Tedious, yet mandatory: writing a cover letter to pitch your qualifications and your personality in only a few paragraphs is usually the most difficult part of applying for a job.
The worst part: as a general rule of thumb, a cover letter can make or break your likelihood to get called in for an interview.
“Cover letters give you a way to make a first impression and to directly address the key requirements of the position, helping to get you past the initial screening and encouraging the HR officer to read a little deeper,” explains business psychologist and executive career coach Kate Sullivan. “The best cover letters present you as a unique person with valuable skills, telling a story about your background and experience that lets the recruiter immediately envision you fitting into the company culture. It should always be customized to the position and its requirements and should hook your reader in like a great novel.”
But hey, no pressure.
A couple of starter pieces of advice are important. The one firm rule for a cover letter is to keep it short: No more than two or three short paragraphs. And don’t revisit every single big job you’ve had, because they can see that on your resume. The cover letter exists purely to distill your achievement and put then in a new light.
As a launching pad of creativity to get you inspired, take the advice of career experts and coaches who shed light on the type of words you should probably CTRL+F and ‘Delete’ out of your cover letter ASAP.
Never say ‘never’ – literally
While a wildly different endeavour, consider the last time you went on a bad first date. Was the person negative? Or difficult to get to know? Since your cover letter is the first introduction into who you are and what you offer, using an absolute word like ‘never’ isn’t recommended by career coach Cheryl Palmer.
She explains that some entry-level applicants or those who have recently switched direction may be tempted to over-explain their lack of experience. Instead, she says to make some lemonade out of those lemons.
“Remember, if you are a new graduate or someone transitioning into a new field, it is understandable that you don’t have experience in that area yet, but it is not to your advantage to draw undue attention to this fact,” she notes. “Instead you can talk about internships you may have had or experience that may not be directly in the field but is still relevant.”
Always avoid ‘always’
Another absolute word, that while positive, can be misleading in your cover letter according to Palmer is ‘always.’
Why? There’s little to zero chance that you’ll ‘always’ be the best at everything you do, so why set that expectation from the get-go?
“The trap with this word is that it can lead the job hunter to overgeneralize and sound over the top. Even if you ‘always’ do an excellent job with your work, because the person reading it doesn’t know you, that person’s first assumption could be that you are exaggerating,” Palmer says.
Instead, she says to replace the ‘always’ statement with a few examples that demonstrate while you would be the ideal hire. These should include accomplishments you’ve had in other jobs, including measurable proof that you can speak more to when you’re called in for a face-to-fact chat. This will prove your credibility, so then they can actually see how ‘always’ on top of your game you actually are.
To ‘whom’ it may concern is no one
Sullivan notes that ‘to whom it may concern’ is an outdated way to approach job applications, especially when you have the Internet at your next click. Because you can search for the names of whoever might be your manager or the director of HR at the company you’re trying to land a gig at, addressing them anonymously may appear lazy.
“To whom it may concern is impersonal, outdated, and shows that you didn’t do your research. When opening your cover letter, address it directly to the hiring manager, as ‘Dear Mr./Ms. X,'” Sullivan says. “If you don’t have contact information for a manager and can’t find the right person to address your letter to, simply ignore the opening salutation and launch straight into your letter.”
Even though it’s easy to say ‘even though’ – don’t
Much like the compliment sandwiches that your mama taught you to practice when arguing with your roommate in college (and ahem, later, your spouse), setting up a sentence with ‘even though’ in your cover letter can send a Debbie Downer message to your potential employer. “I have seen cover letters where job seekers say something like this, ‘Even though I have not worked with XYZ software before.’ This type of statement automatically points the reader’s attention to a deficit,” Palmer explains. This is where placing the emphasis on what you have done, instead of what you haven’t, could outshine any doubts your could-be boss might have on your abilities. “A better alternative would be to talk about software that you have used that serves the same purpose and/or is very similar to the software that the company is asking that job seekers have experience in,” Palmer notes.
Really, really don’t say ‘really’
Ever have someone really, really like you, but you don’t quite really, really like them? It can be a turn-off, and the same goes for applying for a gig. Sullivan notes that using ‘really’ may make you come across as over-eager or like you’re trying too hard. It also usually doesn’t add anything to a sentence: saying ‘I’m really good at Photoshop’ isn’t more effective than saying “I have more than five years of experience using Photoshop daily.’ “Be specific instead of using generic adjectives like ‘very’ and ‘really.’ It’ll make sure you sound as suited for the position as you are,” Sullivan suggests.
Forget how you ‘feel’
True statement: you probably do feel like you’ve stumbled upon the most amazing, perfect job that you could ever, ever apply for. Also a true statement: your employer doesn’t need to know that, quite yet. In fact, having ‘feel’ in your cover letter can make you seem less mature, secure or qualified for the opportunity. Instead of writing feel-good vibes, Sullivan suggests crafting your cover letter in a way that makes the person on the other end reading it feel like you’re the surefire hire.
“Your job is to convince the recruiter that you are perfectly suited to contribute to the organization. State your qualifications as fact, and do the same with your assertion that you’ll make a good addition to the company,” Sullivan says. “Project confidence through your assertions, rather than hedging your bets by saying you feel that way, which makes it into an opinion – and opinions can easily be disregarded.”
She also suggests that while you’re at it, axe ‘believe’ and ‘think’ from your cover letter, too, for the same reasons: they can make you sound uncertain about your abilities.
Honestly, ‘honestly’ is a big mistake
When you’re hired for a new gig, your first task is usually attending some sort of training where you learn about the ethics the company abides by. Even if you’re not saving lives or fighting fire, being honorable and trustworthy is considered a given in every workplace. So when you say ‘honestly’ – it might make you come across as insincere.
“The last thing you want is to have a recruiter questioning whether you’re telling the truth about anything on your resume or in your background. Even in an innocuous sentence like ‘Honestly, I love accounting and can’t wait to put my skills to use for your company,’ it’s not appropriate,” Sullivan says. “In this case, the word adds nothing to your statement—no nuance or additional information—and could backfire by sounding like you’re trying too hard to assure the recruiter of your feelings. Just delete it.”