The irresistible cover letter

In Issue 1 of CG Freelancer Magazine, we ran a great article by Pam Hogarth on writing a cover letter that will get you an interview. Over the course of developing the article, Pam and I talked about how we’ve helped people in our lives find jobs.

I shared with Pam how I’d worked closely with two of my young-adult relatives to help them get that vital first interview in a field in which they had no work experience. Both had already worked in menial jobs (bagging groceries, running errands), but had yet to get a job in the career field of their choice. With no experience, an irresistible cover letter was key to landing an interview.

Find a job

Each of these young people did well at the interview and got the job, which was entirely their doing. Since then, both have gained work experience and now they can get their own jobs and promotions. But getting that first interview was the big hurdle, and I’m happy and proud I was able to help them.

These are the steps I used to help these budding workers get that first job in their chosen career. The whole exercise is designed to make a cover letter that intrigues a potential employer enough to call you in for an interview.

It’s worth noting that I made each of the youngsters do these steps themselves. I guided and listened, critiqued the letter and resume, and provided advice, but didn’t do any of the work myself. You can do these steps too, to help you land that dream job!

Find out who you were

Once you’ve identified the career you want to enter, realize that you’ve been preparing for this career since you were a young child. There’s a reason you want to be an artist or a programmer (or a cheese maker or beekeeper or whatever it is you want to be), and it has less to do with money than it does with what you’re naturally interested in.

Talk with older family members to get their impressions of your early habits as they relate to this field. As an example, the two young adults I mentioned are a brother and sister. While he was online making game mods and reading everything he could get his hands on about computing, she was cutting up magazines to make collages and making up stories about them. Both thought that “everybody did that” but if you ask around to your friends, you’ll find that most of them were doing something else.

Doesn't everybody make collages?

Doesn’t everybody make collages?

Old photos will tell you volumes, as will your early art projects, the posters and comics you chose to hang on your wall, and even favorite toys or the art and knick-knacks around the house you remember most. Asking your parents, aunts, uncles, siblings, and cousins for a memory that stands out to them will yield a treasure trove of information.

Find out what you did

Part of this exercise is finding out what kinds of things you were naturally drawn to, or curious about, as a child. You’ll be surprised what will come up. Not all of it will relate to your chosen field, but some of it will.

To illustrate, I’ll relate a few stories about the two young adults I mentioned earlier. When the boy was about seven years old, I brought to his house a three-minute animation demo reel I’d just made. A group of us, adults and kids, sat down to watch it together. Later that day, I was surprised to find the boy watching the video while pounding away on an unplugged computer keyboard. When I asked what he was doing, he said he was pretending to “make the video”! He watched the demo reel about a dozen times, playing this little “game” of his own devising the entire time. When I told him this story as an adult, he had no recollection of it, but it gives you an idea of where his head was at even at that age. Pounding on a computer keyboard was his idea of fun as opposed to, say, playing board games or running around the yard.

Disconnected keyboard: best toy ever!

Disconnected keyboard: best toy ever!

As for the girl, she loved stories and art and words. Even as a pre-schooler, she would get hold of a single photo or picture, study it for several minutes, and make up stories about it. (When she was three years old I gave her a photo of a mango posed in front of the ocean, which became the subject of several stories over a period of months.) The girl remembers this, and of course thinks that everyone did this. No, my dear, they did not.

Write the magic sentence

Armed with these stories about themselves, each of these young people started to look at themselves differently. Then, by matching up their early interests and activities with their chosen field, they were able to include this magical sentence (or one very much like it) in their cover letters:

“Ever since I can remember, I’ve been interested in __________.” or, “As a child, I used to _____________.” And then one more sentence with a couple of details about things you did that illustrate this interest.

It can take some thought and discussion to come up with the right words and phrasing, but when you get it, you’ll know it. It will be just perfect. It will make it sound as if you were born to do this job, that you’ve always loved the field, and that you’ve been preparing for it your entire life.

Examples:

  • Lighting designer “When I was young I made my friends pose for photos, using any lights I could find. I made reflectors out of tinfoil and bed sheets to get the lighting just so.”
  • Photographer “Ever since I can remember, I’ve been interested in color and composition. When I was young I made little shadowboxes with carefully placed cutouts, and often felt compelled to rearrange my mother’s closet by hue.”
Hey Mom, now they're arranged by color. You can thank me later.

Hey Mom, now they’re arranged by color. You can thank me later.

  • Electronics designer “When I was young, I annoyed my mother by pulling apart the toaster to see how it worked. This happened so often that she started giving me broken appliances to play with. Some of them, I actually fixed.”
  • Rigger “As a child, I made puppets out of anything I could find–string, cardboard, stray buttons–and put on puppet shows for my family. This early training translated into my rigging skills today.”
  • Programmer “I wrote my first game mod at age 13, and taught myself Java at age 15. I got myself on every beta I could find because I loved trying out new software and finding the bugs.”
  • VFX artist  “I’ve always loved Sci Fi and visual effects. When I was a kid I made a toy model of the Starship Enterprise, and my friends and I shot a short film using simple special effects we read about in a CG magazine.”
  • Layout artist “Ever since I can remember, I’ve been making collages and rearranging the pieces to look exactly right.”
  • Editor/proofreader/writer “I’ve loved stories and words as long as I can remember. As a child, I made up stories about pictures I’d seen, and asked my mother to teach me a new word every day.”

The important thing is to keep it short. Two or three sentences is plenty. The employer isn’t interested in every detail, just the overall impression that you’ve been preparing for this job for decades. If they want to know more, they’ll ask you at the interview.

The boy is now a successful programmer, having gotten that first programming job (despite no formal training) and proven himself on the job. The girl started out as a layout artist and is now a successful writer and editor.

Balloon experiments rule!

Balloon experiments rule!

As for me, I loved reading and drawing and math. I devised my own physics experiments with anything I could get my hands on– balloons, mittens, sticks, spoons–and made animated flipbooks illustrating the results. No one told me to do this, and at the time I would have been hard-pressed to say why. It’s just what I felt like doing.

And these days, I write about physics and computer art. Go figger.