Nov 05 2011

How to Write a Cover Letter That Is Both Modest and Confident

Published by at 10:43 pm under Getting a Job,Life Advice for Writers

Earlier I linked a cover letter that was both modest and confident.   How can a cover letter be both?

1. Any claim that you can back up is not immodest.  For example, J.K. Rowling can modestly and honestly say that she has been the most successful fantasy author in the world over the past decade or so.  Granted, you’re probably not as accomplished in your field as she is in hers, but you almost certainly can back up some claims about your qualifications for a particular position, based on your work history, letters of reference and (as a last resort) your educational experience.  (If you can’t come up with some evidence of your qualifications, why are you applying for the position?)


2.  If you must make an opinionated claim in your cover letter, at least have someone relevant back up the opinion.  For example, “I’m the best writer at my company” is much less persuasive than “In my last performance evaluation, my supervisor wrote I was ‘the best writer in the company.'”  If you just give the reader your opinion without any reason to believe that your opinion is actually correct, it will probably sound like empty bragging.  Alternately, you can give evidence to back up your claim.  For example, instead of saying you’re an awesome writer, you might say “I’ve been published in The Onion, Martha Stewart Magazine and Heavy Weaponry“* or have received awards A and B, successfully performed crucial job responsibilities C and D at a previous job and/or accomplished goals E or F.  It’s probably not that hard to find and/or do something remotely impressive. For example, if you write a blog that’s had even 20,000 readers, that’s a start. (As a point of comparison, I reached 20,000 readers after about six months of decidedly clueless high school blogging.  If you wanted to, you could probably do it significantly faster).

*If Martha Stewart Magazine had more articles by authors published in Heavy Weaponry, I might actually read it.


3. Bashing yourself is NOT the best way to inspire confidence in your readers.  Let’s say you’re feeling self-conscious about a weakness on your resume.  First, the weakness might not have even occurred to the reader.  In the previous example, a candidate proposed a position sabotaging Nazi holdings in rugged, mountainous areas and he cited his crucial skills, like demolitions, marksmanship, skiing and basic Italian.  Did you notice that he didn’t mention a college degree?  I definitely didn’t.  If you’re missing some qualification that other candidates probably have, I would generally recommend saving your explanation for the interview, assuming the interviewer asks about it.  The interview is generally a better venue to address your liabilities and the interviewer might not even ask about it.  (If I were a WWII spymaster, I doubt a college degree would be one of my top 5 concerns for a saboteur).


3.1. Only bring up a weakness on your cover letter if you are immediately prepared to address it.  For example, if you’re missing a crucial qualification but you’re about to get it, definitely mention that.  For example, if you’re applying to be a doctor, it’d be worth mentioning that you’ll be licensed to practice medicine next month.  If your resume raises red flags that have since been resolved, it might be worth addressing that in the cover letter.  For example, if you’re applying for an academic position where your GPA is a major consideration, but your GPA is poor because you had a medical crisis a few years ago, explain what happened.  “I was hit by a car and did not perform very well in my freshman or sophomore year, but my GPA for the last two years has been 3.7” would almost certainly allay any concerns an interviewer had about a 2.4 cumulative GPA.  (Alternately, if you have enough job experience, you can just cut out the GPA entirely and address it if they ask during the interview).


4. Always be honest.  My rule of thumb is to portray your experiences in the in the most appealing light that your coworkers/supervisors/professors would vouch for.  Assuming that the interviewers had first-hand knowledge of your experiences, would they agree with the way you’ve portrayed them?  If the interviewer asks you to demonstrate a skill you claim on your application, will you actually be able to do so?

4.1. Don’t make any claim unless you’d be comfortable taking questions about it during a job interview.   For example, if you claim strong writing skills, don’t be surprised if an interviewer gives you 20 minutes and a writing prompt.  P. Mac had a grimly hilarious story interviewing an applicant for a job in Japan.  The applicant claimed that he was fluent in Japanese but had at best basic proficiency.  Even if a dishonest application DOES get you a job, you’re probably setting yourself up for disaster.  That applicant would have flamed out shortly after starting and wasted ~$1000 on a flight back home.  (Rule of thumb: don’t claim “fluent in X” unless you are actually able to handle a job interview in the language and don’t say “proficient in Mandarin” unless you are comfortable taking some questions in the language or “proficient in Photoshop” unless you are ready to take some questions about how to handle various scenarios with your skill*.

*For example, if you say you’re “proficient in Photoshop” in a graphic-related position, I’d feel comfortable asking this: “If a coworker came to you with a graphic that looked much more saturated online (like this) than it did in Photoshop (like this), how would you fix it?”  I’d be impressed if the applicant knew to check whether the file was saved in RGB or CYMK mode, but even an honest punt like “I’m not sure. I’d check online and find a solution” would help convince me that the candidate had reasonably good problem-solving skills.  Just avoid sounding completely clueless (“Photoshop is the one that does pictures, right?”) and you should be okay.

3 responses so far

3 Responses to “How to Write a Cover Letter That Is Both Modest and Confident”

  1. […] How to Write a Cover Letter That Is Both Modest and Confident […]

  2. Cassandraon 09 Aug 2012 at 8:16 pm

    I’m a minor, and am aching to be published. People tell me that I have skill, and my voice is that of an author. The only problem is that I don’t really know if telling the publisher (DAW) that I’m not 18 would make a difference. I know that if my parents were to sign the papers, it would be perfectly legal. How do I explain this to the editior without sounding childish?

  3. B. McKenzieon 09 Aug 2012 at 9:18 pm

    If you’re writing at a professional level, I would generally recommend against mentioning your age in a query letter to publishers (unless it’s relevant to the proposal–e.g. a book about teen dating or how to start a business as a teenager).

    1. Mentioning your age will subliminally cue readers “this author hasn’t had as much practice.”

    1.1. If you have an agent, I think a good agent would definitely be able to make full use of your age without raising red flags about your level of practice. For example, if a trusted literary professional told me that she had a spectacular manuscript from a high school student, I’d be really excited about checking out that manuscript. My first thought would be “this might be newsworthy enough that journalists might help me promote the book,” NOT “this author hasn’t had much practice.”

    2. If you don’t have an agent and are submitting directly to publishers, I’d instead bring up your age later on in the process–after editors have been impressed by your writing, they’d be pleasantly surprised to find out that you’re really young. At that point, it’d be a marketing/promotions boon.

    3. Mentioning your age in the query suggests that your age is relevant to the proposal. Unless there’s some obvious reason your age is relevant, the first thought that would come to mind is that “this author is mentioning his/her age because he/she knows that he is not yet producing at a professional level and wants special treatment.”

    4. Like you said, the legal issues are a total non-factor.

    Good luck!

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