Being a career coach for both my 9-5 and my 5-9, I read a lot of cover letters. Some good, some awful, but most are a solid meh. Like everyone in my field, there are certain cover letter traits that give me hives. Things that, when I read them, make me want to bang my head on my computer and question the thought-process of the clients who wrote them. But I don’t because I get it – cover letters are not fun! Often, they are written hastily so that the applicant can be done with them and move on. But that leaves so much room for error… enter: the peevery.
Here are my top 3 cover letter pet peeves (+1 never ever), and how to fix them. (Because I don’t like getting hives, and I want you to get hired!)
1) You say that you’re “passionate” about a specific job or company.
I see this all the time, and I hate it every time. “I’m passionate about being a sales assistant.” “My passion is tax accounting.” “I have a strong passion for working at XYZ company.” LOL wut? I don’t know who told the world that they need to say that they’re passionate about a job (or worse – a company) in order to get hired, but that person should be punched in the eyeballs. It’s too narrow of a statement to be taken seriously. Readers know that you’re full of it, so it’s just a waste of space to say something like that.
Now, if you must use the word “passionate” (which is still weird to me in the job search context, but okay), use it to describe a function of the job that you’re particularly drawn to because that’s where a true, life’s-work-style “passion” comes from. Readers want to know why you’re interested in applying to a particular position and want to understand why you would stay in that position, so you should definitely discuss this in more granular terms. For example: I am passionate about helping people find careers that are a good fit for them, which is why I’m a career counselor. I am not passionate about being a career counselor, however, because some aspects of the job – scheduling interviews, dealing with flaky recruiters, and working through the inherent bureaucracy that is higher education – suck. See what I mean? Talk about the particular things about the job that arouse your passions, but using such a strong word to describe the entirety of functions that make up one job is ridiculous. And often untrue.
2) You apologize for lacking a specific experience.
I see this most frequently with students and recent college grads, but it bears repeating for all audiences: Do not apologize to the reader if you think your past experiences aren’t right for the position you’re applying to. Phrases like “I know I haven’t done [xyz123] things, but…” and “I realize that my past experiences don’t…” cause the reader to think about how you might not be qualified, which is the opposite of what a cover letter is supposed to do. Even if you follow these statements up with ways that you would be great for the job, the competing sentiments cancel each other out. This document is meant to highlight the relevant parts of your resume and connect your experiences to the job description. By acknowledging why you aren’t qualified, you’re planting the seed of doubt in the reader’s head (or, probably more accurately, you’re watering the seed).
If they have read your resume, the recruiter likely already knows the points where you fall short. Don’t remind them! Instead, focus on how your seemingly disparate experiences make you uniquely qualified for the position. To do this, pull out two or three things from the job description that resonated with you and focus your cover letter on relating those tasks, responsibilities, and/or qualifications to your background. You want to convince the reader that you’re able to do the job, and leave them wanting to confirm this with an interview.
3) Your cover letter is a narrative version of your resume.
Resumes and cover letters serve two different functions. A resume provides an overview of your previous work experiences and activities. A cover letter digs deeper and highlights only a few key aspects of your past in order to explain your qualifications in relation to the job you’re applying to. This is why you can use the same resume for most jobs but need to write a new cover letter for everything. (I discuss the extreme necessity of this below.) This is also why you can’t just make the bullet points from your resume sentences and call it a cover letter. Nope nope nope. Plus two more nopes.
A cover letter that is all over the place implies that you don’t understand what you’re applying for because if you did, your cover letter wouldn’t be all over the place. A focused document that prioritizes depth over breadth is much more effective than one that only gives a cursory glance at what you’ve accomplished in the past. This is where you add the smaller, contextual details that won’t fit on your resume. This is where you can show the results of your work instead of just telling them. Your cover letter must be laser focused on connecting your resume with the job you’re applying for, or else it fails at its job. And it only has this one job.
NEVER EVER: Use the same cover letter for multiple positions.
Template cover letters are so so so obvious and so so so lazy. Yeah, writing individual cover letters is a pain, especially when you’re probably applying to a bunch of jobs that are very similar, but you need to resist the urge of just changing the company name and sending it in. People who read cover letters all day (aka: recruiters; bka: the people who decide who gets hired) know when a letter is a template: You only say the company name in the opening and closing. Your examples are general and disconnected from the position you’re applying to. You don’t give any specific reasons you want to work at the company and only have the vaguest sense of their position in the industry. (Or to be even more obvious, the job title is in bold and there are multiple company names in the letter. I have seen this more than once… this week.)
It’s more than okay to have the same starter text or use the same examples across cover letters. I’m not saying that you need to start from scratch every time! (I’m a J, and that’s inefficient.) But you need to switch things up enough so that the letter tailored to the position you’re applying to. Use language from the job posting or the company website. Toss in some knowledge that you gained from doing research on the company or the industry. Make it clear that you put forth effort into your application materials because lazy applicants don’t get hired.