Cover letters are tricky. On one hand, you want to sell yourself and show how you’re better than other applicants. On the other hand, you can’t come across as too arrogant or you’ll be seen as a jerk. You want the hiring manager to know you’re excited about the position, but if you become too effusive, you’re a desperate sycophant. It’s a tightrope act, for sure.
The best tack is usually to keep your cover letters simple and effective. Convey your interest in the position and show how you can help your prospective employer with some of its pain points. Be specific. And whatever you do, don’t include any of these items.
1. Arrogant Superlatives
This is to be avoided at all costs. If you come across as brash and overconfident in a cover letter, people will fear having you sitting in the cubicle next to them acting that way in real life.
“Avoid phrases such as ‘best candidate’ and ‘perfect fit’ when describing your capabilities. You are really not in a position to make that assessment and it comes across to the reader as arrogant. You want to be positive and confident but cocky is a turn off,” says Lynne Sarikas, director of the MBA Career Center at the D'Amore McKim School of Business at Northeastern University.
2. Generic Objectives
Oh really? YOU’RE the guy who wants to “find employment in a stable organization with great opportunities for advancement”? No. Everyone wants that, so wasting space on your cover letter to announce it is pointless.
“Employers aren't interested in what you want -- they want to know that you are the right person to solve their current problems and make the company successful,” says career coach Mark Sieverkropp. His advice? Make the cover letter less about you and instead about how you can help the employer.
3. “I Left My Last Job Because…”
A cover letter is a place to get your prospective employer excited about reading your resume. It should be about the future and how you can help make it a bright one for the employer.
If you say you left because the old company was awful, then you’re speaking badly about a former employer, which is always unprofessional says Donna Lubrano, professor of business communications and international business at Newbury College. If you say you left to work on the great American novel, and your former employer didn’t give you enough flexibility to write, you send a clear message that you put your needs before your employer’s, she warns.
Even if all that’s true, the circumstances of your last job ending are going to come off as negative no matter how you frame them, so don’t talk about it until you’re asked.
4. Overused Buzzwords
“A cover letter that says you are a ‘team player,’ a ‘hard worker’ or want a job that will ‘allow me to use my full potential’ will get tossed immediately,” says career coach Jackie Jones. The goal of your cover letter is to stand out, and these phrases are not only tired and generic, but they’re also the ones plenty of other applicants will use.
Jones also advises against making attempts at humor. You should demonstrate that you’re taking the process seriously, not trying to lighten the mood at all. Plus, “most folks are not as funny as they think they are and jokes and witticisms often don't translate well in writing -- especially in formal correspondence.”
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