Want to Make Your Cover Letter Go Viral?

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An email from an undergraduate asking for a summer internship at an investment bank may have forever changed how we go about applying for jobs. And he did it by exhibiting in his email some of the exact characteristics that CEOs have been telling us they want in MBA graduates: integrity and self-awareness.

For the last six months, we at Hult Labs have been interviewing about 100 business leaders around the world to ask them what they want to see in MBA graduates. They have noted a number of characteristics, but at the top of almost every single list are integrity and self-awareness.

During an interview one CEO said to me, “I’m so tired of interviewing MBAs who have been coached to tell me that they can do everything. Just once I want someone to say: ‘In the job you’re hiring for there are three real skills that are necessary. I’m good at one of those, but I’m a bit weak at two of them. I’ll need team members around me who are stronger in those areas, or I’ll need a boss who can teach me how to get better.’” This CEO told me that he’d hire an MBA like that on the spot. But in all his decades of meeting with job candidates he’d never had a single interviewee who was that clear and honest about personal strengths and weaknesses.

There are real implications here, both from what we’ve been hearing from CEOs and from the cover letter that’s gone viral.

  • Do everything you can to understand yourself. Ask people around you to give you feedback. Try to improve your areas of weakness. And understand that it is almost impossible to improve in an area in which you don’t know you need improvement.
  • Tell the best story you can, but make it non-fiction. As humans we naturally screen our stories. We leave some things out even when we are being completely honest. Never leave out the important, relevant parts. And never add something in that didn’t happen in the first place. Make yourself look good, but in an honest way. In the viral letter there is such complete self-deprecation, but the writer adds almost incidentally, ‘but I do have a near perfect GPA.’ Brilliant!
  • Be honest with where you are strong and where you are weak. With years of experience and plenty of self-confidence, I go into every job interview I’ve had for the last decade and just say: “Here’s what I’m good and here’s where I suck” (I don’t always use the word ‘suck’, but that is what I mean!). I am shocked by how often I get a job with that honesty. I wish I had learned that lesson when I was in my 20s or 30s.

Employers want to hire people who know – and can communicate – who they are. And they want to hire people who can really do the job. Embellish your way to a job and the end result will almost certainly be that you, and everyone around you, will be miserable.

I firmly believe that in love there is someone for everyone. It is a matter of finding the right match. And I believe the same holds true for jobs, too. There is a perfect job for you out there, but as you search for it you need to really know yourself – and be willing to tell others what you know.

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