Over the last five years, I’ve read something like 500 applications for entry-level media jobs. Over time, I’ve spotted many talented people, including a number of recent college graduates who are now valued Slate employees. Slate is a small company, so when it’s time to make a hire, a list of three great HR-approved candidates does not magically appear on my desk. I write the ads (like this one) and read all of the responses myself—and after scaling mountains of cover letters I’ve developed some opinions I can no longer hold back.
The most important one is this: Many young people seem to have no idea how to apply for a job. What I see time after time from young media hopefuls are not the classic no-nos, like misspellings and typos, but what appears to be a fundamental lack of understanding of how to sell oneself to a prospective employer. While I certainly don’t speak for all media folk or even all of the editors at Slate, allow me to offer some guidance to current college students and recent grads. Some of my advice may sound familiar, but based on the applications I’m seeing, there are plenty of green job-seekers out there who could use these pointers.
Focus on the cover letter. It is not uncommon for me to get 100 applications for one spot, so I’m constantly looking for reasons not to advance a candidate to the interview round. Writing a good cover letter is your best shot at getting noticed. If I hate a cover letter, I won’t even look at the résumé.
Keep it short. I started putting word limits on cover letters because I couldn’t stand, nor did I have the time to read, the epically long letters I’d receive. I’m going to give your letter maybe 30 seconds of my time. If you are interested in a job in journalism, you should be able to tell me about yourself and why I should hire you in less than 200 words. I’ve never hired someone with a longwinded cover letter. Same goes for résumés. No one with fewer than four years of full time work experience needs more than a page. Your summer lifeguarding job does not need five bullet points.
Avoid awkward phrasing and attempts to be overly formal. Introductions like “With this statement, I declare my interest in the position you have advertised on your website” are clumsy and should be avoided. Start with a strong but simple opener, like “I'm excited to be writing to you to apply for the blogging position at Slate.” Conversational is much better than stilted.
You are your best advocate. It’s not uncommon for me to get a cover letter that opens with, “I am sure you are getting many qualified applicants for this job, many of whom are more qualified than I.” If you don’t believe you are the best candidate, why should I? This letter is your chance to sell yourself. Don’t plant the seed in my mind that you aren’t the best candidate for the job. You don’t want to be overly cocky, but I’ll take confident over meek any day.
Show me that you read my site. It’s common for cover letter writers to say, “I love Slate,” but that doesn’t stand out to me. Be more specific. Who are your favorite writers? What are some recent articles you enjoyed? Detailed flattery will get you further, because it shows you’ve done your homework. Ninety percent of the cover letters I read for our news blog, the Slatest, mention nothing specific about that particular blog. Here’s what one applicant for a recent position wrote (spoiler: I hired him): “I'm particularly drawn to a dynamic news outlet like the Slatest. I appreciate its blend of politics and current affairs, as well as its ability to consistently sniff out the most compelling news pieces and narratives. I dig its sense of humor, too—I can't resist a news blog that picks up on the latest North Korean, pigeon–eating propaganda pieces.”
Explain how selecting you will benefit me. This is where candidates often get it totally backward. I frequently read lines like: “I am applying for this paid internship because I think working at Slate would be highly beneficial for me, and would do a lot to help my future job prospects for a career in media for after I graduate from college.” I know how working at Slate would strengthen your résumé. But I am looking to you, candidate X, to solve a problem for me. My problem is that I need good interns. Explain to me how choosing you will solve my problem. Here’s how one candidate convinced me that his skills were pertinent to the role I was hiring for: “From my editorial experience as managing editor of 34th Street Magazine here at Penn, to my experience in news and culture blogging at LAist.com last summer, I've picked up the tools I need to perform as a Slatest intern with excellence.”
I’m not interested in anything you did before college. Leave anecdotes like this out: “I am a born storyteller, and I’ve loved writing ever since I won an award for playwriting in the third grade for my series of puppet fairytales.” If you are early in your college career, then hopefully you still have relevant experiences and interests to write about. If you don’t, know that you’ll be competing with upperclassmen, college grads, and graduate students who do.
I’m not interested in your life journeys. This includes your experiences studying abroad, even if you had an amazing time. I get too many letters with paragraphs like: “I’ve wondered to myself, how can I translate my natural talent for the written word into a life path that is interesting and meaningful? I asked myself this question many times during my study abroad in Morocco. I loved working with the Moroccan farmers in helping feed their families, but I also longed for a way to feed my own passions for books, literature, and writing. As I enter my senior year, I think more and more that my true calling could be to be a journalist.” Save these musings for late night dorm room chats with your best friend.
When I read “senior thesis” my eyes glaze over. Despite the fact your academic advisers have convinced you these are really important, most people don’t care about them in the real world. Be wary of dwelling on what your topic is and PLEASE do not attach a chapter with your application. Writing a senior thesis has nothing to do with journalism. I’ll never open it, and I’ll resent you for sending it.
I don’t really care what classes you’ve taken, either. I’m much more interested in what you’ve done that relates to the skills needed for the position than I am in what you’ve studied. An interesting Tumblr account, a vibrant Twitter presence, or a personal blog on a topic you are passionate about is 10 times more compelling to me than your course load.
Your college and GPA aren’t as important as you think. This may be the biggest blow to you, grasshopper. In general, I don’t care about your GPA or whether you went to an Ivy League school, so definitely don’t expect this alone to swing open any doors for you. Of all the entry-level people I’ve hired, the one that went on to have the most successful career in media never finished college. If you are still in college, you should mention where you go and what you study. But the further out of college you are, the less I want to hear about where you went or how you did there.
Follow the application instructions to a T. I often give really specific instructions in the job posting, listing a word limit on cover letters, requesting exactly two writing samples, and noting a firm deadline for when applications are due. This is my first test in how good you are at taking direction. If you send four writing samples rather than two, that doesn’t make me think you are overqualified, it makes me think you can’t edit yourself or aren’t good at doing what is asked of you. Small mistakes like this help me figure out whom to eliminate, so tread carefully.
If you follow these instructions, you should have a good shot at making it to the top of the pile. It might not be long before you’re on the other side of the desk, reading cover letters yourself. Good luck.
Not everyone applying for a job has years of professional experience behind them. This next sample cover letter's geared toward an entry-level position in the publishing industry.
The applicant has had a relevant internship, plus a summer job at her local bookstore. In lieu of more extensive experience, she makes sure her enthusiasm for the position and company shines through.
Read on to see how the writer shows her passion for publishing, and then check out the analysis below of what this cover letter does well.
Cover Letter Sample: Editorial Assistant
1111 E. 15th St.
New York, NY 11230
May 1, 2016
Cooper Books Publishing House
74 Reading Street
New York, New York 10020
Dear Ms. Bookman,
I was pleased to find your posting for an Editorial Assistant with Coffeehouse Books on MediaBistro.com. As an English literature major with a passion for the written word, I am committed to working in the publishing industry following graduation. I’m especially excited about your publishing company because you represent two of my favorite authors, Tim Smith and Anne Lee. I'm confident that I have the skills and experiences to add substantial contributions to Coffeehouse Books.
Last fall, I gained practical experience in the publishing industry as an intern at Dharma Publishing House. I collaborated with members of the editorial staff on projects that included reading and reporting on manuscript submissions, editing promotional materials, and completing fact checks. In particular, I edited three social science works to publication-ready state using Chicago Manual of Style guidelines. My knowledge of grammar and style would allow me to step right into editorial work as an Editorial Assistant with your company.
Beyond my editorial experience, I would also bring a rich knowledge of literature. I studied English at NYU, maintaining a 3.8 GPA, and worked at my local bookstore during the summers. At the bookstore, I helped customers discover contemporary works - The Orphan Master’s Son and Swamplandia are two favorites - and organized events for speakers and book signings. Between my studies and work, I immersed myself in the world of fiction and nonfiction. My passion for reading underlies my commitment to this work, and I have the organizational and communication skills, along with the attention to detail, to excel in every aspect of the Editorial Assistant role.
My life has been shaped by the written word, and I would be thrilled to contribute to Coffeehouse Books in the role of Editorial Assistant. I would welcome the opportunity to interview and can be reached anytime at (555) 555-5555 or email@example.com.
Thank you very much for your consideration.
While Mary hasn't worked in publishing before, she's spent a lot of time around books working in her local bookstore.
Editorial Assistant Cover Letter: The Breakdown
In her cover letter for the position of Editorial Assistant, Mary expresses her enthusiasm for the position. She shows that she has the skills - editorial, organization, communication - to do well in the role, and infuses her entire letter with a sense of excitement about working in the publishing industry.
In her introduction, Mary shows that she has some familiary with Coffeehouse Books, stating that the company represents two of her favorite authors. She describes her experiences as an editorial intern, as well as her knowledge of literature as an English major and summer employee of her local bookstore.
Mary ends by restating her excitement about the position with Coffeehouse Books. After reading her letter, hopefully Editor-in-Chief Rita Bookman will be happy to engage with Mary in conversation about the Editorial Assistant position.
In addition to the content of Mary's letter, let's take a closer look at its overall presentation.
A Note on Format
As you can see in the letter above, Mary formats her cover letter in a traditional way. She includes her name and address at the top, followed by the date and name and information of the hiring manager.
This is a great approach if you're sending your cover letter by hard copy or as a Word attachment. For a lot of jobs, though, it's fine or even preferred to send your cover letter right in the body of an email. Still other jobs use their own application portal and want you to paste your information into a text box.
In the latter two cases (body of the email and text box), it's usually fine to leave out all these headers. You can just start right in by addressing the hiring manager. Make sure you understand how to send your application materials and format your cover letter accordingly!
On to the next cover letter! Check out this cover letter sample for the position of Assistant Restaurant Manager.
Care to read more samples? Head over to our full cover letter guide with six sample letters and tips for how to write a great one.
Are you writing your own cover letter for a job application? Check out our great cover template to help you through the writing process, step by step.