Finding my first job

Brian Henry (M.Arch, U of Idaho, 2011)



Sep '11 - Jan '13

  • anchor

    Cover Letters and Cold Calls: We're Only Hurting Ourselves

    Brian Henry
    May 7, '12 8:21 PM EST

    I knew this before, but I'm realizing more and more that it really is all about who you know and how much effort you put into your initial contact with a firm. I had some time to waste today between a couple of meetings and I ventured over to my old stomping grounds to talk to a few members of this year's graduating class. They just presented their thesis projects last week so the studio was a little empty but there were still a few familiar faces that I was able to catch up with.

    Out of curiosity, and a little bitter jealousy, I asked about their job search; where they were looking, how much looking they've done, and if they had any offers or leads on potential openings.

    First of all, it seems like the majority of them are looking in the Pacific Northwest and Intermountain West (Washington, Idaho, and Utah mostly). According to the March ABI this is the wrong place to start looking, but despite this, many of them had potential leads and even some offers.

    When I talked to them about how much looking they've done, I got varied responses and it really comes down to their approach method. Some seemed to target specific firms, while others just focused on cities and areas they'd like to live. Those that targeted specific firms did less looking than those that targeted cities and regions but I'd say overall I got the impression that the amount of work that they put into the job search was fairly comparable.

    The biggest difference however was the amount of firms contacted and the type of responses they got back. Those that focused on a small pool of firms seemed to get more responses than those that did a lot of cold calling. The return on investment of time seems to speak for itself. One of my friends in particular said she sent materials to somewhere between 50-60 firms in the Seattle area, perhaps more. These were a combination of firms she was really interested in working for and ones that she just figured she'd contact and hope for an interview. She still hasn't heard back from many of them and is finding it difficult to follow-up with those firms, as you'd expect. Interestingly enough, the firms that she had some sort of networked contact with or targeted specifically, have been in touch and there are some good leads out there for her to follow up on.

    I can't speak for her or verify her methods but I'd assume that she spent more effort on the materials she sent to the firms she really wants to work at compared to those she doesn't know much about but sent materials anyway. This could be in following-up after the initial contact, or even before contact while she was writing a specific cover letter to send to the firm. I'm not sure though because I never asked but I'd assume that it is probably both. Again, notice the return on investment.

    Now keep in mind that this "informal survey" is no where near scientific and any conclusions could be completely erroneous. But even with that disclaimer, I'd say that there is a definite correlation between the amount of effort you put into contacting and tailoring your application materials to a specific firm and the quality of the response you get back from that firm.

    Now I know this isn't anything new. Look around and you'll see this everywhere you see job search advice. But I know personally it is easy to fall into the trap of having a generic cover letter that you can send to any firm. I also know that sometimes when you don't have a large network that it is extremely tempting to just send out a lot of resumes and think that statistically one of them has to be interested in you.

    DON'T DO IT!

    You are only making our job (as job seekers) harder, and their job (as potential employers) harder as well. If you're like me you hate sifting through all those pre-approved credit card applications and advertisements just to get to the one piece of important mail per week. You probably also hate opening your email inbox to a bunch of new messages to only find one interesting one. Would you really want to call in that Nigerian Prince for an interview that promises you Neiman-Marcus's secret cookie recipe? Doesn't matter how much we keep telling ourselves that our application materials are not junk mail (and they aren't), yet we still make them look, swim, and quack like a duck.

    The point is we are only hurting ourselves by cluttering firm inboxes with "junk mail" and expecting it to be read. Despite a tough economy there is work out there, but because firms have to sift through all the junk it is that much harder to actually get noticed.

    Finally, I'd like to state that I'm not saying cold calling doesn't have a time or a place, but if you are going to do it, please take the initiative to at least make your application materials tailored to the firm you're cold calling. If not for the sake of your fellow job seekers, at least do it for the sake of the person that has to sift through the inbox.


    • Great advice Brian. If a job applicant does not make it clear, right away, that they understand the job and the employer, and have spent some time tailoring the application for the specific job, most employers will disregard the application immediately.

      In our experience hiring people, it's really amazing how many people waste their time (and our time) submitting applications that are completely irrelevant or generic.

      May 8, 12 12:57 pm

      I think it also helps to have a clear strategy beyond working in a firm. If the goal is to work out of school to gain drawing experience, understanding the real world constraints, that's fine. But I would argue that firms place more value a person who views the professional work environment as a tactic in a larger strategy to gain experience in designing/building.

      May 8, 12 2:15 pm
      Dani Zoe

      This is an excellent post, a good friend once told me that if you are job hunting, your goal should be to send 4-5 applications max A WEEK (assuming all you're doing is applying for work). That is how much time you need to devote to doing research, writing the cover letter, and tweaking the teaser portfolio to tailor your work to each firm.

      May 8, 12 4:21 pm

      Thanks for the comments everyone.

      I have the weird feeling that this post is going to be misinterpreted to mean never cold call, I probably should have come up with a more specific title. So, I'd like to reiterate and state for the record; cold calling has a place. However, cold calling is not sending out generic materials. Cold calling is doing your homework and adapting your generic materials to be specific and targeted to the firm you are contacting when you don't have any sort of network in place to help you make the initial contact.

      May 9, 12 11:57 am

      It's actually kind of strange because extra care and attention don't *always* work.

      Both my boyfriend and I targeted about 10-15 firms (different ones since we're interested in different things) using printed portfolios and tailored cover letters. I got 5 interviews and 2 offers while he only ever heard back from one firm who agreed to send his portfolio back to him. I was applying to more landscape architecture/urbanism firms while he was applying to building architecture firms.

      I feel like it's more about chance sometimes; my boyfriend ended up getting his job because he sent an application the same day a firm was starting a major competition and needed someone with exactly his skills to help out.

      May 21, 12 2:21 am

      stephanie - it's 90% chance but you can help create that chance by putting yourself out there, right? your boyfriend got the job because he still sent something fresh, not because they had a 6 month old resume.


      brian - the whole approach you're outlining is dead on. i've said in other threads, my job is to have to serve our clients this way. so, i need staff who sort of 'get it' and can take the initiative to think this way. if you're just sending out generic emails... you're not doing your homework. 


      lastly though, understand that many firms (including ours) are still trying to stress the current staff as reasonably as we can before hiring new people. meaning, how much can we do ourselves before it becomes inevitable. partly, we don't want to fire people when it gets lean. but that simply to say: you can do everything right and the jobs simply aren't there. 



      May 21, 12 2:44 pm


      The point you make about firms trying to stress their current staff as reasonably as possible before hiring new people is an important one. It seems like most of the interviews I've had up to this point have been with firms in that exact situation (whether they let on to it or not). They have work and are busy, but are also cautious when it comes to taking on someone new that they may end up firing a few months down the road when their circumstances change slightly. Perhaps in better times they would be more willing to let the new hire "tag along" until the next project comes in.

      May 21, 12 7:49 pm

      The tittle of your post grabbed my attention and the comments so far have been as interesting. I have been looking for a job, not my first one, for about six months now while participating in the state's unemployment program. At least in Florida, one of the conditions to qualify for unemployement is to do 5 job searches a week. While I appreciate the discipline, I have been forced to apply to positions in firms I don't really want to work at or for jobs I either don't qualify for a 100%, or are not what I want to do "when I grow up", knowing that I am wasting their time and mine. Most  of the job postings I've seen indicate that they don't welcome phone calls, so the cold calling has not been an issue for me. I'm thinking though that you are using the term cold calling to unsolicited mailing/ emailing your credentials . That I've done and may have received a "thanks but no thanks" response or two. I do try to reply to rejection or acknowledgment emails because I appreciate that they took time from their busy schedules to acknowledge in turn my efforts.

      Jun 2, 12 10:51 pm

      Block this user

      Are you sure you want to block this user and hide all related comments throughout the site?

    • Back to Entry List...
  • ×Search in:

About this Blog

Commentary on looking for work, portfolio and resume design, networking, social media and the job search, interviews, dealing with rejection and the joy of landing a job.

Authored by:

Recent Entries