8 Tips for Getting Your Cover Letter Read by the Fashion Industry

Rule number one: You get one paragraph. ONE.
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Rule number one: You get one paragraph. ONE.
Our reaction to a good cover letter and your reaction to getting an interview. Photo: iStockphoto.

Our reaction to a good cover letter and your reaction to getting an interview. Photo: iStockphoto.

Here at Fashionista, we get plenty of unsolicited emails every week -- ranging from story pitches to internship applications -- and many of them are just ... not great. (Sorry! This is tough love time.)

Especially around this time of year, our industry friends like to discuss the importance of a good cover letter, and we thought that maybe it's time to help you guys out. We reached out to three people in different fields -- Charles Manning, style editor of Cosmopolitan.com; Aliza Licht, senior vice president of global communications for Donna Karan International and author of the upcoming book, Leave Your Mark; and Nanette Lepore, fashion designer -- to learn what it takes to get them to open up your emails.

They gave us some really great tips and tricks, but fair warning -- it's not going to be easy. "It's a lot of work, but the fact is, if you can't put in that work at the front end when you're looking for that job and first reaching out, you're going to have a hard time later once you actually get the job and start working," Manning says. Amen!

So before you hit "Send," read these over first -- think of it as your Cover Letter Check List.

1. Know to whom you're writing.

Number one pet peeve of everyone polled: "To whom it may concern." Eliminate it from your vocabulary immediately

You should be knowledgable about the company to which you're applying, and tailor each email to that specific place. "I like if they've done a little research on the company and they know something, or they say that they admire the company and they'd love to work here," Lepore says. "It feels like it's a little more personal and that the person who's applying has a real connection and would have more of a passion for the job."

Know the official duties of each specific person you email as well. Being able to mention specific projects that the person has done is a great way to stand out. This is especially crucial when emailing companies who have multiple branches. "I've received blind emails from people telling me how much they want to work for Cosmopolitan magazine," says Manning. "That's always a bit of a red flag to me because it means they're not totally paying attention. You got the organization right, but I work online, and you should be going to print."

And never, ever, under any circumstance, send a group email. (Why would you do this anyway?!) "I secretly always want to respond all and say, 'Hey, we're not terribly concerned and p.s. we all don't actually work together,'" Licht jokes.

2. Craft a compelling subject line.

Playing with the subject line is a great way to make your email jump out in an inbox. "Can I coin 'bespoke email?'" Licht says. "Tailor it, baby."

That means no "Pitch" or "Internship" subject lines -- but it doesn't mean all-caps either! Think about the place you're applying, the person you're emailing, and what you're hoping to get from the email and use those elements to create a different subject line for each email you're sending.

And if nothing else, go for broke. "I once got an email, the subject line was something like, 'I have the perfect intern for you,' and I kind of couldn't help but click on it," Manning says. "I was actually having problems with an intern I had at the time, and I got kind of excited." (Fair warning: That approach may be too cutesy for some, which is why you want to know about the person you're emailing.)

3. Keep the length down -- way down.

Everyone -- and I mean everyone -- agrees: You get one paragraph. "I rarely am going to read anything that's much longer, especially if it's from someone I don't know," Manning explains. "It's going to feel more like something that I can deal with right away."

That means to use your space carefully. Avoid repeating information that can be found in your resume -- that's what it's there for! "Every line in that cover letter needs to have a reason for being. Regarding length, ask yourself, 'Would you want to read it?,'" Licht says. "People have about five seconds of attention span. You can blame your Twitter timeline for that." 

Also, skip the attached cover letter; no one is going to read it anyway. Use your intro email as your cover letter (and just to reiterate, one paragraph long, please).

4. Think of social media as the opening act.

Yes, interacting on platforms like Twitter and Instagram are useful for establishing a connection, but never use your 140 characters to ask for a job. "Social Media is best used as the appetizer, not the entree," Licht says. "In fact, making that regular social connection long before reaching out formally works wonders."

"If it's possible to build a rapport with that person, if you can get that relationship going without putting too much pressure on it, who knows what can happen," Manning agrees. Start out by favoriting or responding to tweets to get the ball rolling; Manning points out that you can set alerts to your phone when people tweet or Instagram so you can do it in real time, if you're extra eager.

Being on LinkedIn is your backup plan, not your first mode of contact. "I think it's a great outlet -- it's changed the way people run employee searches for sure," Lepore says. "There's a lot of people being recruited and being referred [on LinkedIn]."

5. It's okay to show a little personality.

You want to stand out, so it's okay to take on a more informal tone. For his part, Manning says he wants to work with someone who makes him smile. And showing your personality in a letter seeking design experience could be the tipping point. 

"The way somebody arranges something on a page, you can tell right off the bat if they have an eye for design and creativity," Lepore says. "I don't mean I want sketches all over the cover letter, I want to see a nice arrangement of type -- I like a good selection of typeface that feels like it has something unique about it without being over the top."

Careful, though -- don't veer into being too personal, either. "Have you ever heard someone say, 'We're not going to interview him, he was just too professional?'" Licht poses.

Enough said.

6. Get a proofreader.

"I can't stand misspelled words in cover letters, and you see that a lot," Lepore says. "I wouldn't even think of bringing somebody in if they misspelled words in their cover letters." This is especially crucial if you're looking for a writing job. 

Having someone read your email back to you aloud is also a great way to ensure the tone is right. "It's amazing what hearing your own written words read out loud to you by someone else can really make you re-think," Manning explains. "Because in your head you've already set the cadence and the tone and you know where the pauses are, where someone else will read your email blind and have a completely different take on it."

7. Timing is everything.

"When you have no connection with a person, so much of it is about timing," says Manning, who adds he's most likely to notice things in his inbox first thing in the morning. Schedule your emails to send out in early morning hours or manually send them before 8 A.M. 

8. Following up.

First, try to avoid that term altogether. "It feels a little bit odd, a little bit passive-aggressive when people use that phrase, 'follow up,'" Manning explains. "I think it's worse than potentially re-sending the email."

Instead, try playing around with different subject lines or sending the email at a different time of day than the original, and (kindly!) note that you've emailed before at the bottom. Persistence can be a good thing; Lepore says she got one of her favorite jobs by being relentless. "There's something about showing enthusiasm for wanting a job that could sway the potential employer without being overboard," she explains. "You want them to know how much you care."

And as for how you follow up, everyone agrees again: "Only email," Licht insists. "Did I say only? No phone, no texts, no tweets, no smoke signals. Email. One week after sending. If you hear crickets after that, move on."