What Makes A Great Cover Letter, According To Companies?

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Kat Neville is a freelance Canadian web designer (living in the UK) who is constantly coming up with too many ideas for new websites. She also loves arts and … More about Kat ↬

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Ah, the dreaded cover letter. Boring to write, difficult to get right, and you’re usually preoccupied by other things (such as the portfolio and resume, which are also really important). Unfortunately, your cover letter is a company’s first exposure to you, and it determines whether your application is trashed or fast-tracked to the company’s to-hire list.

Ah, the dreaded cover letter. Boring to write, difficult to get right, and you’re usually preoccupied by other things (such as the portfolio and resume, which are also really important).  Unfortunately, your cover letter is a company’s first exposure to you, and it determines whether your application is trashed or fast-tracked to the company’s to-hire list.

The status of the cover letter is changing in the Web industry. While a well-formed cover letter still has a place, some companies believe that Web folk who rely on this archaic tool never make it to the next round. But what do I know? Let’s hear instead from some great Web and design agencies to get their advice on creating a great cover letter!

Further Reading on SmashingMag:

The Old Way: Copy, Paste… Personality-Free

Anyone who has ever recruited for a job has received “that letter.”  And it’s always the same: usually a “Dear Sir/Madam,” followed by some generic schpiel about how the applicant will fit in well with the company, no matter what the role or company.  The text is boring, as if copied from a “How to get a job” pamphlet from 1980. The companies I spoke to overwhelmingly hated form letters. So, first and foremost, personalize your email or letter. Secondly, tailor the letter to that company. Here is the advice of some companies on personalizing cover letters.

No Sirs or Madams!

Addressing an actual person is so important. This was by far the most passionately made point by every company I spoke with. Companies want to know that you have taken the time to personalize your email.  If you can’t find a name to address (which happens 10% of the time) or you’re not sure whom to address, at least use something like, “To the creative director at [company name]” (don’t forget to get the title and company right before sending!).

We trash generic inquiries (i.e. form letters) automatically. If you don’t care to put in a little effort to tailor your communication to my company, I sure don’t care to read it. Why do you want to work for Particular instead of some other company? How did you find us? Some indication that you’ve read the Particular or Matter websites is a good start.

— Ash Arnett, PARTICULAR

I want to click delete if I see "Dear Sir/Madam" or "To whom it may concern." If you actually read our blog and mention one of the posts in your email, I know that you actually took the time to determine whether you liked what our organization is about or whether you just added our email address to your Bcc field. It's not hard to find out who you're talking to if you actually take time to browse our website. — Josh Cramer, Cramer Dev
The worst thing someone could do is send over a generic copy-and-pasted email in which they've just changed your name or company name. You'd be amazed how many people do this. It's an instant turn-off. You find people referencing things that have nothing to do with your company or any sort of job role you have available. — Andy Ashburner, Caffeinehit

Bcc Is Not Your Friend

We’ve all done it.  We want to save time, so we mass email many people by “secretly” blind-copying them.  Friends don’t really like it that much to begin with, so what makes you think a company would take you seriously?

Technology gives you power to Bcc 100 email addresses or more at a time. That is dangerous. Sadly, too many applicants send one email that is clearly being posted to many agencies and is not personalized at all. For me, getting a good job is not a numbers game. From greater effort springs reward. I can still remember the intros of all the people I hired.

— Mark McDermott, Codegent

Really? You’re Real?

Showing personality, showing that you haven’t just copied the cover letter of your “Web designer” template, scores big points with employers. Demonstrating personality with real examples makes you even more real.

We look for clues that begin to reveal the candidate’s personality based on the tone and voice of the letter, as well as layout (which is actually more important to see in their resumes for some of the more design-oriented roles we have).

— Boris Chen, Extractable

For a CSS designer, rather than just hearing you say, "I'm crazy about CSS," we're looking for your blogging or tweeting about the latest CSS3 developments and seeing you active in communities and forums. A prime example is that some of our team members are ALA authors or even have been on Smashing Magazine. Those things show you're passionate. — Dave Rosen, XHTMLized.com

Structuring Your Cover Letter


Cover letters are your first contact with employers, so getting the length and content right is important.  Most companies agree that you should include some links to your work, and definitely follow any instructions that they put in the job advertisement!

You’ve Got 20 Seconds… Short and Sweet, Please!

Any Web design agency worth its salt is too busy these days. They have to beat off new clients with a stick.  Remember that talented people are busy people, and most Web people have the attention span of a gnat. The Web is all about scanning, so make your cover letter adhere to the standards you apply to Web writing.  Every word counts!

First, we’re busy people. We have a ton of projects and clients to manage, which generally means that we’re starved for time. This lack of time and volume of resumes means we don’t spend a good deal of time reading the emails or cover letters of every applicant (sorry, but it’s true). We’re not interested in verbose cover letters. In fact, just a line or two of copy in the email along with a link to the portfolio is plenty. Witty is fine, so is professional.

— Geoff Teehan, Teehan+Lax

I look for short and sweet with a touch of personality in a covering email. But the most important thing by far is the first impression I get after clicking the link to see the applicant's website. The covering emails of both Kevin and André were strong:
Hello, My name is Kevin John Gomez.  I'm a web designer currently living in Brooklyn.  I saw your post on Krop and you guys look like a really cool outfit... definitely a group I'd love to be a part of.  Just thought I'd say hello and give you some of my information. My portfolio/blog: www.kevinjohngomez.com My online resume: www.kevinjohngomez.com/resume (let me know if you'd like a PDF) Anyway... nice work guys... keep it up. Kevin
Hello Noam, I've just seen your job posting at Krop.com. I thought it might be interesting to drop you a line: www.dresouzax.com The easiest and fastest way to get me and my portfolio introduced. Cheers, André Souza — Noam Sohachevsky, Mint Digital
[Cover letters] have been replaced by email messages that must convey in two to three sentences the reason for your inquiry, your specific desired position within my firm, a phrase about your experience level, a link to your work samples and a sense of your personality. — Heather Olson, Larsen

Give Your Best Examples

Give examples of your work, but only the best. There’s no need to show 20 samples when 5 are good and 15 decent.  This goes back to the time factor: remember, you have just 20 seconds to impress them. Give them your best, and if they want more, back it up with a portfolio. And don’t forget how much you hate receiving 10 MB attachments.

Generally, we won’t look beyond three websites that people have done (unless they are all good), so just serve a sample of your best. For JavaScript programmers, we ask that they include samples of… one or two short snippets of functions, along with an explanation of why they’re proud of that code.

— Dave Rosen, XHTMLized.com

Thank God that the "creative period" for cover letters—when people sent their applications on CD roms (which never worked), linked to inventive portfolios (that always crashed) and so on—seems to be over and done with. — Claus Sølvsteen, Partner at Peytz & Co.
When we ask for design samples, we actually mean a link or a very small PDF, not twelve 20-MB files created in Corel Draw. — Scott Johnson, Rock Creek Strategic Marketing

If You Get Instructions, Follow Them!

Sometimes, job postings ask for something specific. They may ask, “What makes you passionate” or any other of a million questions. The employer does care about your answer (so make sure yours reflects well on your), but they often include the question to weed out those who can’t read or follow directions.

When we write job ads, we try to include some specific instructions, just to see whether the applicant makes an effort to follow them. So, for example, we might ask for a CV/resumé in PDF format and request a description of how the applicant meets the job spec. It’s amazing how many applicants don’t follow these simple instructions: many will send CVs in Word format or won’t even attempt to explain why they’re suited to the job.

— Jonathan Kahn,Together London

We ask for six things from all our candidates: a catchy subject line, their top three skills, their best teamwork tactic, a URL, a resume and a reason why they want to work at ZURB. We ask for these things because we really want to see them. It's also a litmus test to see if the candidate can follow directions. We want people to follow directions, but we also like rule-breakers when it makes sense. — Bryan Zmijewski, ZURB (creator of Notable App)

Let Them Know How to Contact You

If you’re available by phone, let them know.  If you’ve sent out 1,000 applications, though, you risk getting a phone call in which you have no recollection of who they are or what you wrote in your cover letter to them.

Include relevant contact info (phone, cell, email, Twitter, etc.). Make sure you use a Gmail address (or something else professional-looking). You don’t want to be using a Hotmail address like sexy_stud_forever@hotmail.com.

— Ryan Cash, Marketcircle

Words Score You Points


While not all companies expect you to be an expert writer, many want you to submit an adequately crafted cover letter. Overwhelmingly, companies agreed that spelling mistakes would cause them to look negatively on you, so you have no excuse. If you don’t have the writing skills, or the language is your second, find a friend or hire someone to help you.

“Your a Good Companie!” Why Spelling and Grammar Mistakes Will Bury You

I’m a stickler for spelling and grammar (if any errors are in this article, color my face red!), and I hate to admit that I do judge people by their writing abilities. Unfortunately, for weak writers, the employer’s first impression comes from your cover letter. If they notice an error, your application is already halfway to the bin.

The basics need to be right. Well written, good grammar, no spelling mistakes (people who can write well are always viewed in a positive light). Enthusiasm needs to shine through. Solid typography, nicely laid out, showing organization and flair, but nothing too fancy (as befits our own company style). We’re also happy if the cover letter is online rather than on paper.

Really, it’s all about attention to detail and good writing.

— Rich, Clearleft

Sweat the details of the wording itself. We can see pretty quickly whether you've made an effort, and we'll infer from that how much effort you would make when working with us. I think it's impossible to overstate how important good writing skills are for a Web design professional; the cover letter is your big opportunity. — Jonathan Kahn, Together London
Spell-check, spell-check, spell-check… Did I mention spell-check? — Mark McDermott, Codegent
Kisses of death: Typos, bad type, no personality, generic paper. — Justin Ahrens, Rule 29

Don’t Look Desperate

You may be desperate for the job, but your cover letter shouldn’t show it. You’ll scare them, and they’ll wonder why you have been having so much trouble finding work. You don’t want warning bells to sound in the introduction!

For speculative inquiries, an attractive cover letter explains what you’re about and why you’re interested in working with us. A small compliment helps us to understand what turns you on, although I don’t recommend flattery! Also, be careful with “I’m in need of work”-type wording, because no one wants to employ someone who’s desperate. The most attractive cover letters show the applicant’s confidence in their ability, a passion for a certain type of work, and genuine interest and excitement at the prospect of working with us.

— Jonathan Kahn, Together London

Know The Company


A form letter does not usually have any information about the company being applied to. But taking the time to research the company and find common points of interest makes an impression. It shows you care about the company and that you think you will fit in.

Knowing the company also helps you set the tone of the letter, allowing you to inject personality that relates you to the company. Here are some more thoughts from the companies themselves!

What Does the Company Do?

Ask yourself what makes this company great and what it’s proud of. Getting in the employer’s state of mind makes it easier for you to sound as if “you would be a good fit” for the team!

What usually makes me want to meet people is if they’ve demonstrated that they understand their audience. This is crucial because it’s what we ultimately get paid to do. In this case, the audience is me. Do they understand who we work for and what we do? If all we do is campaign work for shoe companies, then showing me your latest intranet design isn’t a great idea. Do they use language that shows that they did a little homework? We say a lot on our website, and someone who takes the time to read it and adopt a style or language that’s appropriate to my business will stand out.

— Geoff Teehan, Teehan+Lax

What makes a cover letter stand out? This is probably not a sexy answer, but not as obvious as you might think: take a second to learn something about the company you're submitting a resume or portfolio to. Is there a particular project or client you'd like to handle? Did one of us say something on a blog that you strongly agree or disagree with? Anything other than a generic form letter. Those are depressing to get and depressing to throw away. Yet amazingly, so many job seekers just blindly fire them off. — Rob Robinson, Mess Marketing

Make It as Good as the Company You’re Applying to

So, you want to work for the best agency in the city? In the world? Think about what kind of cover letter would impress it. Maybe more is required than a cover letter: you have to aim as high as the agency does.

This whole gig is about first impressions, isn’t it?

Clients hire us because we have an amazing staff of designers who get people to say, “Hey, cool site.” And our developers build one-of-a-kind functionality that keeps visitors engaged and coming back. A candidate’s cover letter should be the same, with the cover letter being the design (motivating “buy in”) and the resume there to support the design and engage us as employers.

— Brian D. Aitken, Halo Media LLC

Be Professional

The Web industry is pretty informal, but you are still addressing a company, so be respectful.

Be aware that you are addressing the person who you hope will sign your pay check. We are collegial, but we’re not your buddies yet. If you’re coming at us through some social networking channel, be sensitive to the fact that those channels aren’t exactly ringing endorsements of credibility.

— Ash Arnett, PARTICULAR

Set an Appropriate Tone

While you must maintain a certain level of professionalism and courtesy, if a company projects a silly image, you won’t get very far with a bank-like letter.

Align your tone of voice in the email to the company’s culture as you perceive it. For example, we have an informal style. If a person is too formal, you couldn’t imagine them fitting in, even if their credentials are good.

— Mark McDermott, Codegent

Use Humor, If Appropriate

Funny is great, but only if you can pull it off without insulting someone. Done right, it will stand out from every other form letter.

We get a lot of email applications, so seeing someone toss in a little humor here and there is nice. It shows that the candidate is comfortable in both their technical skills and their writing. It also helps us get a feel for their personality, which is a big factor in our hiring process.

From: Jonathan

Subject: Nothing can beat a UI ninja. UI ninjas are masters of every style of design!

To: jobs@zurb.com

Very, very obscure Scrubs reference. If you got that, kudos!

Top 3 Skills:

  • Renaissance Man I have experience in graphic arts, typography, programming, web design, print design, UI and human factors.  I also play a mean Rock Band guitar.
  • Obsessive Well within reason, I’m not crazy or anything - I just like a UI/Brochure/Website/etc to be as good as possible, and I’ve been known to go through as many iterations as I need to make that happen.  Time permitting, of course. I know the world is full of deadlines.
  • Nerd Okay, not a plus for everyone, but hear me out. I love the web and techy things and computers and what makes them tick.  I constantly look for new ways to do my work, new programs, new sites and new methodologies.  I won’t let my tools slow me down, and I can fix them when they break.  I’m not saying I can debug a crashing Dreamweaver, but only because I haven’t coded assembly in a few years.
Portfolio is here <link removed>. Resume is here <link removed>.

Thanks for your consideration, and I can’t wait to hear from you.

– Jon

Bryan Zmijewski, ZURB (creator of Notable App)

When we hired Kejia (one of our concept developers), the job ad said "Must like hot pot." And in his achievement section, he said he had "eaten hot pot to the point of exhaustion." I liked that because it was a subtle touch. We met the other ideas developer (Utku) when playing "I'm in Like With You." — Andy, Mint Digital

Questions? Yes. About Benefits? No.

You probably want to know about the perks. Everyone wants to ask about salary, benefits and extras, but this is a conversation for when you get the job (or when they bring it up, but still be careful!).  You’re supposed to be interested in working for them, not in what they can do for you.

What makes us cringe? Preoccupation with our benefits package. ZURB treats the team very well, and we want potential candidates to understand that although we expect a high level of commitment and quality from our team members, we’ll do everything we can to make work (and life) a little easier. But we don’t want candidates who are more interested in house-cleaning than the many unique opportunities offered by working at ZURB.

— Bryan Zmijewski, ZURB (creator of Notable App)

Disclose Your Reason for Contacting

Why do you want a job with that particular company? If the company is not advertising a job, you should probably let it know why you’re getting in touch.

Be clear about why you are contacting us. What kind of job are you looking for? Why that kind of work? Are you looking for a job, for information, for a candid portfolio review? Some of the best letters we have received are from people who were smart enough to ask for a few portfolio comments or advice, even though we weren’t hiring.

— Ash Arnett, PARTICULAR

In an ideal world, the cover letter would act as a nice bridge from your book to ours. For example, I got a letter from a woman who had a book filled with skate and snowboard work, and she felt it would be a good fit for us. We agreed and interviewed her. I've also interviewed people who have a body of more traditional work and who are eager for a chance to work on cooler projects for brands they actually care about. Making the case for why you should work here, in particular, is the best way to make your cover letter work for you. And you don't need to bust out any gimmicks or spend a lot of money on an elaborate presentation. — Rob Robinson, Mess Marketing

Be Relevant


So many cover letters address things that have nothing to do with the job or company. If you endear yourself to a company by being relevant, being qualified and having all the attributes they are looking for, you’re almost there!

Bring in the Real World

Every presentation could benefit from examples, and cover letters are no different. You need to give the employer concrete examples of what makes you hardworking, passionate and all those other things you told them.

When writing a cover letter, bring up real-world examples of how you’ve done something positive in relation to the role you’re applying for. For example, if you’re applying for a marketing position at Marketcircle, and you used to do marketing for a restaurant, talk about how you were able to bring in more customers during non-busy nights, and how you were able to create promotions that increased the average dollar amount spent on each bill, etc. If you are applying for a job in your current industry, having relevant examples is even more important (e.g. “I was able to increase trial downloads by X amount” or “increase website traffic by X amount of visitors”).

— Ryan Cash, Marketcircle

Bring the Whole Package

Some of us well rounded: we design, code, write and more.  Small companies look for that, so let your skill set shine.  Be careful though: if some of your skills are not as shiny as others, you don’t want to draw attention to them!

Most of the resumes we receive include links to portfolio sites. And that’s where we usually start. We look for a good understanding of design basics: color choice, white space usage, proportion, contrast and typography. Next, we go back to the resume and review it for grammar. It’s important for us that our folks know how to communicate well in text as well as graphics.

— Daimon Caulk, Modal Inc.

Whether we're hiring designer, programmers or project managers, we're always looking for people who can do more than just their one role. Not that they have to be able to write Web copy, but they need to "get it." So, someone who makes a cover letter really shine (mostly by what they say and how they say it) cuts through the clutter wall. — Bill Shander, Beehive Media

Make Sure You’re Qualified

Anyone who’s had to burrow in hundreds of cover letters gets annoyed when people apply for positions they are not even remotely qualified for. If you’re a Java developer and have never done any Ruby work, then don’t apply for a Ruby job.

Of course, employers sometimes demand every skill imaginable, which no human possesses. Make sure you at least have most of qualities before applying.

You’d like to think that we get the best of the best getting in touch. Truth be told, there’s a s***-load of people out there who seem tho think they’re amazing at what they do. Truth be told, they’re generally rubbish. I find it quite painful the number of people who class themselves as Web designers yet create sites that evoke the ’90s.

— Andy Ashburner, Caffeinehit

If someone has had seven jobs in seven years, there is a problem. If someone just graduated from design school and is applying for an Art Director position, it actually annoys us. Similarly, if someone is claiming to be the “perfect candidate” because they are “passionate about design” but somehow they forgot to go to design school, that’s also a problem. (Loads of experience and great portfolio would compensate for no design school. We have a world-class Director of UX who is completely self-taught, but that is sooooo rare!). If half your work is great, and half is terrible, we assume that you did the terrible half. — Scott Johnson, Rock Creek Strategic Marketing

Be Creative


Should you be showcasing your creative talents in your initial contact? That would seem to be a cautious move maybe. While you can grab their attention, not all attention is good. At the same time, you want to stand out. Typography is welcomed in some cases, while not in others, so proceed with creative cautiousness!

Be Creative

Creative coverletter example courtesy of Plank Media

In a creative industry, a creative cover letter stands out. When you’re up against hundreds of other candidates, and if you have the guts to do it, go all out!

If a really original and well designed cover letter came across my desk it would get my attention. There is only so much info that needs to be conveyed on cover letters so designers should always be mindful as to not to try to over design. We always keep an eye out for simple, tastefully designed solutions. Typography is probably your best weapon when it comes to cover letter layout and proper use of white space and balance.

— Will Luper, New Medio

As far as gimmicks and whatnot go, the same rules apply- please do a little homework and make sure it makes sense. Two years ago, I interviewed a designer who brought his resume and a few work samples in via this plywood sleeve. It was covered in street art and personalized with our logo. Kind of cool, and I appreciated the time and effort he put into it. (At the time, our website had more "street" feel that the piece kind of naturally complimented.  For whatever reason, it didn't work out at the time, but hey.. it's two years later and I still have resume in my office. — Rob Robinson, Mess Marketing


… But Not Too Creative

While everyone likes a creative soul, businesses are still businesses, so don’t go too crazy. Little touches impress just as much as grand gestures.

In general, the really ‘creative’ applications seem to be from utter nutters.

— Andy, Mint Digital

There's a fine line between showcasing your creative abilities and coming across like Elle Woods from Legally Blonde with a bright-pink perfume-sprayed resume. — Brian D. Aitken, Halo Media LLC
Honestly, articulately talking about your own work and interests is a lot more impressive to us than jargon or a litany of credentials. In fact, a well written letter can be a lot more compelling than a resume. As far as format goes, I'll just say: We love experimental typography; we don't especially enjoy it in correspondence. Ash Arnett, PARTICULAR

Traditional Cover Letters Don’t Work With All Companies


Over half the companies I contacted said that traditional cover letters don’t have any impact on them. We’re in an age in which Googling reveals a lot about someone. Others say that they only work with people they know. There’s also that extra mile: as in the case involving 37signals, if you want them to impress them with a side project, design something to really impress them. Here are some thoughts on the death of the traditional cover letter.

Get in Touch Another Way

You may find getting introduced via social media is best. I have spoken to quite a few in the industry who were hired over Twitter, who met via LinkedIn and more.

Often the relationship starts on Twitter or Facebook; ideas and conversation are exchanged. If there’s interest, we usually look at your blog, FriendFeed and Flickr accounts as well. We want to know how you think, how you express your ideas as much as we want to review your clever presentation or design portfolio. Designers should consider every tweet and blog post as a part of selling themselves and who they are. YouTube videos about why you want to work with us are a great way to make an introduction.

A cover letter has never landed someone a job with us. I would say that a brief email with links to social accounts, blog and portfolio is the best way to go.

— Ward Andrews, Drawbackwards

End of the Cover Letter?

As more and more people meet, are recruited, use social media and apply for jobs in different ways, the best jobs will be taken by those who can network and go the extra mile. Start networking, set up a Twitter account, do something new and impressive, and when you approach a big company, they’re more likely to notice you.

Interestingly enough, most of the resumes we receive are via our contact form on the website, and most of them don’t come with cover letters. Recently, I called a designer back, and honestly I reached out to her because she graduated from VCU. I know the design program because I graduated from there. You know, for us, if you’ve got a good portfolio, you’ll get a call-back. Just don’t mess up that opportunity with a poorly written resume. Effective communication is the hallmark of a good designer.

— Daimon Caulk, Modal Inc.

In general, I think the era of the cover letter is gone. That puts it in the same dead category as the resume and traditional interview. At Fresh Tilled Soil, we are looking for something remarkable from a cold solicitation from a designer. What do we think is a remarkable way to get our attention? Here are some good examples:
  • Redesign a big name website as a way to show your skills to make improvements on an old idea.
  • Send us a quick version of what you think we could have done on a client project.
  • Redesign a single page from the FTS site to show why you think you could be valuable as an internal resource.
Apart from that, we recommend that designers get their portfolios in order before contacting us. Nothing is worse than a designer asking for an interview but not having their portfolio ready. — Richard Banfield, Fresh Tilled Soil
We don't get cover letters. Sure, we get a lot of people looking to work for us, but in the interactive world we rarely see cover letters. In fact, we couldn't care less about resumes, let alone whether a cover letter is attached. To us, it's all about the work. What we want to see are killer portfolios, the apps you've built, the open-source projects you've contributed to, your design sense, your involvement in whatever dev community you belong, etc. — Chris Teso, The GOOD
I'd say in a creative industry anyone who sends us a cover letter isn't being creative, and I'd delete it. If you want to approach us or a potential employer that appreciates creativity and being different, I'd look for alternatives. Emailed cover letters are for uncreative scared people. I think a phone call is underrated. — Allan Branch, Less Everything

You Might Need to Be Famous, or at Least Connected

The best jobs are often gotten through recommendations, contacts and fame. Get involved in open-source projects, and go to nerdy meet-ups in your area.

We often work with people we “know” through the Internet. I worked with Doug Bowman after admiring his work online. Same with Adam Greenfield and Brian Alvey. I started working with Jason Santa Maria after reading one of his blog posts. And Liz Danzico was a client.

— Jeffery Zeldman, Happy Cog

I'd say 95% of our hires have been us scouting people who we were familiar with and already respected. The other 5% were some random acts of magic. That said, all of the candidates who we get through email and even snail mail seem to come with no cover letter. Hmm… maybe that's why we never hire them.  ;-) — Paul, Ratio Interactive, Inc.

Get Your Foot in the Door

Meeting and working with your dream company before it is able to hire you is a great way to prove yourself. If you’ve suggested a small addition to one of its project and have done a mock-up for them, suggest that you build it on a trial basis. But don’t be pushy. Proving that you’re keen and passionate about the company’s projects is a great way to get into further conversations about working with it.

When I started A List Apart magazine in 1998, I was designer, editor, creative director, publisher, copyeditor and bottle washer. One day, a reader sent me an email politely pointing out a copy error in one of our articles.

I fixed the error and thanked the reader.

She followed up with another letter politely and deferentially pointing out two more errors in the magazine.

I snapped, “Do you want to be my copyeditor? I can’t pay you.” (We had no advertisers at the time.)

She readily agreed to copyedit the magazine for free.

Within a few months, I told her she was too good to copyedit and ought to be the magazine’s actual editor.

When she left ten years later, Erin Kissane had been A List Apart’s editor-in-chief for nearly a decade, and she had also served as content strategist for Happy Cog for over five years. She is a brilliant writer, editor and human being, and I am proud to be her friend.

Pretty good story, right? So, those emails worked.

They were simple and to the point. She wasn’t asking for a damn thing. She was just providing help. That’s the only time a letter has resulted in a hire at Happy Cog.

Oh, and I should add, of course Erin didn’t work for free forever; we have advertisers through the Deck, and we pay our staff.

(We also don’t hire speakers at An Event Apart on the basis of letters. We hire people whom we know are experts.)

— Jeffery Zeldman, Happy Cog

Use Common Sense


At the end of the day, you have to look long and hard at your own efforts and craft a cover letter that would impress you if you had your own company. Doing it well will definitely increase your chances of getting an interview.

Track Correspondence

Even if you’ve applied to only five places, you’d be surprised how easy it is to forget what you’ve said to one of them. Keep a spreadsheet that tracks the following:

  • Company name and URL,
  • Name of contact and job title,
  • What the company does (a reference to one of its clients will jog your memory),
  • When you contacted them and what you wrote,
  • When and how it responded.

Make sure to respond to every email in a timely manner, and take note of what the contact said. Keep the spreadsheet open on your computer (or, if you’re at another job, print out a copy) so that if they call, you can quickly scan your correspondence to recall exactly where you stand.

Be Patient

Waiting for a response can be tough, especially if you’ve crafted a beautiful, thoughtful cover letter. Some companies have an auto-responder for their jobs email address, but most do not. While you might be tempted to follow up with an email to confirm that they received your application, you should usually take their silence to mean rejection. If they don’t respond, don’t be disappointed: it just means it wasn’t the right job for you! Change your approach with the next application and try different techniques. Looking for a job is a full-time job, but if you work at it, you’ll find work.


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