The job application letter you should never write

11 Apr

I get approximately two intern or job applications per day. Most are from smart, well-educated and well-intentioned people, but many make needless blunders.

This one I received last week has, unfortunately, become typical:

“Hey Doug how’s it going. I was checking out your website and really like what you guys are doing. I’ve always wanted to be in advertising. I like being creative and making people laugh.

I am just writing my final exams for (Educational Institution). Here is my resume. I look forward to hearing back from you soon and finding out how I can help Copeland Communications.


Students, if you are reading, please note that the informality of this email may seem a human way of making contact. You may even think that it positions you as a confident and creative person.

You may well be, but it does not.

I beg you not to send a prospective employer such an email. Advertising is among the most casual of professions you might approach. If it doesn’t work for us, it won’t work anywhere. Let’s go through the specifics:

“Hey Doug” is probably the worse possible way you could start a letter meant to show you are ready for a job in the real world. I am not your buddy. “Dear Doug” will do nicely. When we are buds, Hey is fine.

“how’s it going?” A lack of punctuation between the salutation and the first line of your pitch is going to get you “filed”, by which case I mean into the blue bin. Increasingly, the informality of texting and chatting is finding its way into professional correspondence. Ask your prof, or your parents, to proof it for suitable tonality if you have any doubts.

Also “how’s it going?” works great for a postcard to your grandma when you’re backpacking through Europe.

Jumping ahead to your ability to make people laugh. Terrific if you’re applying for a gig in a comedy cabaret; useless if you are trying to get into advertising. How many great comedians do you know who work in advertising? Our job is not to make people laugh. It’s to motivate them to buy. Sometimes humour works, but honestly now, when was the last time you saw a laugh-out-loud advertisement?

Hearing back from me soon. So, the onus is now on me to figure out what you want, what your skills are, how you could fit in the agency and hunt you down to tell you. Ain’t going to happen.

“thanks”. Why not “cheers man”… or “later dude”?

I’m sorry, I’m just being honest here. Not many employers will tell you they “filed” your resume, but I will.

You have shown absolutely nothing to convince me that you are creative or well-suited to my business. I will tell you because I think you have to do better. And I’m sure you can.

You’ve got 4 years in (your educational institution)? Please go back and show them my reply, have my sanity confirmed, and ask them how you should go about applying for a job.

Then write me again. Or better yet, find a more compelling way of stating your case.



(The illustration comes from the amazing Natalie Dee, a sharing machine comic.)


38 Responses to “The job application letter you should never write”

  1. GV April 11, 2011 at 5:58 am #

    He hates writing cover letters as much as I do since when I send a resume all the information that would be in a cover letter is in a resume so why do both?

  2. dougbrowncreative April 11, 2011 at 6:18 am #

    Not that these are the only methods of applying for a job, however a resume states your credentials, a cover letter begins a relationship. I would trash any resume I received that wasn’t accompanied by a personal introduction. I would think it lazy, not to mention unimaginative.

  3. Anonymous April 11, 2011 at 6:42 am #

    Doug – I’m with you and even a little more harsh. Unless they live in another city, if they don’t walk their resume through the door, it gets deleted. No cover letter – trash. I am more interested in the cover letter than the resume.

    I especially love the resumes where they are in the service industry (ie a waiter) but they love people and fitness so much that they want to move laterally into the position of a personal trainer.

    The good news is that this makes it much easier for people who take the time to craft a thoughtful cover letter, resume and presentation to get a foot in the door. It’s really not that hard…

  4. Felice April 11, 2011 at 6:49 am #

    It seems Copeland prefers an actual foot in the door. Just ask Danny Prew.

  5. Amy April 11, 2011 at 6:53 am #

    There are a lot of professional people that seem to think that an email doesn’t need proper grammar or to be formatted like a letter. I get them every day. Yes, email is a little less formal than mailed correspondence, but we are still transacting business here.

    Love Natalie Dee, too!

  6. Jennifer Jones April 11, 2011 at 7:01 am #

    This is a perfect way to point out how an entire generation of texters has no idea how to spell, what correct punctuation is or even how to correctly form sentences. And, yet, somehow manage to make it through, and graduate from, university. It’s astounding.

  7. dougbrowncreative April 11, 2011 at 7:19 am #

    > Good points Anonymous. But I take no wicked pleasure from a poor approach by a student. I want them to succeed!

    > Felice, we will seriously take any body part in the door. Oh hang on…I take that back.

    > Amy I think that the ubiquity of texting has crossed over into emails. I often respond to emails on my BB and I omit salutations and sign offs for the sake of speed and brevity. That has influenced how some people compose emails when at the laptop I think.

    > Well Jennifer I wouldn’t say an entire generation. I get a lot of very good letters too, but they don’t make for such interesting blog posts. 😉

    Thanks all for the comments.

  8. amy j April 11, 2011 at 8:50 am #

    GV Dude or Dudette,

    You’re missing the opportunity in the covering letter. They don’t HAVE to be boring and redundant. They can be the place where you stand out, make the reader connect the dots and even s. m. i. l. e. !

  9. dougbrowncreative April 11, 2011 at 9:22 am #

    > Amy, what does s.m.i.l.e. stand for? I am always curious about these clever acronyms! It’s not Students Mastering Important Lifeskills Education is it? Or Semiconductor Microcavity Intermittent Light Emitter?

  10. Anna April 11, 2011 at 9:27 am #

    Brilliant Doug!
    I shall be sharing with my son and his college advisor. It is a great example of what not to do and why.

    Love that you took the time!


  11. dougbrowncreative April 11, 2011 at 9:30 am #

    Thanks Anna – what a great comment to read on a Monday morning. So nice to hear from you on our blog. I wish your son good luck in his job hunting!

  12. Drew April 11, 2011 at 10:14 am #

    I’m glad I was able to catch this blog post to remind myself that everything isn’t always going to be slapstick zombie humour. I was fortunate to have had my lucky shot but I recognize that I cashed in a lifetime of informality chips all at once.

  13. Lindsay April 11, 2011 at 10:43 am #

    I have found that across different universities, or even faculties, that there are extremely varied results when it comes to the knowledge of how to write a resume or cover letter. Some programs integrate it into the curriculum, while others assume that the students will find the skill themselves. Personally, I believe that it is an essential skill and should be integrated into all university programs – regardless of faculty. Even Engineering, Biology or Liberal Arts students will need to apply to jobs one day too.

    As a side note: learning how to greet someone and shake their hand should be taught as well. Nothing is worse than meeting someone who does not make eye contact or has a limp handshake.

  14. dougbrowncreative April 11, 2011 at 10:51 am #

    I like the thinking Lindsay. And I especially appreciate some instruction in greetings. One of the reasons I do networking workshops is to assist with the first contact. Unfortunately some people just have soft, wet, limp handshakes. The other side of that coin is the person who tries to grind your knuckles into powder to show they are “confident and capable”. More women than men do this! One in Vancouver almost brought me to my knees. I may have yelped.

  15. Lindsay April 11, 2011 at 11:06 am #

    Doug, that is interesting to hear. I would have never guessed that women would be more likely to overpower. And I hope you let the person in Vancouver know – that would definitely be memorable in an interview, but not for the right reasons.

    I attended one of your networking workshops last year. I found it extremely helpful. Even when students attend networking sessions, they do not always know what to do. A workshop or two can do wonders for building confidence and networking effectiveness.

  16. mac April 11, 2011 at 12:24 pm #

    Nah! I’m just too old skool to find the italics function for blogs. (Thanks for reading so much into it, though).

  17. amy j April 11, 2011 at 12:25 pm #

    Whoops, that was me.

  18. dougbrowncreative April 11, 2011 at 12:26 pm #

    Why skool. Why, why, why??

  19. whoseroses April 11, 2011 at 5:58 pm #

    I genuinely know at least two great comedians who work in advertising.

    Also, as a young person, I appreciate you making what you want in an application explicit. We’re a generation with low standards. We need to hear that the above application is not good enough.

  20. GV April 11, 2011 at 6:24 pm #

    Amy J.

    I have never really wanted to work for a agency such as Doug’s, not that I find it boring but it just does’nt suit my lifestyle and the jobs I apply for believe it or not don’t want to see a cover letter, their more interested in you work history and what is on the resume and some people in HR departments (I was going to say most) don’t have the time.

    Oh yes it’s “Dude”.

  21. Katie April 11, 2011 at 6:45 pm #

    Ah, my poor generation. I can see why someone would write the book “The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future.”…. or Don’t trust anyone under 30. I am under 30!! I hope to be trusted and held to a higher standard after a lengthy and costly education. Where was this individual educated?

  22. dougbrowncreative April 11, 2011 at 7:29 pm #

    > I don’t believe your generational standards are low at all whoseroses. That has not been my experience. I just think, as with every generation, some of you suck at writing cover letters.

    > Anyway GV, you don’t like Zombies. So advertising is a remote possibility at best.

    > Katie, I don’t share your lament for your generation. In fact I am frequently overwhelmed by how smart Gen Y’ers are. We have a couple working at Copeland, Andrea and Diana, who would shine in any era.

    I purposely left out the educational institution so as not to embarrass it or the individual. But I see such applications from all the colleges and universities equally. It if is a generational quality, I would label it “a lack of adherence to appropriate tonality”, hardly a death sentence. It changes quick enough when they hit the work force, believe me.

  23. M Knox April 11, 2011 at 8:03 pm #

    What? Oh. I just like the illustration.

  24. GV April 12, 2011 at 4:29 am #

    My father was an editor/publisher most of his life for different publications over the years and I recall him once commenting to me about the resumes he reviewed and he made a comment about the spelling errors in the resumes when the people were applying for an editors job. “What hell are they teaching people in university, because it sure the he** isn’t spelling.

    MY spell is atrocious as is my grammar in many of a posts on your blog, but I find that if I take my time I can usually do it right.

    On the subject of Zombies, I believe in them, since Douglas St from Hillside to Humboldt St is one long line of them.

  25. dougbrowncreative April 12, 2011 at 5:55 am #

    > GV you buttress my earlier comment beautifully. No generation has a monopoly on bad grammar and poorly-judged business etiquette.

  26. GV April 12, 2011 at 6:47 am #

    “MY spell is atrocious” should have read “My spelling is atrocious”.

    I should have learned typing in school.

  27. Janis La Couvée April 12, 2011 at 7:59 am #

    Poorly written email, covering letters, resumés or applications tell me that your research and attention-to-detail skills still need to be developed. As an employer, I may or may not be willing to have you develop them while on my payroll.

    During the early 1990s I worked in HR for a well known and rather prestigious hotel. While email was still relatively new, the lack of formality and preparation referenced above was evident then too.

    Some people take the time to prepare for their job search, others don’t – whether through lack of knowledge or training. I wonder if people were talking about this in the 60s, 70s and 80s? I suspect the answer is yes!

  28. dougbrowncreative April 12, 2011 at 8:27 am #

    > Proofreading is the key GV. Most word programs have spell-check built in.

    > Preparedness is a valuable contribution to the discussion Janis. Emails and cover letters can seem rushed and unloved. On the other hand, our Zombie intern candidates showed that they are willing to labour over a requirement when it’s something they enjoy doing. Bottom line: you will not like everything you are required to do in any job, but it all has to be done exceptionally well if you want to have a successful career.

  29. Janis La Couvée April 12, 2011 at 9:05 am #

    Your last point Doug – “you will not like everything you are required to do in any job….” is key to the discussion about work place (and life) skills.

    Diligence, persistence, willingness, sacrifice – people (and businesses) give us clues by their behaviour.

    “What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.” –
    — Ralph Waldo Emerson

    This quote comes from the 1800s but is just as relevant today!

    As we move forward in an increasingly opaque world, where online and offline blur, I trust we will be mindful of the lesson therein.

  30. dougbrowncreative April 12, 2011 at 10:31 am #

    I like the Emerson quote Janis. It reminds me of my favourite saying, which I’m apparently, through gross overuse, no longer allowed to utter within earshot of anyone on the Copeland team. But I will on the blog:

    A comedian cannot stand in front of an audience and tell them she’s funny. She needs to tell a joke and let the audience come to its own conclusion.

  31. dougbrowncreative April 13, 2011 at 5:53 am #

    Drew, sorry this response is late coming in. Our spam filter failed to recognize you as a zombie and placed you in the trash. But seriously, you have been nothing less than professional in all your dealings with Copeland. You participated fully in the spirit of the contest and showed us in person that you’re a respectful and fun guy to have around. In all honesty you have not put a foot wrong.

    Sorry, couldn’t help myself.

  32. mark reynolds April 14, 2011 at 2:37 pm #

    Career-MidWay will help you evaluate your reactions to work and decide what to do next. You can use it to decipher your creative potential and find out more about who you are, what you want to do, and how to navigate yourself toward satisfying job.

  33. dougbrowncreative April 14, 2011 at 3:20 pm #

    Mark I have no idea what this has to do with the subject of writing good cover letters. Your site is about precisely that, but this comment has me baffled.

  34. erica April 18, 2011 at 9:21 am #

    Ha! Poopin’ outside.

  35. Cynthia April 30, 2011 at 10:04 am #

    @Jennifer Jones Oh yes, since I frequently engage in texting, that means I can’t spell. Ironic how as someone in their early 20s, who texts always every day, is approached by my mother and her friends and asked to proofread their important letters and email communications to make sure they haven’t made grammar and spelling errors. Could this have something to do with my costly journalism degree? Goodness no, it must be a near miracle that I know how to spell and have graduated, I must be a freak of nature. How on earth did I manage to graduate with proper spelling considering I text everyday? I must have cheated.
    Yikes. You obviously have no experience with youth. Maybe get off your high horse and try communicating with us once in a while? We’re really not as uneducated as you make us out to be… and I’m not talking about university degrees.

  36. Mirth May 11, 2011 at 11:01 am #

    I’d personally like to see an example of what you consider a really good application, just to compare and contrast. Not just in terms of writing or structure, either – presentation’s supposed to be just as important, but it can be really hard to tell what individual employers want in that regard.

    As an employer, when you’re considering resumes, do you think you have more of a tendency to lean towards ones that strike you personally, or ones that you think apply to the company as a whole?

  37. dougbrowncreative May 11, 2011 at 11:07 am #

    Thanks for the comment. I would direct you to this post, which ran a few weeks later >

    We are a very cultural environment and applications that don’t speak our language generally don’t work with us. I speak on behalf of the collective, but I reserve the right to accept or reject an application because it didn’t feel right to me!


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