Cover Letters: A Balancing Game

13 Feb

Yahoo! Finance published an article about one New York University student’s cover letter. You might wonder why anyone would write about such a mundane topic. The majority of people who are of working age have at least a few cover letters on hand, and very few hiring managers take the time to read these letters word for word.

The Power of Email

So the reason for such an article? This student managed to write the world’s first viral cover letter.

Shortly after receiving the document, a Merrill Lynch director sent it to his team, promising to reward “the first analyst to concisely summarize everything that is wrong with” the applicant’s language. Since February 2, the letter jumped from company to company, including Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank, and Wells Fargo.

The Reactions

One writer at the Huffington Post is unsure if the student intended the letter as a joke. Perhaps the letter was meant to stand out from the sea of cover letters that the original reader, the Merrill Lynch director, undoubtedly receives every day. Using such a hubristic tone was a risky move. The director easily could have tossed the letter aside, writing off the applicant as some arrogant student. Writing him off is essentially what happened, but not before the director sent the letter out to everyone he knew.

The Lesson

This student is now the laughingstock of Wall Street. Based on this outcome, we have to ask: how far are we willing to go to stand out? On the one hand, we need to recognize that these executives are busy people, and that we ought to demonstrate some humility and gratitude that they are taking the time to read our letters. On the other hand, the first piece of advice we receive when writing cover letters is keeping in mind that the reader will spend just a small amount of time reading it. Naturally, we want to highlight our strengths and advantages as quickly as possible.

So what do we do? This question plagues countless jobseekers today, though perhaps not to the same extent as for the NYU student. Not many people would admit to being able to “bench double [his] bodyweight and do 35 pull-ups” while “taking two honors classes and holding two part-time jobs… [and achieving] a 3.93” all in the same sentence. But where is the balance between emphasizing our abilities and coming off as just arrogant?

The answer lies in knowing your audience. The NYU student recognized that the firm he was applying to, Merrill Lynch, values confidence and skill. However, what he did not recognize was his own overconfidence, leading the director to realize that the candidate was not a good fit for his team-based work environment.

In the end, as entertaining as the letter was, it was a lesson in what not to do. Business communication continues to hold highly professional standards, and the wisest choice would be not risking any misinterpretation with an egotistical, albeit outstanding, piece of writing.

by Leslie Wu



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