When applying for job or internship, there’s a good chance that employers want you to send a resume and cover letter for the position. While a resume is a good way to outline all your qualifications, a solid cover letter can help you convey your personality, explain your career goals and share stories to elaborate on your awesome accomplishments.
However, writing a good cover letter can be tricky. It’s tempting to reuse an old cover letter for a different position, research templates online or include those clichéd phrases that make employers cringe, but resist that temptation! HC talked to career experts to find out cover-letter clichés that employers hate and what to do instead to make your cover letter the best it can be.
1. The cliché: Starting your letter with “To Whom it May Concern”
… or “Dear Sir/Madam,” or any other vague salutation. “There are hundreds of cover letter mistakes to avoid, but some of the worst ones include addressing the hiring manager as ‘sir’ or ‘madam’ [or] including the wrong company name,” says Heather R. Huhman, founder and president ofCome Recommended, a digital PR consulting website that help companies increase their online presence.
These phrases are overused and impersonal and tell the employer that you didn’t do enough research to find out his or her name. The last thing you want the hiring manager to think is that you don’t care, so it’s crucial you start your cover letter off right.
The fix: Address the employer by name in your salutations
Some job listings might have direct contact information (which would make this a super easy fix), but otherwise you might have to use your research skills. Check the company’s website to see who holds positions like “hiring manager” or “recruiter.” If the listing is through your career center, ask one of the career counselors if he or she has more information about the position. He or she may have a contact to an alumna/alumnus or someone in the company who might know to whom you should address your letter.
If you do find a name, make sure you’re appropriately addressing him or her with Mr., Ms., Dr., etc. Again, you might have to do some research. A quick LinkedIn search of the person should help you with this. And if you absolutely can’t find the name of the hiring manager? Laura Burrell, assistant director of experiential education at Pratt Institute’s career center suggests using the salutation “Greetings” because it’s considered more up-to-date. Your greeting is literally the first thing a potential employer reads, so show her you care by personally addressing her!
2. The cliché: Using buzzwords like “hardworking” or “team player”
With the number of cover letters employers read, it’s likely that they’ve seen dozens of “hardworking team players” or others with “strong communication skills” who “always give 110 percent.” The point of a cover letter is to stand out, not repeat buzzwords you think will make you sound more legit.
The fix: Give lots of examples of why you’re a “hardworking team player”
While you probably really are a hardworking team player, there are other ways to convey that idea without using the clichéd buzzwords employers hate. “The best way to avoid these clichés is to be genuine and candid with your cover letter,” Huhman says. “Explain to the employer why you’re the best candidate for the position, and provide supporting examples.”
Burrell says that being genuine is all about self-awareness. “Ask yourself, ‘what am I really good at? What can I contribute to this company or organization based on the job description?’” she says.
The employer has your resume, so he or she knows that you were on the editor of your school’s newspaper. Use your cover letter to tell about a time that you had to rally your staff before a big deadline. Or recount an instance when you had to use your critical thinking skills to solve a problem with another group on campus. The key is to provide examples to show when you were hardworking or a team player instead of explicitly saying it.
“[An easy way to do this] can be, ‘My skills are more developed in X… or… When working on X, I have great command over Y and hope to pair these skills with Z, which I can learn as an intern/employee at your organization,” Burrell says.
If you can’t come up with concrete examples that are applicable to the position, consider why you want to work for this company in the first place. “Think about what [the] organization represents to you and how their work influences your work,” Burrell suggests. “[Describe] what you can learn while there [as an intern or employee], and make connections with the person reading your document.”
And while you might think it’s best to tell your potential employer every single example of when you worked on a team, conciseness is crucial for cover letters. “Ideally, you should be able to explain your relevant skills and experience in about three to four short paragraphs,” Huhman says. “Don’t worry about the nitty-gritty details of a previous internship or project. Simply share the most important details from your experience and talk about your results.” By using real-life, concise examples instead of overused adjectives, you’ll come across more genuinely, which is what employers are looking for.
3. The cliché: Starting every sentence or each paragraph with “I.”
This cliché seems a little counterintuitive because your cover letter is all about you… right? Not quite.
“Don’t start every paragraph with ‘I,’” Burrell says. “This document is about you in relation to the position.”
It’s important show off your accomplishments, but the point of a cover letter is to show how your accomplishments relate to a specific position. Plus, saying, “I did this” and, “I think I would be great because,” sounds a little, well, self-centered.
The fix: Focus more on the position and how you fit with the company’s values.
An easy way to change up your sentence and paragraph structure is to acknowledge the values or beliefs of the company and why you want to work there. “Pay attention to the company’s culture,” Huhman suggests. “You want to market yourself to the employer, so make sure you say things that will grab his or her attention. If you do this and show how your accomplishments relate to the company, it will come off as genuine and more relatable to the employer.”
How do you get to know a company’s culture? Most of your answers will be online. “A great place to start is by reading the company’s blog, the ‘About’ page and following the company on social media,” Huhman says. “This will help students learn the company’s voice and how it reflects that company’s values.”
Once you’ve done some research, connect your accomplishments back to the company. For example, if the organization you’re applying for is really eco-friendly, it would be beneficial for you to mention a time you started a recycling campaign on campus. Maybe the position requires a lot of research and technical work. Include how the skills you learned through an extensive research project makes you the best fit for the position. Cover letters are definitely an opportunity to sell yourself positively, but always remember to connect it back to the company and position. If you show them why you fit so well, it’ll be hard not to hire you!
4. The cliché: Closing with, “I look forward to hearing from you soon. Thank you for your consideration.”
This closing is basically how every applicant concludes their letters. Simply put, “This is boring and tired,” Burrell says. Your closing is the last thing the employer will read, so use it to make a standout impression.
The fix: Be direct instead.
Instead of being passive in your concluding paragraph, be more direct. If you want the employer to look over your resume, say so! Do you want to set up a phone call or interview? Don’t beat around the bush; just ask for one.
“Try something interesting,” Burrell suggests. “Offer a nice (short) anecdotal statement about a unique qualification or special impact this company had on you. Try answering the question for them, ‘Why should I bring you in for an interview?’”
You can also reiterate why your skills make you a great fit for the position and express your enthusiasm. It will only reaffirm that you’re not only interested but also qualified to work for them. It can be as simple as, “Based on my experience with X and your company values of Y, I believe this position will allow my passion for Z to grow as an employee of your organization.”
Finally, Huhman suggests adding a sentence about a follow-up in the near future. It can be as simple as, “I am excited about this opportunity and would like to personally discuss the position in more detail. I’ll email you next week to check your availability.” Instead of waiting for the employer to call you, a direct closing allows you to follow up and again show your interest in the company. And, of course, be true to your word and actually follow up when you say you will!
No matter how you end your letter, both Huhman and Burrell agree that it should be genuine and direct. If you have a strong conclusion, you’ll be memorable.
Cover letters allow you to show off your personality beyond your resume. It can be the one thing that sets you apart from other applicants and lands you an interview or position. While it’s tempting to use clichés like everyone else, keep these tips in mind and your cover letter will be awesome and memorable!