A cover letter doesn’t actually have to be a letter at all, so long as it helps you get the hiring manager’s attention.
Everyone knows you need to submit a great cover letter with your job application.* But you might not know that that great cover letter doesn’t have to be written in “business block” form. You don’t even have to use Microsoft’s “Clippy.”
A nontraditional cover letter can take the form of a list of quotes, a table or chart or an infographic. It doesn’t even have to be a letter at all, if it succeeds in getting a hiring manager’s attention.
Here are five examples of nontraditional cover letters (and some non-letters) that landed people interviews:
1. The chart
Try listing the job ad’s requirements on the left and matching them to your qualifications on the right, like in this example, which landed a recent grad a position at a major metropolitan newspaper.
You don’t have to crack jokes (here’s an example of a more formal approach), but you do have to actually make an effort to read the job ad and think about how your qualifications make you a match.
Hiring managers say they like this format because it saves them time. If you’ve done the work for them of showing how your skills make you a fit, you’ve saved them from having to puzzle it out.
2. “Getting to Know Charlie”
Charlie Drozdyk, author of Jobs That Don’t Suck, wrote a cover letter called “Getting to Know Charlie” where, instead of talking about his work experience, he quoted friends and family members saying somewhat bizarre things about his personality. (He even quoted his first girlfriend as saying “He’s cute, but I can’t imagine dating him.”)
Since Drozdyk was applying for entry-level copywriting jobs, where good writing and a sense of humor are important, he managed to get four interviews with this letter.
3. E-stalking your target
In some industries (like advertising), people Google themselves all the time. So Alec Brownstein decided to turn that to his advantage and buy ads that would display next to the names of creative directors at top New York ad agencies.
For a total outlay of $6 (ads for such unpopular keywords are cheap!), Brownstein got a job.
4. Eating the company’s dog food
In business, “eating your own dog food” refers to a company that makes its employees use its own products (you know Apple employees can’t get away with using Android phones).
In your job search, eating your dream company’s dog food can make you a killer candidate. Hanna Phan decided she wanted to work for SlideRocket, a company that makes presentation software (like Powerpoint). Instead of submitting a traditional application, she made her cover letter into a presentation using SlideRocket’s software. She tweeted it to the CEO, and she heard from him an hour later.
5. Faking the company’s dog food
Chipotle doesn’t make a product you can use in your job search (well, unless you get hungry). But Bianca Cadloni wanted to work there. She built a website called “Will Work For Guacamole” that mimicked the look of a Chipotle napkin. The spot-on visual branding, combined with an aggressive Twitter campaign, got her noticed.
While she didn’t land the job with Chipotle, she was offered a marketing internship at a different agency, which ultimately turned into a paying job. (“Thank you for not hiring me, Chipotle,” she wrote.)
Ultimately, whether you decide to use social media as your cover letter, write a nontraditional letter or try any other gimmick is a judgment call. A startup might be more receptive to getting funny objects in the mail or seeing you show up at their office in a gorilla costume; an established magazine might prefer a more traditional approach. So long as you do your research into the company, you’ll be equipped to take the right risks.
And remember: while it seems like these nontraditional cover letters are everywhere, that’s just because nobody ever writes a news story about how a simple, well-written letter scored someone a job.
What are your favorite nontraditional cover letters?
*Yes, yes, the debate still rages. It’s kind of like the global warming “debate” at this point, though. Just write one.
Rachel Kaufman is the author of Cover Letters for Creative People, an ebook about nailing the perfect cover letter in your job search. Get your own copy here.