Cover Letters From the Other Side

Reading Time: ~5 minutes

It wasn’t a long drive to Company X’s building, but it was a complicated one that involved a dubiously legal U turn and toll booths that seemed decorative at best. I also got to tour some of West-Of-Boston’s finest pseduo-highways, resplendent in pothole magnifience.

I remember the first time I felt a twist of dread in my stomach – it was when I saw the building. It did not resemble a wet paper bag with windows, it was a wet paper bag with windows. Of course, to be fair, it had just rained. Otherwise, it would have looked like a plain old paper bag.

As it was, I got out of the car, adjusted my suit, took out the notebook I had scribbled some job-related “suggestions” on, and walked underneath the rain-streaked building. Inside, the carpets smelled of must. I heard the gentle thrum of a dentist’s drill somewhere and a mother shooed six knee-high children down the hallway.

Apparently, the paper bag building was a multi-purpose one. I found Company X’s floor, took the grumbling elevator up, and got to the office.

When I opened the door, my anxiety grew. There was one plush chair that looked better suited to a nursing home and a small bell with a sign next to it, requesting I ring it. So I did.

After a while, I was whisked away to meet with the vice president of marketing. She was nice and did a lot to dissuade my notions that this company could be some kind of commission-only scam (there’s at least one company in the Boston area that changes names and offices as quickly as an entry-level chameleon).

Successfully mollified – and genuinely interested in the position – I showed her my notes, which were mostly assumptions about what the company would want me to do. Better to come armed with something, right? Before long, my time was up and it was time for my second interview. And, as soon as I got into the room, I knew it wasn’t going to be easy.

The first thing I noticed was that the chair meant for me sat in the corner, rather than across from the desk. This left me exposed and vulnerable to the boss – we’ll call him Jake – and his crystal-eyed gaze from his post. I was also periously close to his dog’s bed. As soon as I sat down in the chair, it perked up and let rip a series of yowls.

“Nice to-”

“Yap! Yap!”

“Nice to meet you,” I managed.

“Great, so why don’t you fix your suit before we get started,” he replied. I looked to my right and realized that one side of my collar hung limply down by my chin, so I quickly wrestled it back into submission and sat down.

“Yap! Yap!” The dog had not moved – not so much as one tiny, quivering muscle – other than its mouth. It was like a barking statue. Its eyes were cold and unblinking, boring into me.

“So what’d you talk about so far?” Jake asked me.

“I-”

“Yap!”

“I basically… we just talked about the responsibilities for the position,” I managed, delicately fitting my words into the staccato rhythm of the barking.

Jake took out a treat, which immediately silenced the dog, corrected me on its gender when I proffered some bemused quip, and then asked, “So what are the responsibilities of this position?”

Now, the dog stared at me, unbarking, unmoving. Stared. As I tried to recite something, anything, about what I had just passionately talked about for an hour, Jake decided my time was up and scooted to his computer.

“So, you have a blog,” he said.

In five minutes, he had found it and started reading aloud from my entry, “Bachelor’s Degrees: A Dime A Dozen.” Right to the part where I talk about the mass manufacturing of cover letters.

“Oh, I see, just like the cover letter you sent us,” he said, leaning back in his chair.

“Well, that entry was about when I was in college,” I said cautiously. Jake was an expert at staring without blinking, too. “When I was in college, I was a little less selective about what job I wanted. You… you don’t really know what you want to do, so you have to sound passionate about everything.”

“Uh huh,” he said. Scooted back to the chair. Furiously clicked. “Let me show you something, because we have two warring blog entries, here.”

Twenty minutes of silence passed, before Jake unearthed a blog entry from 2007 bemoaning the state of cover letters today, and how bad they are. “They all suck,” he lamented to me.

They all suck.

I took this in slowly, wondering if my cover letter – which I had actually spent time on, because I liked the position and the company – fell into that category.

I wondered if he had already visited my blog, since I had volunteered the URL in a cover letter. If he had scoured each entry before resting on that one. It seemed a little too coincidental that he struck gold on the first entry, especially since it wasn’t the most recent at the time.

Cover letters are a funny business, because you want to sound passionate, but you’re never sure if you’re going to get a response. That’s the issue. You never know if you’re even going to get a response. I think that people looking for jobs these days have to apply so many that they lose interest in crafting personalized cover letters.

Why? Because you literally don’t get even a whisper of acknowledgment. I’m not talking about a soft and apologetic, singsong letter turning a person down. I’m talking about anything at all, even if it was a robotic response with the subject line “NO.”

My friend has been trying to apply to jobs since he graduated in June. He has applied to at least a hundred positions. He has  gotten two responses. They declined, of course, but he was elated. “Got a rejection!” he exclaimed excitededly to me one afternoon. He’s a civil engineering major with a minor in business. If he doesn’t stand a chance in that field, what hope do others have?

After a while, you start wondering if companies even get the cover letters at all. It’s strange, like your squealing pleas for employment are not spurned, because they’re not even important enough to be spurned.

My exchange with Jake made me see it from Company X’s view. Jake was the founder of the company. He personally reviewed the resumes and cover letters. He told me they got hundreds for the first few days that the position was open. After a while, I’m sure they just randomly sorted through them.

Not only that, some cover letters, I’m sure, were genuinely bad. But after meeting with Jake, I realized that cover letters are, in a lot of ways, more important than the resume. Especially for entry-level jobs, because your non-credentials are basically the same as everyone else’s.

Great, you had an internship? How’d that three months of answering phones and data entry prepare you for this job, and working with this specific company, engaging in their specific view, and working with their specific clients and products?

Jake touched on that, too. “Do you even know Company X’s values?” he asked, staring at me.

“Well,” I said, “I tried to look at them, but the link was broken on the position page.”

“What.”

“Yeah,”  I said again. Trying not to sweat. Hoping feverishly that the link was still broken. Jake was already on it, cruising directly to the offending page, scrolling down with Jedi reflexes to the “values” link.

Click.

Page Not Found.  A breath of relief for me, quickly covered by the machine gun fire of Jake’s fingers as he informed some tech guy of the aggregious hole in the website.

Needless to say, I didn’t get the job. I was barely qualified for it, anyway, but how could anyone involved really know that? Isn’t that the issue in the first place, though?

Someday, I hope that we can transcend this stuffy old model of Resume’N’Cover combo and may be turn it into a multimedia display of personality. A three-minute slideshow/video/visual revelation of a person. Most laptops have webcams nowadays. We can all download free slideshow software via Open Office or Google. So why not?

My engineer friend’s dad laughs at the grandfather of the family, because he is adamant about knocking on doors. Because those doors are closed now. But my friend laughs at his dad, who advocates follow-up phone calls. Because the phone lines have shut down. Almost every position says DO NOT CALL.

The problem is that there is no other method available right now, nothing that is suitable to the internet age of job searching. So you have no other choice but to strain yourself through two pieces of paper that make you sound like an arrogant jerk or a clueless goofus desperately trying to sing your “ideal candidate” jingle on paper. At least until the Resume/Cover solution is finally put to rest by a 21st cenutry one that actually matches the way that people seek employment and employers seek people.

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