While many job applications have the word “optional” next to the field that asks for a cover letter, it shouldn’t be overlooked. After all, a cover letter is intended to show you off and captivate a hiring manager, kind of like a movie trailer. It’s meant to tease and entice the recruiter or hiring manager to keep reading and be so interested in you that they simply cannot put down your resume. Think: personable and professional.
Some of the best cover letters tell interesting stories about the candidate and help them to be seen as a good culture fit for a company. “Recruiters always remember the personal side of cover letters—this is when you become more than just another applicant,” says career expert Heather Huhman. “They connect your experiences with your name because you’re giving them another dimension of you, sharing what makes you unique.”
Given the importance of a cover letter, you cannot afford to blow it. Once you’ve got a working draft, it’s time to grab your red pen. Here are 15 words and phrases that are simply dragging your cover letter down. Cut ‘em! Take the expert advice below to craft the best cover letter possible and let your personality, not robotic prose, shine through.
1. “To Whom It May Concern”
Generic salutations, while professional, can be a bit sterile. Do a little digging to find the name of the hiring manager or the recruiter. “Let’s say you discover an opening for an electrical engineer position at an engineering organization’s website. The position description indicates the employee will report to the lead electrical engineer. You decide (initially) to bypass the company’s automated application system so you can customize your communications,” advises Jacqui Barrett-Poindexter, master resume writer. “You sail over to LinkedIn and begin researching. Use the advanced search feature and type in ‘name of company’ for the company name, ‘lead electrical engineer’ for keywords and ‘64152’ for a zip code for greater Kansas City (where the company headquarters and this position are located) and click enter. Your results will appear.”
2. “Thinking outside of the box”
Recruiters read thousands of cover letters and resumes. It’s their job. So try hard to make reading your cover letter a treat. Career coach Angela Copeland says, “more specifically, stay away from phrases that are known to annoy hiring managers, such as ‘heavy lifting’ or ‘think outside the box’ or ‘game-changer.’” Be creative instead of being trendy.
3. “I’m not sure if you know”
“When it comes to today’s job search process, another thing to remember is your online footprint,” says Copeland. Phrases like this one underestimate a recruiter’s ability to Google and may come across as naive. HR professionals and recruiters do their due diligence on you. Trust us, they know. “In a way, your Google search results are a lot like the modern day cover letter. After an employer reads your cover letter, they will also Google you. Beat them to the punch and Google yourself. Be sure you’re comfortable with the information that shows up on the first two pages of the Google search results. Look through social media, photos, and any other websites that show up when you search for yourself.”
4. Insider Jargon
“Job seekers should try to minimize phrases that are very industry-specific, especially if they’re switching industries,” advises Copeland. “Although these phrases may sound impressive within one industry, they will most likely confuse your hiring manager in the new industry you want to switch to.”
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5. Claims Without Evidence
Instead of simply saying you’re good at what you do, Huhman advises providing a valuable anecdote. “Let’s say you’re applying for a marketing director position. Among other aspects in the description, the job requires several years of marketing experience, a deep knowledge of lead generation, and strong communication skills. Describe how, in your previous role as a marketing manager, you ran several campaigns for your clients and exceeded their expectations of lead generation (with specific numbers, if possible), and how you also trained and mentored new associates on how to manage their own accounts, which improved client retention rates.” In other words, show how effective you have been in the past. “Your anecdote is accomplishing a lot at once—it’s demonstrating one of your top hard skills, lead nurturing, and showcasing how you can collaborate with trainees, communicate effectively, and educate new employees on processes and client relations,” says Huhman. “You’re proving that you can meet the communication standards and marketing knowledge they’re seeking.”
Cut the millennial speak. “You shouldn’t just say that you want the job or that you love your industry. You have to show your passion,” says Huhman. “Share why your career path best suits you and how your love for your work drives and motivates you. For example, answer some questions about what made you want to enter the field, how your personality helps you succeed, and what past experiences influenced your career decisions.”
“Embellishing in a cover letter is one way to set yourself up for letting down your future employer once you’ve been hired,” warns Huhman. Steer clear of touting skills you don’t really possess or overselling your impact on a key project at your current employer. “The best case scenario is that lying on a cover letter creates uncomfortable situations. Worst case scenario? [You’ll lose the] job because [you are] not the candidate they were looking for.”
“When you’re looking for a job, do your best to bring your authentic self to the table. As the old saying goes, people hire people. Often, you’re hired because the hiring manager likes you – not just because you can do the work,” says Copeland. “Nobody likes insincere flattery. It leaves an impression that you aren’t authentic and therefore can’t be trusted. In business, especially in an employee/employer relationship, trust is paramount. Avoid being insincere, and focus on building a true relationship with your future hiring manager.”
9. “Please feel free”
Ending your cover letter with a clear call-to-action is key, but instead of being gentle, be direct. Show your confidence and prove to the recruiter that you know you wrote a compelling cover letter by wrapping up with a more self-assured request for an in-person interview or phone screen.
“Get away from stuffing cover letters full of clichéd phrases and think clear, honest, and impactful. Think in terms of telling a story,” says resume expert Anish Majumdar. “You’re not a dynamic, agile leader who can deliver rapid marketing and biz dev ROI in rapidly-changing environments.” Instead, you are someone who thrives on helping companies “more fully realize their vision, and have some amazing successes on the marketing and business development front that you’d like to discuss.”
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Instead of tiptoeing around the impact you’ve had at your current company with words like “significant,” “measurable,” or “huge,” get specific. Nicole Cox, Chief Recruitment Officer at national recruiting firm Decision Toolbox, advises job seekers to, “substantiate your accomplishments with numbers. Some recruiters prefer to see actual numbers (such as ‘cut manufacturing costs by $500,000’), while others prefer percentages (‘cut manufacturing costs by 15 percent’). Either way, provide enough context to show the impact. If your objective was to cut manufacturing costs by 10 percent, make it clear that you exceeded the goal.”
12. “Really, truly, deeply”
Flowery language and excessive adverbs can come off as insincere. “Don’t get me wrong, you need to share your accomplishments in your cover letter. Nobody else will do it for you. But, you want to come across as confident, not arrogant,” says Copeland. “Fluffy jargon will risk turning off the hiring manager.”
13. Cut, Copy & Paste
Resist the temptation to write a cover letter that regurgitates what you’ve outlined in your resume. Instead, recognize the opportunity that a cover letter presents. “Use the cover letter as an opportunity to highlight the parts of your resume that align to the job,” says Copeland. “And, add things you don’t normally include in your resume that are relevant to the work. For example, I once coached a job seeker who was a university administrator. He was interested to work for a large hotel chain. Although he didn’t have direct hotel experience, his hobbies included both real estate investing and managing a fitness franchise location. This information was critical to him landing a job with the large hotel company.”
14. “Self-Starter,” “Detail-Oriented,” and “Forward-Thinker”
These are what’s known as “frequent offenders” amongst cover letter and resume experts. They are overused and carry little weight these days. “Treat a cover letter as a chance to make a human connection, not a formality,” says Majumdar. “What gets you excited about this job? What have you been up to recently that they’d find interesting? What should they know about you that they couldn’t discern by reading your resume? All great points to touch on in this letter.”
15. Synonyms Out of A Thesaurus
While it may be tempting to head to thesaurus.com to add a few high-brow words and smart-sounding phrases, resist the temptation. Be yourself. Be honest. “This is a prime opportunity to showcase skills,” says Majumdar. Words like “change,” “execute,” “communicates,” and “relationship building” will all get the job done effectively when paired with strong anecdotes and authenticity.
How to Use Keywords in Your Cover Letters
When you are writing a cover letter to accompany your resume as part of a job application, it's important to make sure that every word counts. Your cover letter should enhance the employer's appreciation of your qualifications so you can move from applicant to interviewee.
Types of Keywords
Keywords are a vital element of a persuasive cover letter capable of portraying a candidate as a highly qualified applicant for the job.
These words fall into three general categories: skill words, results-oriented words, and words which show recognition for achievements.
Keywords work in a couple of different ways. First, the keywords you include in your resume and cover letter will be used to match your application with the skills required by the employer in the job advertisement. This matching process is often performed by automated applicant tracking systems (ATSs), programmed to identify specific keywords and to rank all resumes accordingly before they even reach the human eye of a hiring manager. If your cover letter and / or resume lack these keywords, they may be automatically cut from consideration at this stage of evaluation.
Secondly, keywords that are incorporated into a cover letter will show the hiring manager how and why you are highly qualified for the job, allowing them to rank you among your competition and, ideally, to offer one of their interview slots to you.
Job seekers should carefully analyze the skills required to excel in their target job and incorporate them into their cover letter. Those keywords should also be included in your resume. It will be more genuine if you paraphrase the skills mentioned in job ads as opposed to listing them verbatim.
Skill words are most effective when connected to a specific role or project where the skills were crucial to success.
For example, instead of saying "Quantitative stock analysis is an asset which I would bring to your firm," you could say, "I utilized quantitative stock valuation techniques to create a portfolio for high net worth clients which beat the market for three consecutive years."
The skills keywords included in your cover letters (and your resume) will help your application get selected by the software employers use to select candidates for further consideration. They will also show the hiring manager, at first glance, what skills you have that are related to the job he or she is hiring for.
Examples of skill keywords include “wrote,” “analyzed,” “quantified,” “planned,” “programmed,” “designed,” “created,” “built,” “taught,” and “trained.”
All employers are looking for employees who will add value and generate positive results for their organization. That's why it's critical to integrate results-oriented language into your cover letters. Think about the bottom line for each job on your resume and how you might have made things better in your role.
Your cover letter should showcase your accomplishments, not just your skills or personal qualities.
Providing these details will help to set your letter apart from those of other candidates who don’t highlight their professional achievements. Results-oriented words are most effective when coupled with some numbers which quantify your impact, as in "I reduced turnover amongst first-year hires by 20% by implementing a mentoring system." By using these types of keywords, you are clearing showing what you accomplished in your previous roles.
Examples of results-oriented keywords include: “increased,” “reduced,” “redesigned,” “upgraded,” “initiated,” “implemented,” “reformulated,” “generated,” and “produced.”
Hiring managers will be more likely to believe that you will be an outstanding performer if it is clear that previous employers have viewed you in this way. One way to do this is to incorporate language which demonstrates that employers have recognized your contributions.
Ideally, recognition phrases will include the type of individual who noted your achievement and the basis for your recognition. For example, one might say "I was designated as the team leader for the budget reduction task force by my Division Vice President based on my previous record of accruing cost savings." Recognition keywords attest to how you have excelled in your previous jobs and how you have accomplished more than was required.
Examples of recognition related keywords include “honored,” “awarded,” “promoted,” “selected,” “lauded for,” “received a bonus for,” “recognized,” “chosen,” and “credited.”
For more examples of keywords you should consider incorporating into your cover letter, please have a look at “List of Resume and Cover Letter Keywords” and “Keywords Lists for Resumes, Cover Letters, and Job Applications.”