that get stuck in there. As I read them over the course of a week or so, I got more and more annoyed. Why do people think that others want to read these horrible, horrible letters??
Here’s one example:
“While I understand you are in no easy spot in determining the best fit for your organization, I can assure you that I am the candidate you are seeking to fill the position… Please reconsider me for the position. I wouldn't let you, or any one else counting on me, down. That I can absolutely guarantee…. Blessings.”
How many rules were broken in just these four lines?
This writer went on talking about himself endlessly. Which is what 90 percent of applicants do. They chart the course of their careers for the reader. But that's the work of a good resume!
This leads to the single most important rule about cover letter writing. Don’t tell me about you. Tell me what you can do for me, my organization, and the people who already work there. When you approach it that way, I will still learn about you, but, more importantly, I get the chance to understand how hiring you would be beneficial.
How do you do that?
Read the mission and vision statement of the organization, and cut and paste them into a document. Scour the website for other clues as to whether you are a fit. Think about whether you are a good fit, and, if so, jot down notes on how you might fit in and why this organization’s mission would get you up in the morning. What excites you about it?
Second, make a list of the essential and preferred qualifications for the job as they appear on the posting and then start writing sentences under each qualification that describe what you bring to each. What concrete work have you done that makes you the best candidate? How many years of experience do you have in each area? How did you measure success? Can you share an anecdote or numbers that prove it?
At this point, you will have a choppy but substantive start. Then the fun begins. Spend some time crafting the letter into a coherent, beautiful whole. And don’t start every sentence with “I.” Please.
Of course, you’re probably thinking by now that I’m nuts. How much time is this going to take? Believe it or not, hiring managers can tell how much time and thought you put into your letters and resumes. If you give the impression that it wasn’t much, then the hiring manager’s interest level will probably match it. Unless you are some sort of super star. But how many of those are there really?
In sum, don’t tell me the story of you. Tell me the story of what you can bring to the organization and the people to whom I dedicate the majority of my waking hours. If you do that, you might get the chance to do that, too.
You would think that someone who describes herself as “Ferociously dedicated to the lofty principles and necessary practicality of higher education” would not be advocating that some people NOT go to college. But that’s exactly what I would like to say today.Just like @MikeRoweWorks, I believe that a college degree is NOT the best path for many if not most people. The mistaken belief that a Bachelor’s degree is the ticket to a happy life is leading thousands if not millions of people down a path that doesn’t suit them. And, as Seinfeld says, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”
In fact, there’s a lot right with that.
Mike Rowe is not arguing AGAINST a college education. He seems to be furious, and justifiably so, that people are going into so much debt for an uncertain future and thinks there’s a better way. I agree.This obsession with a four-year degree is getting us into a lot of trouble.Half of all students who begin a degree do not finish it. And they take on debt to do it. Millions of students and their parents now owe money they can’t repay without a ton of hardship. We have an epidemic of college students who are homeless and hungry because they can’t afford to eat or pay rent, yet they are living on the streets or in abandoned buildings or cars and attending classes. If you really want that college education, there are ways to do it that don’t involve mortgaging a house or living without a roof over your head suffering from hunger pangs. Let’s be more imaginative about pursuing a degree in the first place.
And then there is another pet peeve of mine – the students who can afford college but have no interest in it. They sit in classes in a sort of malaise. They drink and drug and hook up, but contribute little to the classroom, much less to society in general. To teach them is drudgery, and they are taking up valuable spots in college dorms and classrooms that others wanted and could have put to better use. Life is too short to pursue a degree in a depressed and apathetic way. No one benefits from that.
I once had an advisee who is now an accomplished journalist, whose father wanted, no, he DEMANDED that his daughter become a doctor. He and I once had my only ever advisor/parent screaming match on the threshold of my office during which I said, “Your daughter hates pre-med courses and the idea of becoming a doctor. If you continue to force her and she manages to get a degree, believe me, if I have cancer, she’s the last person I want to treat me!” He eventually let her drop the pre-med courses and become a journalist, which ironically is what her father does for a living as well.
It’s the same with pursuing a college degree in the first place. If you are miserable, you aren’t going to learn much. Then you may look like a good candidate on paper, but what are you really able to bring to the work place? More misery. That makes you a bad worker, a bad friend, a bad partner, and an awful contributor to society. I think we should stop forcing our kids to go to college and be more imaginative in guiding them to a productive and gratifying future.
These are sentences my poor senses have been assaulted by in the past few weeks:
“I've also went over all of your current records.” –An insurance person
“I should’ve went with you!” – A good friend, well-educated, well-traveled, well-read
“I shouldn’t’ve ate so much cake!” – A college student
Really? I’ve went over, I should’ve went, I shouldn’t’ve ate?? I just can’t get over it. The past participle is fading away. Dying right before our eyes.
I’ve been railing against this for years. It just makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. A good friend of mine, an esteemed linguist, says I shouldn’t get my panties all in a bunch. Languages change, she says. And she knows. I mean, she studied with Noam Chomsky at MIT, for goodness sakes.
At some unspecified time, DailyWritingTips.com wrote a great post on the phenomenon of the disappearance of some of our most common past participles – “Gone, Taken, Written, Eaten, and Come.” Here are some examples this author cited:
I Should Have Went Samurai On Them, Or At Least Ninja – blog headline
Lisa Rinna might have went too far – celebrity blog
Still wished we would have went with Dorsey? – sports blog
WE HAVE WENT OUT OF BUSINESS – commercial site
Having discussed this blog post with a dear friend, I am leery of even using the term “past participle.” She says no one knows what that is anymore. What?!!? My gramminatrix self has definitely got my panties all in a bunch now!
Okay, calm down, Monique. I am no longer surprised when I witness this kind of grammatical misconduct from sports figures like LeBron James who tweeted in November 2013: “Man I should have went to this game. It's crazy in Doak Campbell!!”
But I am definitely surprised when it comes up in an academic setting. As you may know, my career has been spent largely in higher education, at Princeton, Harvard, Columbia, and now The New School. I know, la di da.
So, I follow industry trends by reading as much as I can. The real impetus for this blog post is something I came across a week or two ago on website of Academic Impressions, a company that helps colleges and universities meet the many challenges of the day. The article is entitled Student Affairs: Trends to Watch in 2017-19. One of the esteemed interviewees says: “…having just went through one of the biggest culture-war periods in American History (2017-2019 predicted), we will be a leading voice in training multiple departments on campus, and our broader communities, from our deep strength and ability, about inclusivity of all identities, harmony, and social justice.” Really? “Having just went through….” And these are the people who are going to be a leading voice? Skin crawling. Hair standing on end. Can’t relax, my Noam Chomsky-educated buddy. I. Just. Can’t.
There’s a voice of reason in Katherine Barber who offers a great history of “should have went,” which I really appreciate. She says that “went” was the past tense of “went” and “goed” was the past tense of “go,” and over time they intertwined to this unusual form that we learned was correct: I go, I went, I have gone. When you look at it that way, it doesn’t seem so horrible.
She does say that using “should have went” is stigmatized. But she wrote that 5 years ago. Now, I wonder. If all of these highly educated, well-traveled, well-read, and intelligent people are accepting it and using it, maybe I need to get over it after all. Yes, that’s probably right. I will stop carrying the torch for these past participles. My mourning period is over. Thank you for listening.
For many years, as a dean at three Ivy League colleges and now as an AVP at a university with an extraordinary mission, I have had a front row seat to the obstacles to success that college students and their parents confront every year. Even at so-called elite, highly selective colleges such as Princeton, Harvard, and Columbia, where I spent some of my career, students struggle on a daily basis to remain healthy, happy, grounded, and to stay in school. I am dedicated to helping them.