I’m sitting down to write a cover letter for a highly competitive, paid internship at United Talent Agency. I don’t know where to start, so I look online…sample cover letters, example cover letters, cover letter tips. They don’t all say the same thing:
– Be funny! I read hundreds of cover letters a day and if you don’t stand out then I’m not going to bother getting to your resume.
– Keep it professional. A cover letter isn’t a creative writing sample, I just want the Cliff Notes version of yourself so I know what I’m looking at.
– Share a personal anecdote. Your resume tells me about your accomplishments and work ethic, I want to know who you are as a person.
– Keep it short, I have a lot to read.
– Don’t skimp, otherwise what’s the point of even writing one?
– Include your address, I need to know if you live close to the office.
– Don’t put your address, no one’s going to send you mail and they assume that you can get to work if you’re taking the time to apply.
– Don’t sign “Yours truly,” this isn’t a love letter.
– Don’t use “Sincerely,” it shows you didn’t try hard enough.
There are so many contradictory pieces of advice that I’m even further away from knowing where to start than I was before I went online. I try to think of something that’s funny, professional, personal, and relatively short. Wait a minute…I’ve done this before. This sounds a lot like the “find your voice” exercises from my sophomore writing class, Composing the Self. We ended up writing a personal memoir in three acts, but we started with small anecdotes using sensory descriptions to paint the tone.
If I hadn’t taken that writing course, my cover letter would probably have started off as a formally professional version if,
“Hi, I’m great and you should hire me. Here are reasons A, B, and C. Those were my reasons and it would be really great if you hired me. Thank you and stuff.”
But I know how to write in my own voice now. I can get creative and be a little funny and paint a wonderful picture of myself as a hardworking, quirky, organized person who would be an asset to any company. I know how to start this cover letter: drop them into the story.
At ten years old—if I had a second free of ballet, school, and homework—I’d most likely be wandering the house in confusion. I didn’t know what to do with free time and I needed to find something to occupy myself so my parents didn’t notice my idleness and make me clean my room. For some reason, organizing my mom’s scrapbook drawers or dressing up as Cinderella to wash the dishes and pretend to be a downtrodden house slave seemed way better options than cleaning my own room. No one else would really benefit from my clean room; what’s the point of doing all that work just for me? I don’t mind if it’s messy. Besides, sweeping and mopping are way more therapeutic and the living room’s open floor plan offered more space to test out my techniques.
Okay, wait, that’s way too informal and it’s taking me too long to get to the point. This story was supposed to prove that I’m really good at doing grunt work and making other people’s days better by working hard at things most people don’t like doing. It’s definitely not doing that, and I have no idea if my conversational tone will fly with the recruiting executives at the major L.A. talent agencies. But how can I know what they’re expecting, or what they want?! If I have no idea who my audience is then how can I even know what language is most effective? I think of all the techniques I studied in my rhetorical foundations course. The five canons of rhetoric, narrative techniques, ethos/pathos/logos. Then I figure out the issue: I’m the speaker and I know what my message is, but I can’t really get started until I pinpoint my audience.
I know they’re LA agents, but Hollywood is a strange place full of unique individuals; there’s no telling what kind of people work at UTA. I type “recruitment supervisor United Talent Agency” into my Google search bar, because it can’t hurt to be specific. Up comes an interview with the head executive and co-founder of UTA, Jeremy Zimmer. If I can figure out the figurehead of the company—what are his personal values, company goals, maybe his opinions on humor in internship applications—then I can figure out what the company as a whole is most likely looking for and that could give me some idea of how to market myself to the recruiter. It’s a long shot, but it’s better than nothing.
According to the interview, the C.E.O. built himself up from nothing and greatly respects passionate, interesting people who are fearless. That bodes well for me; as long as I come across as an interesting passionate individual then I should be fine. If he were to be reviewing my application. Of course, I could argue that the co-founder is probably a good representation of his employees, but it’s really just a crapshoot. My best bet would be to keep the anecdote as short as possible and segue into more professional language at the end. I switch gears, making sure that I use all the training in succinctness and brevity that Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have ingrained in me over the years.
At ten years old—if I had a second free of ballet, school, and homework—I’d most likely be at home trying to get out of cleaning my room. For some reason, even though I’d gladly visit my grandmother just to organize her jewelry drawers or collate information packages with the PTA volunteer group in the summer, cleaning my room was the worst form of punishment. I didn’t understand why until two semesters ago, when I was the Assistant Director on a student film set and I had to stop myself from picking up the broom to sweep prop beads of the floor of the set. I could easily order someone else to do it, but there’s something so therapeutic about repetitive grunt work that lets me escape from the chaos and pressure of being a college student, especially a college film student. My opinion is not a popular one among the Chapman University producing students, who all seem to aim for Hollywood producer credits straight after graduating, but I can appreciate the work that most people don’t appreciate doing.
I wrap it up with a few words of appreciation, an implication of hopefulness, and promise of dedication before the concluding signature. Then I start to worry that I sound like I’m bashing the other Chapman students. The person I interview for might be a Chapman alum! Or maybe they were one of those gung ho film kids. Or maybe, worse still, they prefer gung ho film kids! So I alter the anecdote. I go through five versions, all highlighting a different aspect of the same kind of story, all funny and personal and demonstrative of key personality traits that talk me up. Four hours later and I’m no closer to knowing what kind of letter to attach than I was at the start. If I don’t tell a story that makes me look awesome, I run the risk of underselling. I could tell a more damning anecdote, one where I share my flaws and how I overcome them, but will they appreciate my honesty or see only my potential flaws? I still don’t know what they’re looking for so I still don’t know my audience so I still don’t know what kind of language and what kind of story will be most effective.
I’m not done yet. I might arrive at the right version soon. Or maybe I won’t. I’ll just have to keep returning to the page, keep guessing at my audience, and keep coming up with personal-professional fusions until I get the version that feels like a winner. At the very least I’ll end up with another fifty-page personal memoir in three acts.