How to Apply to a Job or Write an Email That Actually Gets a Response

I am one of those people who thinks jobs are irrelevant to making money, despite having a full-time job. I also believe in financial diversification, multiple streams of revenue, freelancing, and self-employment. I’ve had staff jobs, long-term freelance jobs, sold ebooks, got paid to participate in focus groups, transcribed amateur wrestling interviews, held temp jobs, and made money through traditional publishing routes.

I seem to be one of the few that jobs are sometimes fun. Or teach you things. Or give you a place to stop and rethink where you want to go. Or offer a useful way to learn how to launch your own business or harness skills to take to your freelance endeavors.

Regardless of if you want a job or a freelance life or are still just figuring your life out; you need writing skills to get there. It doesn’t matter if you’re not interested in being a writer, you still need them. If you can master a traditional job application via email, then you can master the query letter, guest post pitch, or anything else.

The real reason isn’t the practice or skill, but the creative strategy in its approach. Do you treat a prospective employer or client like they’re a listing found on Craigslist? Or a breathing entity whose time and point-of-view is valuable? If you can get past thinking of the email recipient as a robot or intimidating force that hides behind an HR Department, and start thinking of it as a practice in creativity, then you can land anything.

Here are some tips on how to make your correspondence stand out

Respond immediately. You can’t afford to wait around until tomorrow or the next day to respond to a job or project. Apply right now. I’ve known employers who complain about receiving hundreds of resumes within the first few hours. They usually end up either turning off the ad or stop reading the responses after a certain point.

Follow directions and read between the lines. When I worked with a company who needed some copy for a women’s career organization, he told me how surprised he was that only a handful of people actually followed directions. I was one of the few that supplied writing samples at all, let alone the required amount. And apparently, some wrote scathing notes dissecting his nerve on demanding so much from an applicant. But it’s not enough to just diligently fill in the lines, read between them. Offer up the required samples, then expand and offer information and insight that applies to what they’re looking for.

Write a compelling, engaging, and fluid cover letter. People just want to know who you are. Don’t write a stiff, canned letter where it’s obvious you never took the time to change anything but their name at the opening. Tell them why you would be a good fit for the job, why you’re interested, what you can offer the company, and how you can help.

Keep it professional, but conversational. Make them think they already know you and treat each word you write like gold. Make a few sentences say exactly what you want them to say, and in the tone you want to say it in.

Keep a copy of your updated resume handy and tweak it according to the job description. If the employer wants someone who has moderated forums and blogged in the past, then highlight that in your correspondence early on and expand on it a bit without over-embellishing. Don’t make your job as a cashier look like you were a hot commodity in ‘finance management procedures’. Otherwise you might as well say, “I think you are unintelligent and will not notice I was a cashier.”

If a resume is required, keep it to two pages max. As a freelancer, it might be hard to do as you amass jobs, but weed out the less desirable. No one cares to know about every company you’ve ever worked at for your entire teenage and adult life. Or your special extracurricular activities in college (maybe if you spearheaded a campus movement, club, or assumed a leadership role). Or list ‘Internet’ as a skill. That’s like saying “I eat food and dress myself in the morning.” This isn’t a background check or a check list of everything you are remotely capable of doing.

Research the company and the person you’re applying to. Maybe the boss use to work for a company where your friend works, which would be helpful to know. You might also find one of their blogs and realize they’re incredibly funny with a great sense of humor and can craft your email accordingly. Or you might see they’re into volunteer work and you can draw that into your correspondence as quickly as possible. Just don’t make it too personal. If you start talking about how you read on their blog about their golf score, they may think you are stalking them and will be sufficiently creeped out.

Act normal. You’re not on a job interview. It’s an email. Thank them for their time at the end. But don’t attempt to use Neuro Linguistic Programming if you’re not an expert at it, and it makes your friends vomit when you use it on them. Some people get hooked on this sort of idea and write, “I look forward to your very positive response of accepted employment tomorrow!” It makes you look dumb.

Don’t over-explain, give teasers. Open with a hook, like “When I found myself transplanted from Birmingham to New York take a creative director position, I asked myself…..” and end with something compelling about you. Give an overview of your experience, but leave something for the resume. And leave something for the interview. Keep your cover letter to 1 page. No one wants your tome. Your cover letter is not a gripping biography of your life.

Give creative examples. If you work in social media, offer examples of what you would do differently and give a bullet point list of ideas to make their Facebook or blog presence stronger.

Stop whining. When I was freelancing as a post-supervisor and the receptionist suddenly quit, I helped the executive producer interview new candidates. I distinctly remember a cover letter where the person, seemingly in tears, told me about how her current job was sucking her soul away and how much she just wanted this new one and all that we could do for her. Your prospective employer is not responsible for your lifelong happiness.

They will not see your wounded spirit or your insatiable desire to work for them. They will only see someone demanding and whiny and completely irritating. Aside from the fact you won’t come off remotely professional, employers won’t want to hang out with you at work if you’re actually like that in real life. Don’t do it.

Be funny if being funny is warranted and take risks. I secured a gig as a copywriter for a jewelry boutique when I noticed their current copy was a little tongue in cheek. They loved the witty sample I crafted just for them and I got hired the same day. You can also balance any work samples they want you to send by offering a few risky ones with conventional options to show your well-rounded ability.

Address your letter to a real, living person. “Dear Sir or Madame” is the kiss of death. It’s what Nigerian bank scams use to address their emails and ends up in Spam folders. It shows you care absolutely nothing about that person whatsoever. If they have not left their name in the posting, open with “Greetings!” or something generic but personable.

If you don’t know if a person is a man or a woman (like Sandy or Pat), use the letter M. Example: Dear M. Smith. One of my clients has a unisex first name that most people associate with a man. So she addresses all of her outgoing correspondence starting with M. as the title to avoid having to use Ms., Mrs., Mr., or otherwise instead of assuming gender. And remember that even if you know the person you’re contacting is a woman, she may not want to be called Mrs., let alone Madame.

Once you have the kinks in your letter worked out, think of a captivating email subject heading. It’s how you will stand out of that dreaded slush pile. How employers who are overwhelmed and tired of looking at emails will notice you. They may just automatically click on it simply because it does not say “re: Craigslist ad”. And they’ll also know a small bit about your work experience and that it actually pertains to the position. It’s also how I grab employer’s attention. It’s why they open my emails. I’ve been told on many occasions that it was my email subject heading that caught their eye in the first place.

  • Seasoned writer, editor, blogger and music enthusiast with 5+ years experience
  • Graphic designer, flash expert, non-profit experience, Creative Director experience and more
  • Creative Jill of All Trades with Multimedia and Entertainment Experience

I’ve noticed that I seem to have a much higher success rate on getting email responses and job interviews than most people I know. I’ve also been told by clients, “Well, it’s obvious you’re a great writer because your cover letter is amazing.” I look at that first contact as an opportunity to brand myself immediately. Their questions on if I can write are already answered, as well as if I have any sense of humor or ideas for their company and the tone I use with prospective clients.

I want to be remembered as someone who had something to say, not a few stiff lines with a wordless introduction to who I am. I wouldn’t introduce myself to someone in the most boring manner conceivable, so why do it in an email?

What’s your best tip for getting noticed in a query or cover letter?