Write Better Letters – Six Tips to Improve the Dreaded Cover Letter

Many job seekers struggle with crafting a cover letter that says enough to create interest, but not too much that you’re a total bore. Here are key pointers to help you land that interview.

Many job seekers struggle with crafting a cover letter that says enough to create interest, but not too much that you’re a total bore . . . and won’t come across as too aggressive or cutesy.   Here are some key pointers to help your letter and resume end up in the A pile.

Knock Off the Overly Aggressive Tone.  OK, I’m an old school executive, and often grouchy at that, but I cringe every time an applicant writes “I will call you next week set up an interview to discuss my qualifications.”  That person is thinking “I’m bold, dynamic and a go-getter,” but I strongly disagree.  Since when does a candidate tell me, the hiring manager, what to do and when to do it?  My response to this question is, “Honey, that’s not going to happen for you.”  DO NOT harass an already overworked hiring manager by parachuting into their hectic week with a demand for action.  As the supervisor of this role, I call the shots, thank you, and I’ll talk to whom I want, when I want, on the phone.

Women, Stop Sounding Girly!  Do men use these phrases in their cover letters?  “I’m responsible and trustworthy,” “I work well with others,” “I have no problem completing my daily tasks.”  These docile, meek statements are not saying “I’m a strategic leader and I’ll contribute to your growth.” Truthfully, they announce that “I’m a low-level order taker and I promise I won’t start any accidental fires in the break room, that I’ll recycle all my used paper, and that I’ll keep my desk tidy.”  Come on, ladies!  Men don’t hop up and down validating their worth with statements about how punctual or nice or diligent they are. Their cover letter walks through the door with confidence, drops a folder on the desk and says “here’s how I’ve moved the needle for other employers, and here’s what I could do for you.”  

Please harness your inner CEO and kick this type of saccharine language to the curb.  While you’re at it, do not gush over the mission of the nonprofit you’re applying to, or stroke the employer by saying how impressed you are with their organization or how remarkable this opportunity might be.  Again, you need to remove the breathless “Teen Beat” tone that, coincidentally, never enters the language of men’s correspondence.

Another Girly Red Flag:  Love.  Do not use the words passion, thrilled, honored or excited.  Nor does the word “love” belong in your cover letter, as in “I would love this job” or “I would love to discuss this opportunity.”  Men wouldn’t dream of using the word “love” in their cover letter, so why are you?  I, Kelly, would be thrilled to meet George Clooney, and I would be honored to have lunch with Condoleezza Rice, but when it comes to a career, “I look forward to an opportunity to learn more about how I can contribute to your team’s goals.”  Eradicate these frothy phrases out of your letter, because they pale in comparison to the direct, confident cover letter the guys are sending.  

No Stunts.  Years ago when I was at a PR agency, we were hiring a junior PR staffer and one young man who definitely DID NOT earn an interview had Chinese fortune cookies made up with a custom paper message inside:  Hire Jason and your year will be filled with good fortune.  He had the cookies delivered in a Chinese takeout container, with his resume.  Some may feel his creativity should have been recognized, but we felt it was over the top and showed a lack of judgment about appropriateness.  He came across as a loose cannon that we’d never allow unsupervised (and unleashed) with a client.

Metrics, Please.  Your letter is meant to showcase your ability to solve problems, win customers, save money, and create solutions, all which will entice a hiring manager to read your resume.  Pull out some of your best metrics/results from your resume, and make sure they also appear in your cover letter.  “For instance, I saved $90K annually from the company’s marketing budget, while delivering more projects and publications than prior years.”  Or, “I created a new supplier management system that resulted in better terms with top vendors.”   

Avoid the I.  It’s easy to spot an unsophisticated writer in their cover letter:  almost every sentence begins with “I."  It’s not possible to remove every I-starter sentence, but please find other ways of conveying your talents.  “With six years of experience” is one sentence starter.  So are “As ABC Company’s marketing leader,”  “In addition,”  “Currently with a major software developer,” and “In short, I would bring a deep financial and compliance skill set to this role.”

Use these tips, and you’ll be on your way to “better letters” and more phones ringing for an interview!

Kelly Blazek shares job search and work success tips from the corporate front lines in her blog, http://kellyblazek.wordpress.com.  She is available for presentations to groups on job searching, and also one-on-one resume review consultations for job seekers.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Catherine October 03, 2011 at 02:36 PM
These are great tips as to what to leave out of a cover letter, but where are the tips on what to include? And to be honest, I am more than a little bit offended b y the overtly chauvinistic tone of the writer. Sounding "girly" is not a womanly trait, but one perpetrated by immature girls (and boys), who probably aren't looking for anything above an entry-level position anyway. And coming from a female writer, shame on you Kelly for insulting the educated, experienced women who have found themselves in this horrendous job market. How about some actual advice instead of condescension?
Elise October 25, 2011 at 03:33 AM
I completely agree with the above comment. Is it just in the nature of a "grouchy old school executive" to only complain about the negative and refrain from giving constructive criticism to actually help someone improve? And what about all of the talk about the importance of results? Why don't you help provide results for your readers by rewriting this article and including things that you DO want to see in a cover letter?
Diane Stresing December 07, 2011 at 12:47 PM
That's ironic! I was nodding when I read about not 'directing' the follow-up phone call, and expected to see many comments praising Blazek's suggestion to drop the girly language. I guess the point is, each applicant and hiring manager is an individual. That said, my next cover letter will not include the word "love." I'll save that for my Valentines.
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