Asking for a Job that Doesn’t Exist…Yet

Today’s topic comes from my inbox. The author’s question is about how to ask about a job opening that hasn’t yet been posted. Also known as: how do I write a cold cover letter (which in my mind should be read as “email.”)

I’ve anonymized some details at the author’s request, but here’s the gist.

“I have been at my job for more than 5 years, so I’ve gotten to know my university pretty well. I am decently happy where I’m at, but there is one college that, if they EVER had an opening in the right role, I would jump at. The person who’s in that role has been there for more than 10 years. Or, I should say WAS there for more than 10 years. I learned in the fall that she had resigned. I was sad that she’d gone – I really liked and respect her – but their loss could be my gain.

But here’s the problem. I’ve been obsessively watching and watching and checking and re-checking the job listings, expecting her job to pop up any day…and nothing. I know higher ed is especially slow in hiring, but even this is not the norm. I’m worried that I may miss my one shot at this job. So I’ve decided I want to somehow let them know I’m out here and REALLY perfect for the role, if they ever repost it. But I don’t know how. Help?”

Okay, a couple of things here. I LOVE that you’ve done your research. You know the college you want to work in and even the role you want there. Go you! That’s exactly the kind of research all of us should be doing – on the daily. Ears to the ground figuring out who’s got good leadership? Whose work do you admire and follow? What kind of role do you want to have? Who is coming and going, leaving (potential*) vacancies in their wake? And the wherewithal and confidence to know you can do it well. Really nice homework, there!

* Now for that asterisk and its fine print. So, I don’t want to be a downer, but one thing that could have happened is a reorg or restructure. I’m telling you this to be real, but also because this might explain why you haven’t seen it in your job alerts. Sometimes stakeholders (HR, managers, and others) decide to mix things up. Worst case scenario, they might eliminate the position. They might decide it’s not what they need right now, it’s not a priority, or they may even decide they need the salary savings in a tight budget year. Other times, priority and strategy shifts necessitate that they reconfigure the job, and what gets posted is nothing like what the job was. Past tense. And at the best case scenario, it just still hasn’t been posted. Why, nobody knows.

The thing is none of that is within your control. We job seekers are never in any position to know what’s up. But what is in your control is to write a cold cover letter. I have heard tales myself of people having positions tailor-made for them – offer and all – without any job posting ever being published. I guess for those job winners, that’s AWESOME! But honestly? What always immediately comes to my mind is all those other super worthy & talented job seekers who had their hearts and dreams set on that role…to never even get the chance to compete? Because there was no competition? Sigh.

But I suppose that’s just sort of the way the game is played these days. And so to me, it’s worth a shot to see if you might be able to grab their attention by writing a cold cover letter.

This can be intimidating. When you google cold cover letter, first, you will read all kinds of nerve-wracking “musts” like: you MUST have the right email subject line, you MUST be precise in who you send it to, and you MUST keep it brief – while also summarizing ALL OF THE WAYS you are perfectly suited for their not-yet-available job but not sound at all presumptuous or like a blowhard.

Uh, okay? Feel like crawling in a hole yet? Me too. But good thing it doesn’t have to be that hard. So let’s do this together, step-by-step.

  1. Relax. You’re already an expert communicator, remember? But writing concisely is important here, so let’s take it slow.
  2. I do think it’s good advice to see if there’s some connection you already have there. If you do, here’s a good model for an email you could send to *that connection* asking them to introduce you via email to so-and-so, the director of the college’s team you want to work for. (Assume that your email to them will just be forwarded, so keep it professional and straight to the point!)
  3. Regardless of #1, you keep going to this step. Draft a brief email that will serve as a cover letter – one that you will send to the director of the college’s team. Note that I’m not giving you a template (for good reason, as it’s inauthentic and therefore won’t stand out! Don’t do it!) In it you should name drop if possible, explain why you’re such a fan of that college, state that you are interested in learning about any potential openings there, and attach your tailored-to-your-dream-job resume.
  4. Re-read to make sure your email draft is polished, concise, and a good “sell” for you.
  5. Find the right person to send it directly to.
  6. Write your subject line.
  7. Send and pat yourself on the back for putting yourself out there. Best case, you might get a phone call soon to talk. Worst case, you won’t get a response, but if you do see that job posting that you are waiting on, apply.