6 years ago, in my mid-20’s, I was unemployed in one of the most competitive job markets in the nation. I had one marketable area of expertise: clarinet. Let me tell you, that is a pretty niche market in Austin, TX (or anywhere). I had an injury and couldn’t even play. But I had a master’s degree! I graduated with honors! I’m obviously no dunce! Surely I could get a job-I don’t know-answering the phone somewhere. I read article after article about how to tailor a resume and cover letter and hours upon hours hand crafting each application. Only to not get a call. Or even a return email thanking me for my interest. Crickets. It was humbling.
This year, I was asked to apply for a teaching position at a university. I had my CV (the academic cousin of a resume) read by a few people I trust and made necessary formatting changes. I wrote my cover letter in less than an hour and knew it was gold. I did all of this in the evening, because I was busy at my job during the day. As I finished up the application I was struck by the difference between my cover letter now and the ones I had written back then. That’s when I realized: you can’t fake it.
Don’t let anyone tell you that you can. They’re just trying to get hits on their website and suck in any person at their wit’s end who finally google searches “how to write a good cover letter.” They’re sending you on a fool’s errand, and that path will only lead you toward many more (unsuccessful) cover letters.
If you have basic writing and communication skills, you can write a good cover letter. What I lacked 6 years ago was not writing skill, but something palpable to prospective employers that went beyond the lack of substance in my resume. In my cover letters, employers got a perfect sense of who I was. Everything I was feeling and living as a person reeling from having their career not just hit the brakes, but full on slam into a concrete wall going 60, was on the page whether I liked it or not. No matter how many strong verbs and key words I used, it was obvious I was timid and even apologetic about the state I was in. The main message those letters conveyed: please hire me.
You may think, “Okay but you obviously had experience in those 6 years that led you to be invited to apply for this university job. That’s the difference!” But it isn’t. I have zero point zero experience teaching at the collegiate level. I also don’t have a doctorate or am even working on a doctorate – which is preferred for anyone teaching at that level. I’m inexperienced and under-educated for this job. I will admit that I was referred by someone I went to college with who is on the faculty. But after reviewing my application she called to give me this feedback: “Julie your cover letter was the perfect example of what a cover letter should be. We got such a good sense of who you are. I would have hired you based on that cover letter alone.” I will never forget those words. After all the terrible cover letters of my life, I finally got it right.
So what is the difference then? I haven’t taken a writing class. I didn’t read one single article about cover letters this time around. The difference is…I feel good about myself. I wrote with the confidence of someone who is convinced they have something to offer and is not trying to get something (employment), but is genuinely interested in bringing their skills to the table for the mutual benefit of all parties. It was easy for me to write and provide specifics about what I would bring to the university. I didn’t have to bullshit. Not even a little bit.
This is how I did it: one day 6 years ago, I shut my laptop. I got a part time job that I hated but was meticulous about it. I volunteered at the animal shelter. I babysat my niece every time my brother asked me to and I took anyone to the airport who needed a ride. I made a website for myself, in the process learning that technology had left me far behind and spent my free time trying to catch myself back up. I started fostering dogs. I visited my old teachers. I found old friends I’d lost touch with. I went to every single birthday party I was invited to and spent my last dollars to bring a bottle of wine. I didn’t do all of these things to get a job, but one year later, I had full time work that I really loved plus much much more: relationships built around trust and the confidence that can only come from doing good things in my community.
All these years later I am still reaping the benefits of the time I spent unemployed in so many ways I couldn’t possibly list them here. I can state for sure that the actions I took during that time led me to write the cover letter that I did. And I got the job. You can call me Professor.