Cover letters have the (incorrect) reputation nowadays of being a formality. Like saying “bless you” when someone sneezes, or ending an email with “best.” Frequently, people write a cover letter “just in case” the hiring manager feels the urge to look at it. Which is the wrong move, considering that it’s capable of making or breaking a candidate’s chances.
You probably get where I’m going with this. In the same way that it’s really obvious when an actor is phoning in a performance, the person reading your cover letter can tell when you fill it with generic and meaningless filler.
With the beginning of the cover letter dictating whether the rest will be read or not, let’s focus on the very first line. Here are five phrases you need to ax now.
1. “To Whom it May Concern”
Would you read a letter addressed like this? You’d probably toss it thinking it was junk mail, right? Hiring managers, who are living, breathing human beings, have similar reactions. Make your cover letter more personal by trying your best to address it to the right person. Here’s more on how to do that.
2. “My Name Is…”
Assuming the hiring manager looks over your letter, your first sentence is the only one you can guarantee he or she reads. Is the most engaging or important thing to start with really your name? Give some serious thought to what your first line should be. (Also, give the reader credit for being able to figure out your name.) If you were in an elevator with your potential manager and had about 15 seconds to make an impression and convince him or her to keep the conversation going, what would you say? Use that.
3. “I Am Writing to Express my Interest…”
This probably won’t get your application tossed, but it’s such a wasted opportunity. The cover letter is legitimately the place to “express interest,” so do it. Make a compelling case for why you’re so thrilled to see the job posting, and offer how you’ve been following the company’s latest initiatives. Write something that shows you really are enthusiastic about this specific opportunity, and that you’re not just sending in some form letter.
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4. “I Have Enclosed for Your Consideration my Resume, Outlining my Qualifications...”
Your cover letter is not the place to rehash your resume, and honestly, it’s silly to mention it at all when you’ve presumably sent the document the same way you sent the cover letter. This is your chance to share your story, motivation, or excitement in a way that would be impossible to convey in your resume (i.e., let your personality shine!). The goal for your cover letter is for it to add something important to your application, not to be redundant.
5. “I’m Probably Not the Best Candidate, But...”
All of these phrases have been bad, but in my opinion this is the worst of the bunch. If you think about it, including this in your cover letter is literally giving the hiring manager a reason not to hire you. It’s one thing to be humble, but’s another to set yourself up for failure. Focus on all the reasons why you should be hired, and let the search committee decide whether or not you’re the best candidate. Hiring managers are reading tons of cover letters, and if you give them a reason to dismiss yours, they will.
So, now you know what not to say. Here are 31 examples of really excellent ways to start off your cover letter. Each one is unique and grabs the reader’s attention. While you won’t be able to copy any of them directly (being unique and all), they should offer you plenty of inspiration to write your own clever opening paragraphs.
Lily Zhang serves as a Manager of Graduate Student Professional Development at the MIT Media Lab where she works with a range of students from AI experts to interaction designers. When she’s not indulging in a new book or video game, she’s thinking about, talking about, or writing about careers. Follow her musings on Twitter @lzhng.More from this Author