The Perfect Fit

by | March 20, 2023

I am pleased to advise the as-yet-uninitiated that writing a cover letter is just like writing a personal statement, except that your interests have been relegated to the bench. Don’t fret, they’re still included: it’s just time to be strategic about them, as any self-help book will tell you. Gone are the days of studying a subject to learn more about it. They want to know what makes you you, because it will also make you the perfect fit! You knit? You’ve shown dedication, and probably time management, in the most charmingly Luddite way. You paint? A creative mind can be swiftly re-purposed for corporate innovation, so come ‘paint’ with us (in the metaphorical sense, if you see our point). You write for The Isis? Well, nobody’s perfect. And you’ve collaborated with an editor, haven’t you? So full marks for teamwork, and welcome to the boardroom.

By the end of the cover letter, my ‘interests’ strong-armed under three pert paragraphs of capabilities, I’ve even convinced myself. Selling out works like that: it’s a surprising mental metamorphosis, and you won’t even notice it happening. Just wait until the digital assessments, where the applicant must write a mock email on behalf of the company: ‘Dear Sir, We at The Firm present to you our input.’ By the time I’ve explained to an imaginary client why The Firm is the best one for them, I’ve persuaded myself as well. So now I’m not just the perfect fit, I’m already fitted up, before I’ve even got the internship. And maybe I won’t mind when a smiling investment banker tells me about her wedding to another colleague at The Firm, and that all the bridesmaids were from The Firm too (which did actually happen at an open day). I’ve already bought in and sold out, you see, without ever noticing, without ever setting foot in an office. So this isn’t about me. No, this is about you.

More precisely, this is about how career advice turns us into corporate people. A long and miry way may lie ahead in the world of work, but a surprising number of people are very happy to help. They’ll show you how to fit in, how to climb the ladder, how to win friends and influence people. In fact, How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie’s seminal 1936 self-help book, is still the best guide to ‘handling’ and ‘changing’ others so that you succeed in the workplace. A lot of it is good advice, but as many critics will tell you, there’s a lot between the lines, so it’s worth a closer look. Try a tongue-twister: who is the self who self-help helps? It’s not the self who knits, or paints, or writes for The Isis: it’s the self as the breadwinner in the boardroom. So let’s help you become it.

How to Make People Like You Instantly: Make the other person feel important – and do it sincerely.

The most reassuring thing about workplace advice is how often it accords with basic human instincts, like kindness. This is encouraging, you think: I can do this. But why must you do it? Carnegie explains: “There is only one way under high heaven to get anybody to do anything. Did you ever stop to think of that? Yes, just one way. And that is by making the other person want to do it.” And what they want, he tells us, is to be important. Know this and you can control other people to get ahead. At The Firm, you are shaping those around you like a craftsman: to play their roles successfully, and to get you to the top. Say their name. Smile when you see them. Fake self-deprecation before soft-launching your own ideas. You should genuinely take Carnegie’s advice in the workplace. It will make them feel important and they will agree with you.

It’s only fair that we trick people into delusions of importance because this is what’s already happened to us. We embark on the path into the corporate world because it makes us feel good. We want money for ourselves and our families, true, but does anyone really need the salaries the top City firms offer us? Perhaps what we actually need is to be important. One friend says he’s only becoming a banker because he enjoyed being top of the class at school, getting the highest grades (and getting into Oxford), and getting a First. That is what makes him happy: not what he’s doing, but doing it well and being rewarded accordingly. In the adult world, that comes from job titles and from how much money you have. It’s the same dopamine hit as getting top grades. The Firm is well aware.

When writing a cover letter, you will be told to demonstrate your accordance with the company ‘values’. You’ll have to talk about all your extracurricular achievements, which explains the Oxford obsession with student societies: if it’s a race to the top, then no wonder everyone has been President of a society you’ve never heard of, started some publication, or willingly done JCR admin. It’s all to show Integrity, Partnership, Collaboration, Responsibility: they’re all on The Firm’s website. Every company has a synonymous set, so it’s important not to get confused. As with Carnegie’s advice, these values will align surprisingly well with our concepts of kindness and charity, for a vehicle of major profit. After all, morality wins sympathy, and sympathy builds trust, all-important with colleague and client alike (and the boss who might promote you). But then awkwardly in the mix is another recurring one – Excellence.

This is a priority close to home for anyone who aspired to study at Oxford and worked overtime to make it. The natural next step is to aspire to the following: a six-figure salary in your 20s and the status symbols it affords us, to membership of one of the gold-star corporate professions (and the Big Firms whose names people will recognise), to pace around an office with a panoramic view of the London skyline, and feel that the deals you make could at some level make those buildings rise and fall. It’s all in a deep-set human longing to be important, and it will override all your other ‘values’ if you let it. Fulfilling this desire is ‘the only way under high heaven to get anybody to do anything’, remember? Maybe it’s worth being in a boardroom at 3am if it makes you feel good about yourself.

How to Interest People: Talk in terms of the other person’s interests.

Again, The Firm is onto this trick before you are. They are onto it every day in Oxford, in case you hadn’t noticed. Come along and have Sangria with the Solicitors! Or Cosmos with the Consultants? Bellinis with the Bankers? Cookies, burgers, tapas, sushi: all we need is a gingerbread version and the Hansel and Gretel metaphor will be complete. Someone at The Firm has had a genuinely clever idea: students love drinking, and they love free food. Give it away and, like toddlers in the forest, they’ll skip right in. I’m on multiple corporate databases because someone has given me hot chocolate and I really like hot chocolate.

But the worker can craftily repurpose this strategy, by doing a version of what we all did when we wrote a personal statement for Oxford: playing the game. Merve Emre explores the rise of the US college admissions essay in this light in ‘The Illusion of the First Person’ for The New York Review. Higher education was, and implicitly still is, about training the political and business leaders of the future: about fitting up the next establishment. Beyond its discriminatory function, the personal essay sought to identify the students whom the university could transform into the political and economic leaders of the future. Learning how to “game the system” was only a sign of the system’s success in shaping applicants’ behaviour.

We all remember how it goes with universities. Others may want a paragraph about your extracurriculars, but Oxford isn’t interested. They are interested in you as a budding academic – in my case, as a literary-critic-in-training. (But I’m not a literary critic in training! Or I wasn’t before I started writing a critical essay about self-help books for fun, so this may be a cry for help?) So that’s what you do during the application process: try to think about books like a university student. “Dress for the job you want”, they say: think for the job you want, and you’ll be a highly competitive applicant, because you’ve already made yourself that person. Now who’s playing who?

People aren’t interested in you. They are not interested in me. They are interested in themselves.

The irony, of course, is that Carnegie isn’t exactly wrong. This is another good way to mould people to your desires: talk about them, not about yourself. Think about them, not about yourself.

And what a relief that is. Gone are the days of having to think of a new essay thesis once a week, hunting for something original or at least inspiring among the library books. Now, you are equipped with skills which you are paid to reliably deliver: to value a company, write a contract, and, of course, to make a PowerPoint. Paradoxically, there is a laziness about this intensive, repetitive work: no more imaginative pressure, just the reassurance that if you memorise information and churn it out properly, you might make partner one day. You don’t have to be anxious about being interesting, or original, or even yourself. How much easier to fit into the framework. Self-erasure can be surprisingly tempting.

They also take away the pressure of choice. I tell my mother I’m thinking of applying to X’s internship, although I’d like to try Y as well, and Z might have a summer programme too. “Well, I think you should do all of them! That’s the only way to find out what you’ll really enjoy.” I explain that this isn’t an option anymore, since X is eight weeks of the summer holiday and so clashes with half of Y. That especially in the corporate world, you’ve got to have decided by second year, preferably by first, so you can get on to a certain programme and graduate with a job offer. That internships aren’t really about trying things out, they’re like a two-month-long interview for something you’ve already committed to. (She tells me to be pragmatic and not bother with the journalism one in that case.)

Offer your spouse, your child or some business associate a dime or a dollar every time he or she catches you violating a certain principle. Make a lively game out of mastering these rules.

We’ve told you the rules. Now you just have to follow them. But can you? Is there a final moment when you’ve become The Perfect Fit, forgotten all your qualms? And, honestly, don’t you lose either way? Either the self-erasure is total, or it isn’t, and the pretence falls apart (and you’ve got to give up a symbolic dollar). Then you remember that you didn’t mean it at all, that being a solicitor hasn’t been your guiding passion since primary school, and maybe you don’t ‘thrive in fast-paced, competitive environments’ as much as you claimed anyway. I have made a lot of these claims and I dearly love a lie-in.

The skyline views are wonderful, it’s true. I visited a law firm which had one recently, curious about applying there: 360-degree Holborn panorama, mock-trees and grass on the wall, plush sofas and coffee machines aplenty. But none of it mattered, because they were still struggling to get their staff to come back to work in person. Apparently, they just didn’t have the heart to come in, no matter what their cover letters had said.

Not that I’ll name the firm, of course. We may all need a job from them yet.∎

Words by Clemmie Read. Art by Dowon Jung.