Getting to know your enemy

This article was previously published in Europe&Me.

You all know him for the Gioconda and the Last Supper. If you are a soldier, you may know that today’s war machinery is based on his artillery inventions. While if you are a pilot, you possibly know that he sketched the first parachute in history. Yes, I’m talking about Leonardo Da Vinci, and what many of you most likely don’t know is that he is also guilty of inventing one of your post-graduate life’s biggest pains in the ass: the cover letter.

More than 5 centuries ago, in 1482, Da Vinci wrote  a letter  to the Duke of Milan describing his many talents and enumerating his infinite inventions. It is considered by many historians the first CV in History, even if from today’s perspective, it looks more like a cover letter.

Most Illustrous Lord,Having now sufficiently considered the specimens of all those who proclaim themselves skilled contrivers of instruments of war, and that the invention and operation of the said instruments are nothing different from those in common use: I shall endeavor, without prejudice to any one else, to explain myself to your Excellency, showing your Lordship my secret, and then offering them to your best pleasure and approbation to work with effect at opportune moments on all those things which, in part, shall be briefly noted below.
The one who is to blame: Leonardo Da Vinci came up with the idea for cover letters in the 15th century.

Ironically enough, some say that feeling insecure about his writing skills, Leonardo delegated the task of formulating his cover letter to a ‘cultivated man’. Not so different from today’s way of going about things, right?

According to these same historians (check this cool  infographic ), Da Vinci’s letter evolved when a Lord in England offered a handwritten letter of introduction to his acquaintances and called it his résumé. So to sum up, that strange type of writing that is today known as a cover letter was firstly invented by an Italian and named by an Englishman who used a French word. That is, cover letters are quintessentially European. And as complex as any other European institution.

The complexity is today perpetuated by the lack of consensus on how a cover letter should be written. Some say, “keep it classic”; others say, “be creative”! Some say, “include a picture”; others say “never do that”! I say… Let’s have a look at some examples.


Hunter S. Thompson, an American journalist who is credited with the invention of  Gonzo journalism, wrote the best  cover letter  I have ever seen when, before becoming famous, he applied for a job at the Vancouver Sun. I want to share with you my favourite excerpt…:

Sir,I got a hell of a kick reading the piece Time magazine did this week on The Sun. In addition to wishing you the best of luck, I’d also like to offer my services.
Since I haven’t seen a copy of the ”new” Sun yet, I’ll have to make this a tentative offer. I stepped into a dung-hole the last time I took a job with a paper I didn’t know anything about (see enclosed clippings) and I’m not ready to go charging up another blind alley.

Just by reading the introduction, you get an accurate portray of Thompson’s personality. He’s got guts. He is uninhibited, sarcastic and has strong views on journalism and the world. That authentic depiction of who you are is the most important characteristic of a cover letter.

Fabrice Drukman, who is a Business Manager at  Recruitment Solutions  and has 8 years of experience in Human Resources, emphasises that a cover letter should not be a repetition of the skills and experience listed on your CV. “The cover letter personalises your profile; it has to represent yourself and make you stand out among the hundreds of applicants with the same degree and experience,” he adds.

Along the same lines, Jean-Pascal Arnaud, Secretary General of the  European Club for Human Resources, explains that the most important aspect for him while reading a cover letter is to be able to empathise with the candidate, especially if it is someone at the beginning of their career. “When I have a 20-year-old candidate in front of me I don’t look for professional experience. I want to see a project, some emotions and interests, and the candidate’s personality. I like when I can understand the person for what he or she writes.”

In those terms, Thompson’s letter was excellent. Even if… it didn’t get him the job. Can honesty be dangerous then? Well, it can certainly push you away from certain jobs. But most likely, those jobs weren’t made for you.

“You should not change yourself to fit the position,” says Drukman. “A position should fit you in itself.” Arnaud agrees when he explains that the key element of the recruitment process is to establish an honest and authentic relation between the company and the candidate. “If the company oversells itself in an advertisement, the candidate will later find out and be disappointed. And the same rule applies the other way around.” That is, you might land a job by lying, but it is very likely it won’t work on the longterm.

If he could, what would this slave probably tell his master about the motivation he has for this job…?

An early example of that relationship gone wrong is the letter of Jourdon Anderson to his… erhm… “boss,” Colonel P.H. Anderson: in the summer of 1865 Jourdon, a run-away slave, answered like  this  to his ex master’s request to go back to work for him in Tennessee.

The Colonel’s petition was by no means a real job offer, and Jourdon’s letter does therefore not classify as a cover letter. But it still has some pretty good characteristics of an epic cover letter:


”Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living. It would do me good to go back to the dear old home again, and see Miss Mary and Miss Martha and Allen, Esther, Green, and Lee. Give my love to them all, and tell them I hope we will meet in the better world, if not in this.”


”Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you were disposed to treat us justly and kindly; and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future. I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years. At twenty-five dollars a month for me and, two dollars a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to eleven thousand six hundred and eighty dollars.”


”Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.”

More importantly, and following the lesson of Thompson’s letter, it is a faithful representation of Jourdon Anderson. As Arnaud suggests, it makes you empathise with the writer. And like Druckman says, it is has nothing clichéd about it.

The manager of Recruitment Solutions complains that about “70% of the letters which recruiters get are cliché.” Not to mention templates like the Europass format, which, in Drukman’s words “are extremely boring to read.” “There is too much information, they all look the same, and there is no pleasure in reading.”

That is something applicants often forget about. Most of the time, it is about stating who you are, forgetting who is in front of you. But writing a cover letter is not a monologue, but a dialogue. When that happens, and the candidate forgets who the application is for, things like  this  might happen.


But even in those cases, the world is not over. Because, after all, Harvey Wax ended up getting into Harvard and becoming the lawyer he wanted to be when applying for Princeton. Which leads us to another important lesson: never give up, and keep your goals in mind.


We explained how the cover letter is essentially a European invention, but if there is something common to all the previous examples, it is that… They are all American! Does that mean that our sources of inspiration result in some sort of Americanisation of the recruitment process? Or is there actually a specific European style?

The European Club for Human Resources where Jean-Pascal Arnaud works tries to answer that question by defining the European way of doing HR.

As Arnaud explains, “when you consider the way of managing companies, most of the strategies from 30 or 40 years ago come from the US. In our experience of Europe and HR, we believe that the European approach offers a different perspective, especially when dealing with the diversity among applicants and workers.” Arnaud, who worked himself in the US, makes clear that he does not wish to caricature the American way of doing business, but he explains the following:

“The US is a forerunner when it comes to integrating people into a company’s culture. But in Europe, we acknowledge the existence of ‘the other’ without trying to make that other have the same style we do.” It is, in a way, a similar philosophy to that of the European Union. And just like in the institutions, it makes the process of building a company a bit more complex. In Arnaud’s views, the diversity and the humanism of being European should offer an alternative vision when it comes to managing people in companies.

Most Hilarious Spelling Mistakes in Cover Letters

  • “Demonstrated ability in multi-tasting”
  • “Dear Sir or  Madman”
  • “I studied International  Pubic  Affairs”
  • “Instrumental in  ruining  entire operation for a US chain store”
  • “Hope to hear from you,  shorty”
  • “Speak English and  Spinach”

Source: ThinkYoung

But, if the recognition of the other is the common European characteristic, what are the differences between countries in relation to their way of writing cover letters?

Fabrice Drukman asserted that “by following the stereotypes, you keep the clichés alive.” Both him and Arnaud agree that there are Germans who are particularly creative in their letters, as well as Spanish people who are particularly organised.

But differences exist, because résumés and cover letters cannot be read in the same way all over Europe. Looking carefully for a disparity, Arnaud thinks that “probably people in Southern Europe exhibit and oversell themselves a bit more than in Northern Europe.” Drukman, meanwhile, says that the difference can only be perceived in the interviews, where Hungarians, Czechs and Germans take more time to relax than Southerners, who can be more charming.

In any case, and as Arnaud points out, “things are becoming more and more standardised.” And who knows, finding a common, ‘European’ style when applying for jobs might contribute a tiny bit to achieving integration, one cover letter at a time.

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