I used to think cover letters didn’t matter. Because of this, I always wrote the same thing. “I’d love to work at X Company because I have Y Skills. Here is my resume. Blah blah blah.”
It went on like that for awhile. If you write a boring cover letter for a job you don’t care about, odds are you’ll get a boring job you care even less about.
So when I saw a job posting on a Facebook group for The New York Times Magazine seeking a photo editor, I immediately said “what’s the use? You’ll never even get a response.”
If you know me, then you know that I religiously read The Magazine. When we lived in Nebraska, it was something that I held sacred on Sundays. What’s even better about our time living with my parents is that The Magazine arrives on Saturday in New Jersey.
In “Photographs,” Kathy Ryan, the longtime photo editor of The Magazine chooses the best visuals that have run in the publication over the past 30-plus years. I’ve been looking at this book since I bought it in 2011, and there are still little nuances that jump out at me every time I flip through it.
So last Thursday, I dug it out of one of our many boxes of books that are still packed away in my parent’s basement (we are still trying to move to Brooklyn). I sat down and skimmed through it and tried to find a photo that really, really struck me.
The photo I chose is one that, whenever I open the book, I usually spend a few minutes looking over. It’s a photo that’s always sat with me in the back of my mind.
I knew that the best way to communicate to Kathy that I wanted the job was to show her I was genuine, that I knew what I was talking about and that I was enthusiastic in wanting the job.
So here’s the photo I wrote about, and immediately after is my letter:
Photo by Eugene Richards © for The New York Times Magazine
I bought The New York Times Magazine: Photographs collection as a Christmas gift to myself when the book was first released. Since then, along with my Sunday Times subscription, it has been my main reference for magazine photography.
While looking through the book on the first pass, the portrait of Joan Didion by Eugene Richards stood out to me. On first glance, I won’t lie; I definitely had a “what’s that doing in here?” attitude toward the photo.
But the more I looked — the more I read Richards’ and Gerald Marzorati’s notes, the piece Joan had written that accompanied the photos, and what type of person Joan is and how her personality affected the work — I realized that no other photo in the book would affect me as much as this one.
When I was in college, I never thought that a massively distributed photo, let alone a cover shot, could look like this. The way I was taught was to fill up the frame, make the image tack sharp and always have an easily identifiable moment. Richards’ photo in particular reminds me that I don’t think like that anymore.
It’s such an interesting and brilliant photo to discuss — the way her body is listing, the jewelry around her neck, the depth of field. Why we can’t see what’s behind her on the mantle. Her frail arms and head flecked with grey hair. Her veins. They way only one-fourth of her right eye is in frame. And most of all, her expression. And the way Richards waited and waited for it.
When photos like these come back from assignments, it must be an editor’s dream.
If I joined The New York Times Magazine’s team, being a part of these discussions would be just one way I could contribute.
Attached is my resume, as well as a few links to my work. Thank you very much for taking the time to hear my thoughts.
This was not an easy process. It took the whole day to craft these words and figure out why the photo stood out to me. I must have stared at this photo for hours.
Eventually, after I re-read and re-wrote some sentences and had my copyeditor fiancé look it over, I sent it to Kathy.
Something incredible happened. She responded within the hour. She said she very much enjoyed reading my cover letter and asked when I would be able to come in and interview next week.
I think my jaw is still on the floor.
Yesterday, Monday, I went to the The New York Times building to the sixth floor to sit down and speak with Kathy. It was an amazing experience. She did, however, tell me that because I lacked sufficient magazine experience, I wasn’t able to be considered for the job.
And that’s fine. I had an idea that that was going to be the main argument against me, but I feel like just getting the interview was enough to say “You did it!”
She told me that out of all applicants who applied (A LOT of people applied), my cover letter was the one that stood out the most.
After we spoke, she told me to keep in touch, and you better believe I will. I feel like I have someone in my corner who, every so often I can send a message and say “this is what I’m working on now.”
So the message for you is this: Write a cover letter that, above anything else, show’s that you’re a human who has feelings. Do your homework about the place you’re applying. You can’t lie and make it seem like you want to work there. You have to know that when you click send, you did everything you could to get noticed in a genuine, human way.
Never think that a job is above you.