You may know that recruiters and HR have short attention spans and will probably only skim your cover letter, but you may not have adapted your approach in response. You should.
At many firms, cover letters are more of a weeding-out tool, as hiring managers are looking for mistakes to eliminate candidates. They don’t want creativity or flowery language. They want error-free cover letters that are brief and to the point.
A big part of that process is scanning the draft of your cover letter for passive voice and cheesy, trite or dull words and phrases, then rewording or removing them before hitting send on an email to a prospective employer. Here are some of the most common cover letter clichés that you must avoid.
Address the cover letter to the hiring manager if possible
To start, avoid “To Whom It May Concern.” While typically inoffensive, it indicates laziness or a lack of caring. There are many things that you can do instead of this.
“Firstly, research the name of the hiring manager, or say nothing at all,” said Donna Sweidan, the owner of Careerfolk, a career coaching company. “Instead, use a quote or favorite motto that relates to you.”
Steer clear of jargon
There is a time and a place for jargon in conversation for facility and to signal insider status, as long as you use the term correctly, but language in a formal cover letter is another story. In the financial services space, jargon includes acronyms like LBO, IPO, ECM, etc.
“It’s not that you shouldn’t use those terms if it makes sense in context, but sometimes a resume will have so many of them that it’s more about the minutiae than what the person did,” said Caroline Ceniza-Levine, career expert at SixFigureStart.
A novice may get tripped up by using industry jargon if they’re not entirely sure what they’re talking about.
“If you’re going to use jargon, it has to be for a good reason,” said Amy Adler, executive resume writer, career coach and founder of Five Strengths Career Transition Experts. “Don’t use it just to sound in-the-know, because it might do the opposite or make your audience feel stupid."
Use numbers or specific descriptors rather than broad superlative adjectives
Another one of the biggest things to avoid in a cover letter are subjective, unsubstantiated claims.
“Subjective claims include words like ‘analytical’ – how would I know that?” Ceniza-Levine said. “Instead, if you tell me the specific modeling you’ve done – discounted cash flow, statistical – then I know you’re analytical and I have an idea just how much.”
A good check is to look at your resume specifically for numbers or other metrics – if they’re not there, then you probably have unsubstantiated claims, she said.
Leave out the fluff
“We tell our clients to leave out the fluff, like ‘detail-oriented,’ ‘team player’ and ‘hard-working’ unless the job description calls for these particularly, and you are going to back it up with some interesting examples of how you have demonstrated these qualities,” Sweidan said.
Claiming to be a team player, problem solver or leader without having actual proof or specific examples sounds generic, Adler said.
“If you are a problem-solver, it’s better to describe a specific problem you’ve solved than to say it – the hiring manager wants you to be proactive,” says Adler. “Team-player likely doesn’t do the complex situation justice; it’s good that you get along with others – what’s the alternative?”
Don’t come off as overly self-congratulatory
Generic cover letters that only talk about your brilliance in hyperbolic or dull terminology are a no-no.
“Don’t say things like ‘I’m the best person for the job’ or sleep-inducing clichés like ‘I feel I am best suited for…’ or only focus on what you hope to gain from the position, instead of referencing how your unique skills can benefit the company,” Sweidan said. “That will land you in the elimination pile.
“Show an understanding of what the company is looking for and why you are the best fit for the job,” she said. “You want to use more assertive language and indicate how you are a strong candidate for the position.”
Other clichés to avoid
Anything having to do with responsibility is overused in cover letters, Adler said.
Here are some other examples of words she advises against using in a cover letter:
- I (Many people use the first-person pronoun too many times)
- X years’ experience (So what? Talk about your actual accomplishments)
- “I heard that you’re hiring for this job, so I want to apply” (Not relevant)
- Reference to your decades-old education (Unless surprisingly relevant, e.g., the hiring manager is an alumnus)
- “My goal is…” [something that doesn’t speak to the firm’s goals]” (Again, this comes off as rather self-centered)
- Out-of-the-box thinker
- Interpersonal skills (Show, don’t tell)
- Thought leader (Unless you really and have the links to prove it)
- Anything related to Microsoft Office (unless the role demands technical expertise with one of these programs, like Excel; otherwise, it is a given)
- Proven results (Again, show, don’t tell)
- Seasoned (Indicates candidate could be long in the tooth)
- “Ability to…” (Wasted space – just tell about what you do)
- “In order to” (This is just one of a number of wordy phrases that the hiring manager doesn’t have time to slog through)
“A cover letter riddled with clichés doesn’t really describe what the candidate does, because they’re too busy parroting the HR job description or the buzzwords of the day,” Adler said. “Most candidates don’t think about what they do every day that is amazing.
“The point of your cover letter is to help the hiring manager understand what you bring to the table and how you could be an asset to the company,” she said.
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