Home Self Life After College The Senior Series: On Cover Letters, Cliches and Mistakes

They are dreaded and mis-understood by most: cover letters. Do people actually read these things? How do you make yourself stand out? How do you position yourself correctly?

What would a recruiter say?

First read Rich DeMatteo‘s answers to these common cover letter questions. Rich is a staffing and recruiting professional who also has is masters in Human Resources Development. He is the founder of an awesome blog you should subscribe to, cornonthejob.com.

Do you think cover letters are a necessity? Any Tips?

Cover letters are only necessary because every other job candidate is sending them. Recruiters, including myself, don’t read them, unless forced to. We will read them if the position is writing intensive, the hiring manager specifically asks for them, or if the resume says something absurd or ridiculous which would hint at an amusing cover letter. My tip is to write a cover letter that is easy to tweak and change. Send with each position applied for, but don’t expect it to be read.

Anything not to do?

Don’t send as an attachment. Recruiters don’t want to open up more than one attachment. Insert it into the body of the e-mail and it will almost force us to read your cover letter

Thoughts about structure and/or things to include in networking emails/cover letters from college seniors to people they have never met before?

Networking emails- they should be kept short. Keep to a few sentences. Students should explain why they are reaching out, and who has connected them if applicable.

The structure of a cover letter should be 3 paragraphs. 3 SHORT paragraphs please!

1. First paragraph explaining who they are, how they learned about the position, and why they are interested.
2. Second paragraph should be why they are a fit (explain skills and experience).
3. Third should be a nice closing paragraph thanking them for reading the cover letter.

Do I need a Cover Letter?

The short answer is yes.

I am not a recruiter or an HR professional. I’m just someone who is fascinated by everything career related.  Therefore, here are my thoughts on cover letters:

  • Most positions require you to have a cover letter. This is even true of automated and computerized application systems (which scare me).
  • If you are applying via an automated computerized system without having talked to a hiring person first, make sure to include tons of keywords. Make sure the keywords you use match the job description and the experience they are looking for. Unfortunately, a human isn’t going to see your stuff unless you make the computer’s initial search criteria (which depends on keywords).
  • For some positions, a cover letter is a merely a formality. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t care. For example, I currently work for a huge company. I had already interviewed and verbally accepted their offer before I applied online. The online system required a cover letter for the application to be complete. I highly doubt anyone read that letter, but if they look back on my file for a future position, future reference or promotion, they may.
  • Cover letters can get you a job at a smaller company. My last job was at a Chicago-based bank. Not a tiny company by any means, but the recruiting process was much more personal. I spent a long ass time on making sure that cover letter was perfect for that position.  In hindsight, I know that this team was focused on finding the right personality fit for their team of 5 and someone who would do a great job taking care of their commercial clients. When I interviewed with 3 of the team members and one HR person, all four people said it was my cover letter that brought me in. I applied for the job via careerbuilder.com and somehow my cover letter made it through the masses (which still shocks me).

Common Cover Letter Mistakes

  • You write too much. No one cares. If you can say the same thing using 5 words instead of 10, do it.  Please keep in mind that most professionals get hundreds of emails a day. We hate reading more than we have to, long paragraphs or things that are not visually appealing. You win if you are consice and effective.
  • You write one general cover letter for every position you apply for. Not ok. Every cover letter needs to be tailored to the position you are applying for. Take the size of the organization and the specific job description into consideration (and don’t forget about keywords!).  I know it’s annoying, but the good news is, you can keep your cover letter short!
  • You talk all about yourself instead of how you can add value to their company/the position. “I did this, I did that, I studied abroad, I was the president of my sorority…” That’s nice! This is not about you, it is about them.
    • Instead, use specifics on how you added value. If the job description is looking for someone who can create marketing campaigns, tell them that you the reason you are looking to create marketing campaigns is because you executed a marketing campaign for your sorority’s philanthropy by using marketing channels a, b, c which resulted in x,000 attendees and raising $x,000 for charity.
  • You write about things that are not in your resume. Your resume and cover letter go together, right? Your resume is ultimately what they hold you to. So if you show how you can add value to their company in your cover letter, why wouldn’t you do this in your resume? Tweak your resume and cover letter in order to parallel your experience with what they are looking for. This shows they you require less hand holding and training. Busy hiring professionals love candidates like this.
  • You forget a “call to action” at the end of the letter. Do you want to meet them? Do you want to call them? End by thanking them and asking them for something. Following up is not a bad thing either.
  • You use generic career cliches that don’t really tell hiring managers anything. This one deserves its own section…

Cliches to avoid

Check out this article on resume cliches. These tips are applicable to both your resume and your cover letter.

  • “I’m ambitious and eager to learn.”
  • “If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to call.” NEWS FLASH: they are never going to call!
  • “I give 100% every day.” That’s nice. And stupid to put in a cover letter.
  • “I’m a people person.” Everyone interviewing for a sales position is going to say this. Find another way to say it. I would probably cut your app if I saw this.
  • “Although I do not yet have related experience, I am very interested in XYZ position because it was my dream to work in this industry.” Kiss your dream good bye bitches.
  • “I am looking for a unique opportunity in which I will be adequately challenged and compensated.” Please see bullet 3 in the previous section. It’s about what you can do for them, not what they can do for you.

Side Note: Don’t list your personal interests/hobbies on your resume or cover letter. You can break the ice with that at the interview if they ask you.

Resources

LinkedIn Groups including, Impact Hiring Solutions Job Search Network

Impact Hiring Solutions FREE job search resources including:

  • Audio Library-webinars and radio shows
  • Bi-weekly conference calls with recruiters who will answer your job search questions
  • Blog, E-book and free chapter on “how to land the phone interview”

Heather Human‘s Come Recommended and Entry-Level Careers Examiner.

7 replies to this post
  1. Great post. I have suffered from the “You write too much” mistake in the past, though I’ve been working on it lately.

    A bit of a sidebar: one thing that’s been getting under my skin lately is how college professors approach writing assignments. They shouldn’t be assigning x-page minimum papers; they should be assigning x-page maximum papers. Churning out pages and pages of nonsense isn’t a skill. Writing clearly and concisely is. I feel like students are being trained that more = better. That obviously isn’t always true.

    • @Rob- Wow, that is such a great point about college vs after college. That really is ironic and funny. Yes, business classes should definitely make you focus on shortening things, unless you are working on a business plan, a market analysis or a research paper. Guy Kawaski would even agree.

      @Srini- Did they make you write short stuff in business school? Was this a skill that was stressed?

      • @Nicole: They definitely force you to be short and to the point in business school. Even the essays for applying are limited to 500 words. So imagine answering the question “tell me your lifelong goals, career aspirations, and how an MBA would help, and do it in 500 words.” So, you’re pretty much trained to be concise from the get go.

  2. Nicole,

    Great stuff. I’m guilty of writing too much and focusing on myself and not adding value. Obviously that shift happened to doing it the right way a while back and I started to really understand how to articulate that. I think given the attention span of the average person, we need to get to the point quickly.

    @Rob: If you haven’t started reading Seth Godin’s new book Linchipin, I’d highly recommend it. Based on your comments, I think you’d really enjoy it.

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