Every word counts — and none more so than your first few.
You only get one chance to make a first impression.
That seems obvious, right? Yet you’d be surprised by the number of people who disregard or downplay this advice when writing a cover letter.
In our business-writing course at the University of Maryland, we teach the art and science of writing a cover letter. We explain how to create a hook. We present ideas for personal connections. And yet, every semester, some students believe that it’s ok to launch this critical document on the strength of a weak opening line:
“Dear Mr. McGarry, My name is C.J. Cregg, and I’m writing…”
If ever there were a wasted opportunity, this is it.
Because it lays the groundwork for your résumé.
Many people think cover letters are optional.
The smartest job seekers know that writing a cover letter — even if it’s not asked for — brings with it a bushel of benefits.
Transform your activities into achievements.
If you’re reading this, then I’m willing to wager that you have a résumé. Yet I’m also willing to wager that you’re making a critical mistake on this critical document. In short, I suspect that some of your bullet points cite activities rather than achievements.
That’s understandable. Achievements are tough to articulate, let alone accomplish. Yet if you want your résumé to stand out, then you absolutely need them. Specifically, you need to transform your day-to-day responsibilities into distinctive results.
Most freelancers fail. Here’s how to set yourself up for success.
For a freelancer, time is money, so let me be frank: Freelancing is tough.
It’s tough from a financial perspective: You’re always hustling, and you eat only what you kill.
It’s tough from a psychological perspective: You don’t get a paycheck every two weeks, nor do you get to socialize with colleagues in an office.
And it’s tough from a productivity perspective: You have to be maximally disciplined and organized without a boss holding you accountable.
Don’t get me wrong — working for yourself can be deeply fulfilling. But before you try to realize your long-deferred dream, ask yourself if any of these constraints is a deal-breaker?
Résumés should show off your skills, not shotgun them.
In writing a résumé, many people include a “skills” section. Here, they cram together “hard” skills, such as programming languages or software, and “soft” skills, such as “conflict resolution” or “adaptability.”
Let me be frank: This is a waste of space. Instead of ticking off vague notions like “Excel” or “Photoshop,” tell your audience how you used these programs. Get specific.
A tale of two emails.
Sometimes an email is just an email. Other times, it’s an X ray of someone’s character. Here’s a perfect example of the difference.
Recently, a friend emailed me. He asked if I would forward the résumé of a friend of his to my clients that have intern programs. I did so happily.
Both people I emailed replied within a few hours (after all, they work at PR agencies). Yet while they basically said the same thing — “You’re too late” — the tones they used were strikingly divergent. Here’s what they wrote:
Whether you’re seeking a job or looking to advance your career, using social media to raise your visibility is a must. Yet if you want to stand out—either in a stack of resumes or when your boss needs someone to head up a new project—don’t just do what everyone else is doing. Instead, go beyond the cliché of Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, and write a post for a popular blog.
Is this more time-consuming than sharing a link? Absolutely. Is it more difficult than banging out 140 characters? You bet. Does it seem strange to write for someone else’s blog rather than your own? Certainly.
Yet put the time and effort into crafting a thoughtful piece, and you’ll likely experience a rich range of rewards. At minimum, you’ll demonstrate thought leadership, make a name for yourself, and earn a byline in which you can link to your resume or website. Even better, you could land a promotion, secure a job offer, or generate new business.
“The dog ate my homework.”
Even though this famous excuse is rarely used, what it symbolizes is all-too-familiar: an aversion to admit accountability. What’s more, this urge to excuse one’s blunders rather than shoulder them betrays a bigger issue: a lack of character.
Let’s be honest: no wants to entertain excuses—even perfectly good ones. We value friends who are reliable, we promote employees who are consistent, we love spouses because when they wrong us, they rectify it. Not for nothing did the sign on Harry Truman’s desk proclaim, “The buck stops here!”
To be sure, emergencies arise. We all screw up from time to time. Yet it’s how you rectify things that counts, that makes you who you are.
Practice deftness, not deafness.
In a recent blog post, Chris Brogan describes a scenario familiar to anyone not living under a rock: “Today, I sheepishly deleted several e-mails that were waiting for a quick response. Dozens. Maybe 100 overall. So that means almost 100 people got my attention, got me to read something, got me to think that maybe I should do something,” and then never heard back.
Why does this happen so often to so many? Brogan’s diagnosis is convincing: Because “we don’t fully understand the syntax of saying ‘no.’”
He offers a graceful example of how to construct this elusive sentence: “What you’re doing is important, and I’m very supportive of you, but I’m not able to take on what you’d like me to do because of my own full plate of commitments.”
In other words: Thanks, but no thanks.
“We’re gonna make your logo pop! We’re gonna make the IPREX globe spin! And we’re gonna make the buttons beautiful!”
“A button can be beautiful?” asked a skeptical Susan.
“Oh yeah!” beamed a confident Jesse.
It was at this moment that Jesse had Susan. He’d been muddling through the meeting, but this burst of bravura, energy and passion was sincere and infectious—a gust of fresh wind that I believe won him the contract to redesign SusanDavis.com.
Similarly, when I myself interviewed with Susan, things coasted along for the first 15 minutes. She asked about my experience; I provided conventional answers. Then she deployed her pet question: “If you were an animal, what would you be?”
“That’s easy,” I grinned. “I’d be a dog.” It was at this moment that I had Susan. With great pride and obvious pleasure, I regaled her with stories of my miniature schnauzer, Wyatt.