A cover letter isn't written for the purpose of asking for a job. Even if you're responding to a specific opening, it's basically an introduction to you and your resume. While your resume lists the details of your background, the cover letter is more conversational in tone. And while your resume is fact based, your cover letter can be slightly more creative and a way to inject a bit of your personality and background into the presentation. A well-written and professional-looking letter should prompt someone to want to read your resume and possibly want to meet you as well.
A cover letter should be no more than a few paragraphs, one page at the most. The people reading it are busy and won't even bother if it's too long. But on the other hand, it shouldn't be too short either. Merely stating, "In response to your ad for an administrative assistant, please accept my enclosed resume" doesn't say enough about who you are and may get passed over as quickly as one that's too wordy. The first paragraph of your cover letter should indicate who you are and why you're writing. (Are you writing to ask for a general information meeting, in response to an ad you saw posted for a specific job or to someone who's about to start assembling a crew for a new show?) The second paragraph should tell the reader a bit more about you and should summarize your background, talents, special skills and goals. And a final paragraph should state something to the effect that you're looking forward to meeting this person soon and appreciate his or her consideration (see more detail on this further ahead).
The only time it's acceptable to not submit a cover letter is if you're an actor/performer. Your resume and headshot says it all, and a cover letter is not necessary.
As for what a cover letter should look like, start with a simple, professional-looking font (like Times New Roman, Palatino, Arial, Helvetica or Geneva)—nothing fancy. Use decent-quality 8-- x 11 paper. Limit your paper to white or off-white. Don't use anything too colorful or too cutesy. Next, it should be typed in proper letter format. Handwritten cover letters will almost certainly be tossed out, those with spelling errors will usually be discarded post haste and, often, those that are poorly formatted are likely to land in the recycle bin. If you're not sure what a proper business letter looks like—the margins, the spacing, how to address someone, how to close your letter, etc.—look it up on the Internet. I've received cover letters (if you could call them that) written in pencil on tiny scraps of note paper and on three-hole lined paper that had been ripped out of spiral notebooks with the jagged, torn holes along the left side of the page—not a good idea. Another big no-no is not running your letter through a spell-checker. Misspelled words are grounds for instant dumping. When you consider all the cover letters and resumes being submitted each day, if you want to be taken seriously, and if you're even going to have a chance of having yours read and considered, it needs to look professional.
If at all possible, your cover letters should be addressed to someone, not just "to whom it may concern," but a department or the name of a show. If you're looking for a job as a PA, for example, you would submit your resume to the production coordinator, and you would find out the name of the production coordinator before writing your letter. As an apprentice editor, you would submit your resume to the assistant editor, and the same thing—you would find out the name of the assistant editor before sending in your letter and resume. There is no guarantee, but if you address your letter to an individual, it might somehow find its way to that person's desk instead of automatically landing in the resume heap on the floor or buried in a file cabinet. Be sure to verify the spelling of the name of the person you're addressing your letter to and that person's title. Also, make sure you have his or her gender correct (I know both men and women named Terry, Pat, Alex, Robin and Michel). A cover letter with a misspelled name, an incorrect title or a salutation addressing a Mr. instead of a Ms. (or vice versa) could be tossed into the trash instantly without that person ever having looked at the attached resume, because it clearly says all it needs to say about you—that you didn't care enough to check.
Moving on to the content of your cover letter—while they're not all going to be the same, many of the elements will remain consistent. Your first paragraph is an explanation as to who you are and why you're writing, and this is where the most differences will occur from letter to letter.
You may have previously called in to check on employment opportunities or to set up a general information meeting and been asked to submit your resume. In this case, you might start your letter with, "As per our phone conversation of September 27th, attached please find a copy of my resume." Or, you could write, "Thank you for taking the time to speak with me last Thursday. As per your request, attached please find ..."
You may have an acquaintance or friend in common and may have secured a recommendation, in which case you would start with something like, "I am writing to follow up on a recent conversation you had with our mutual friend, Penelope Producer. My name is Wallace Wannabe, and as I'm sure Penelope has told you, I'm an art director and have just completed working on Gone With The Wind ¡¡-Scarlett's Revenge" (you get the idea). Or, if this situation is more appropriate, "My name is Wallace Wannabe, and Penelope Producer suggested I contact you."
The person you're writing to could be someone you met at a party or event or someone who lectured at a seminar you attended, in which case you might start off like this, "My name is Wallace Wannabe, and we met at last month's Studio City Pitch Fest." Or, "My name is Wallace Wannabe, and I was in the audience at the seminar you spoke at yesterday evening. I was quite inspired by what you had to say and wanted you to know how much I appreciated your insight and advice."
You may want to contact someone you worked with a long time ago. In that case, how about, "You may not remember me, but we worked together a few years back on My Right Foot. I recently read that you're about to start a new film—congratulations! As I would very much enjoy any opportunity to work with you again, I have enclosed a copy of my updated resume."
Another good way to introduce yourself is by letting the other person know that you have a specific skill, talent or expertise he could use. Example: "My name is Danny Diver, and my specialty is underwater cinematography. After having worked on several dozen features that have shot on, in and under water, I'm certain I'd be an asset to your upcoming production of Water World ¡¡." Or, "My name is Nancy Newcomer, and I read in the Hollywood
Reporter that you are scheduled to shoot a remake of Lassie Come Home in my hometown of Corn Stock Junction. I would very much like to be considered for a PA job on your film. Having lived here all my life and having worked on several local TV shows, I have the experience, connections and desire to assist you in securing locations, local crew, extras, equipment and services."
If you're applying for a specific job opening, "My name is Nancy Newcomer, and I am responding to your ad for a receptionist." Or, "As per your listing in the most recent UTA Joblist, please accept my enclosed resume as application for the Intern position you are seeking to fill."
If you would like to apply for a show that you've been told has already been staffed, give it a try anyway with something like, "I understand your production office is already fully staffed, but from past experience, I know that circumstances can change and occasionally new positions do open up. Therefore, I have enclosed a copy of my resume for your review and would very much appreciate the opportunity to come by for five minutes one day, just to introduce myself to you."
Hearing that someone has been promoted to head a new division, or has started his or her own company is always a good reason to be submitting a resume. In situations like these, your letter might start out like, "Congratulations on your new post as head of XYZ Independent Pictures. My name is Holly Woodland, and if you have started assembling your new staff, I would appreciate the opportunity to introduce myself to you and to throw my name into the hat."
If you're requesting a general information meeting, make it clear—you're not looking for a job. Here's an example: "My name is Wallace Wannabe, and I recently moved to the Los Angeles area after graduating from film school in Boston. In an effort to learn more about how this industry truly works and the field of visual effects in particular, I am writing to request fifteen minutes of your time. I would greatly appreciate the opportunity to introduce myself to you and to ask you a few questions. I am certain the insight and advice you could provide would be of tremendous benefit to me."
Your second paragraph should be a short version of your pitch, which focuses on your experience, special talents, skills and accomplishments, what you're passionate about and what you have to offer. It should capture the essence of who you are. If you're responding to a specific job opening, be sure to describe your attributes in a way that best fits the qualities they're looking for. Here are a couple of examples:
"I have wanted to work in the film industry for as long as I can remember, but two years ago I graduated from Northwestern with a degree in political science, because my family didn't want me going into the film industry. After graduation, I got a job as an intern to a senator in D.C. I was there a year, but all I kept thinking about was how much I'd rather be working on a film. So I have come back to the Los Angeles area and am determined to make it. I'm willing to do whatever it takes and will be the best production assistant anyone's ever had. I'm dedicated, good at resolving problems, quick to anticipate the next step and manage to stay fairly calm while others around me are freaking out. I also learned a great deal about politics during my year in Washington and am pretty good at dealing with big egos and VIPs."
Here's the second paragraph to a letter I helped one of my students with this past summer.
"Last year I switched professions to become a junior talent manager at ABC Management. After twenty years of experience in business, career supervision, image building, public and media relations, strategic planning and problem-solving, talent management seemed a natural next step for me."
Okay, now for the final paragraph—the wind-up. The biggest mistake I see people make is when they write, "Looking forward to hearing back from you." I don't think so! If the person you're sending your resume to doesn't know you, don't expect a reply. Too busy and too many resumes—it won't happen. Instead, mention that you will call her office in a few days. Here are some examples of a final paragraph:
"Attached please find a copy of my resume. I will call your office in a few days to see if I may set up an appointment to meet with you."
"Attached please find a copy of my updated resume. I would be happy to answer any additional questions you might have regarding my background and experience and if possible, would appreciate the opportunity to come in to introduce myself to you in person. I will therefore call your office next week in the hope of setting up an appointment."
Here's a final paragraph I used in one of my letters a couple of years ago (this person had met me once and already had a copy of my resume):
"I realize that at present, you have no openings, but when the time comes to expand your department, I hope you'll remember how much I'd like to be part of your team. I can't think of a more desirable situation than to work for a company like XYZ Entertainment and to be part of a production department headed-up by two individuals I both like and respect. I will therefore be checking in with both you and Jim from time to time and hope to be working with you in the not-too-distant future."
It's always a nice touch to end your letters with, "Thank you very much for your consideration."
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