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Work Sucks, I Know
Rob Alderson on the sweaty psychodrama of the dreaded “Cover Letter”

Applying for a job—even a dream job—sucks. But of all of the unpleasant hoops we must jump through to present ourselves to our potential employers, it’s the dreaded Cover Letter that really takes the biscuit. Here, writer Rob Alderson sends it up.

Comic by Baptiste Virot.

To whom it may concern,

I am very excited to apply for this role at your organisation. In the job description, you breezily requested a CV and “a short, relevant cover letter.” (It’s a good job you added relevant because I was going to send some poems and a crowd-pleasing tagine recipe).

Look, we both know how this works. I’m going to enthuse about your company, and try to explain why I’d be a good fit for this position. With any luck, the sheer misery of writing this cover letter won’t be apparent.

It’s the same pressure I feel when writing an online dating profile, only this time nobody’s horny.

Take the very first words. After three hours of prevarication, I went with “To whom it may concern.” But looking at it now, it seems both pompous and passive aggressive. It’s how angry notes left on the office fridge start – “To whom it may concern, the oat milk is NOT for communal use…”

Frustratingly, all the alternatives are horrible. “Dear Sir/Madam” is too binary for 2021. “Dear Hiring Manager” is too cold (you’re more than a hiring manager, dammit). For a while I toyed with “Hello,” but I couldn’t work out how to punctuate it – Hello, (impatient), Hello! (needy) or Hello: (maniac).

I’m sweating now. Cover letters are a nightmare because every decision opens up a pit of second-guessing. The more desperate you are for the job, the bigger the pit. And my god I need this job. So I’ll analyse every sentence, torturing myself with all the ways they might be misunderstood. It’s the same pressure I feel when writing an online dating profile, only this time nobody’s horny.

I like that you’ve not told me what the actual salary is, and just coyly put “competitive” as though that means anything to anyone.

Let’s talk about your company. It seems like a great company. I like your cutesy hand-drawn logo. I like that you’ve not told me what the actual salary is, and just coyly put “competitive” as though that means anything to anyone. I like how you’ve framed the holiday allowance as a big-hearted favour rather than a legal requirement. Fun!

Having read it 17 times, I think I’ve understood your mission statement – “To drive strategic progress through data-led insights.” Well, great news – I have been passionate about driving strategic progress through data-led insights since I was a boy. Many an evening, the neighborhood children would gather round to play data-led insights and we’d all drive progress until our mothers called us in for tea. What I’m saying is, cut me, and I bleed data-led insights.

What else. Your job ad included a very long list of “skills, experience and competencies” that you’re looking for. It’s spooky – spooky I tell you! – how closely I match all of the attributes on your list. Managed a team? Tick! Great communication skills? Tick! Ability to think long-term? Wrote the book on it, mate.

I like how you’ve framed the holiday allowance as a big-hearted favour rather than a legal requirement. Fun!

It’s obvious that you want someone who’ll fit in with your tight-knit team. In fact, you used the term “fun gang” three times and your COO’s Instagram handle is @workhardplayhard. The only thing I enjoy more than driving strategic progress through data-led insights is spending my Friday night pretending to have fun at a sticky-floored table tennis bar with my colleagues.

You also asked for “a few sentences about me as a person.” That’s not as straightforward as it sounds. Do any of us know our true selves? Is it ever possible to sum up the complex multitudes of our character in a pithy paragraph?

The only thing I enjoy more than driving strategic progress through data-led insights is spending my Friday night pretending to have fun at a sticky-floored table tennis bar with my colleagues.

Should I tell you I like “socialising with friends” or will you immediately dismiss me as a feckless boozehound? I might tell you that I enjoy the cinema, hoping it’ll paint me as a thoughtful cineaste, rather than someone who likes superhero films and cartoons ostensibly made for children.

You really want to know me? Fine – I once tried to impress a girl at a party by explaining that two train stations can legitimately claim to be the UK’s busiest (It’s to do with where the most trains stop and most trains pass through). Is that interesting? A bit. Did it work? No. Why am I telling you? Because nearly 20 years later, it’s the memory that creeps into my head just as I’m drifting off to sleep and whispers, “That’s the real you. I know that. And you know that, train boy.”

So there we are. In conclusion – because nothing says grandiose finality like “in conclusion” – I am pathetically in need of this shitty job. Throw me a bone and invite me to an interview. I’ll shake your hand firmly (but not too firmly) and make eye contact (but not too much eye contact) and have prepared some smart questions for that bit at the end when you lean forward and say, “Well, is there anything you’d like to ask us?”

And I’ll unleash my own weird mix of confidence and searing insecurity and try to be charming and self-effacing and memorable, but not try too hard nor let my self-effacement tip into false modesty. And I’ll leave the interview and sit on the bus and let a single, terrible, insistent question ring in my head like the panicky bells of a city under siege – did they like me, did they like me, did they like me...

I look forward to hearing from you!

Rob Alderson

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