13 Tips on Writing Cover Letters for Media-based Jobs
Cover letters can be a daunting thing to write. What should the word count be? How formal or informal? Which topics should you cover and which are best avoided? How much rewriting should take place between applications? All these questions... and many more!
At various stages over the last few years, sorting through speculative applications has been one of those tasks that has often fallen upon me. I have a fair idea by this stage of what works and what doesn't, and thought it would be useful to share some tips and insight with all you media muppets out there! This post deals primarily with cover letters, but I’ll talk more about CVs at a later date.
Some of what is listed here may sound laughably obvious to many of you, but I have included many of these more obvious tips because... well... we get many applicants who fail to take even the most basic of things into consideration. Hopefully even the most hardened of cover letter writers among you will learn something here.
One last thing I should mention before we get started proper (phew!). I work in television production, but these hints and tips could be applied to a wide range of media jobs. Also, these tips are aimed primarily at recent graduates. So, here goes:
1. What is Your Email Address?
2. Who Are You Talking To?
There is some debate here among myself and others about how you start off your cover letter. We're talking about the "Dear Sir/Madam" bit. Is it "Dear Sir/Madam" or can you just get away with just saying "Hi" or "Hello?" It doesn't really matter to me whether you write "Hi Cara" or "Dear Cara." However, many still prefer "Dear," so do stick with that slightly more formal approach if you are unsure.
3. Actually INCLUDE a Cover Letter
Goes without saying, but you'd be surprised. If you don't have a cover letter, your CV attachment likely won't even be opened. ESPECIALLY if it's a speculative application you're sending. "Please see my attached CV," does not count as a cover letter.
4. Keep it Brief - What's the Word Count?
It's not entirely uncommon to receive cover letters which are up to 800 words in length and which include flowery words telling us how "passionate," "vibrant" and "dynamic" you are. Some cover letters turn into warbling mini biographies - written in the third person! Keep the cover letter focused entirely on your career. Don't stray off topic.
Let's get rid of the notion for a set, idealised word count, too. It could be six sentences or it could be 300 words depending on the specific vacancy. As a general rule, keep things as short as possible. Make each word fight to remain on the page. Whoever is charged with considering your application is most likely extremely busy and in possession of a short attention span. If your cover letter takes more than twenty seconds to read/scan, shorten it.
5. Things to Mention
Introduce yourself and your job title. Mention where you found the job vacancy (right down to the publication or website - employers are often interested in this information).
Also make note of your availability. Ready to start immediately? Mention this.
For all the aforementioned focus on keeping it brief, do pinpoint two or three of your greatest achievements (awards and other recognition, outstanding credits etc.) and use these as your unique selling points if they are relevant to the job for which you are applying. Be self critical though - are they really going to wow your potential employer and cause eyebrows to be raised in intrigue? Provide a connection between your skills and the needs of the company. Again, keep it brief.
6. Things Not to Mention
Don't say things which are already assumed. Don't say you are willing to work hard, or that you are happy to work long hours. Proclaiming that you "make a great cup of tea," is one of the biggest TV Runner clichés out there, and a massive eye-roller.
As alluded to in tip number four, cover letters are not the place for summarising your life story. Listing hobbies or extracurricular activities isn't necessary, even if you do volunteer at your local cat and dog shelter. Stuff like that is better suited to your CV (and even this is debatable... check back for my CV tips next week).
7. A Basic Tone is Better
Email messages - particularly from people who we have yet to meet - can often be misinterpreted in their meaning. Jokes can become insults. Genuine friendliness can come across as 'trying too hard.' Keep your tone as monotonous as possible without sounding like an Artificial Intelligence robot. Don't try to crack jokes. No smilies. No gimmicks. The singular goal of your cover letter is to get the employer interested in, and willing to read, your CV.
8. Ensure You've Read the Job Description
A lot of people mess this one up by simply pasting a generic, pre-made cover letter into their email. The job description may have specific requirements which you must adhere to. Does the job description ask you to list your availability? Or your working rate? Then the cover letter is the place to do this. The more you draw on the job description for the material contained within your cover letter, the more likely you are to appear as a suitable candidate for the job at hand.
9. Double Check, Triple Check and Spelling Check
We all make typos. They crop up everywhere - on our personal social networks, in Mediamuppet articles (shocking!), and even professionally, in call sheets, reports and so on. But your cover letter is where you make your first impression before the first impression (the job interview), and so any typos are often judged more harshly here than they would be under any other circumstance. You must spell check. And even then, spell check doesn't cover everything. Check names. Is it Ian or Iain?
End the email as you began - appropriately. Keep it to your name. Don't say "Cheers." Again, no smilies. No kisses. Don't feel that you can add a "PS" with any additional information.
11. Beware of Poor Examples
The University of Kent's website has a 'Career and Employability' section which includes a sample cover email for a media job vacancy. Read it here.
The cover letter is too long and lacks focus (it doesn't seem tailored to any specific job opening, does it? Despite a soft focus on sports...). Some of the info contained therein is appealing, but the email needs to be significantly shortened on the whole. Much of the information contained within the cover letter is better suited to the actual CV.
A lot of colleges and universities tend to get it wrong when offering advice on cover letters and CVs. Be weary of the sources from which you accept advice (that includes me). Question everything and take no advice from any singular source as 'ultimate authority.'
12. Name Dropping?
Use this at your discretion and don't overuse it. If you know somebody who already works at the company, you can carefully work this into your cover letter. Again, being brief is the key here. Ask for your contact's permission first before dropping their name into your cover letter! Sad fact of life and one we all have to deal with: Who you know is oftentimes more important than raw talent and enthusiasm.
13. Show, Don't Tell...
Remember what we were saying earlier about how you don't want to force-feed your potential employer useless information about how you are a 'hard worker' who is 'enthusiastic?' Well, you still want to subtly convey this information. Without blatantly stating the mundane facts in the cover letter, you want the reader to gain the impression that you are a hard worker who is intelligent, who gets things done and who fits in well.
These are Mediamuppet’s top ‘lucky thirteen’ tips for writing cover letters for media-based job vacancies, predominately at entry/graduate level.
If you have any additional tips, or any queries, feel free to leave a comment below.