As a 10-year veteran recruiter and long-time resume and cover letter writer, I realize that strong, relevant, and memorable cover letters are incredibly challenging for most people to write.
Because of the fact they’re so tough to write, I often receive cover letters that are incredibly vanilla, completely redundant to the resume, or filled with trite phrases like “this makes me an ideal match” or “I believe I am uniquely qualified.” (Guess what? Few people are “uniquely qualified” for anything. That means there is ONE of you. One.)
While you definitely want to avoid bland, cliché phrasing, you also need to be sure and use care not to go completely overboard with that fresh, creative, and engaging cover letter. Do this and you may alienate the reader altogether.
How do you know what’s overboard? Here are five signs that you may need to dial it down a bit on the cover letter.
1. You’ve Pointed Out the Things You Think Your Potential Employer is Doing Wrong
It’s one thing that you want to bring your business turnaround expertise to an organization because you feel like they urgently need your help. It’s another to, right out of the gate, expound on the many shortcomings you’ve observed about the company or department and how you’ll right the ship. Realize (clearly) that the very people making the hiring decisions are also the ones making the directional decisions for the business. And they won’t likely appreciate your input (just yet).
Spell out what specific value you can bring to the organization, based on your understanding of what the hiring manager is looking for. But don’t so much as hint that you think they’re doing things all wrong.
2. It Reads Like a Thesaurus Exploded All Over the Page
Yes, absolutely. You want to find non-cliché ways to say things like “team player” or “out-of-the-box” or “proven experience.” Thesaurus.com can be your friend for this. But if your cover letter includes “amazing,” “prodigious,” “stupefying,” and “inconceivable” all in the space of a page, you’ve probably gone a bit over the top.
Write out the cover letter using words you’d normally use, and then read it. If you see a certain word repeated more than a couple of times, find a replacement for just those words. There’s a difference between sounding well-versed and coming off like you’ve tried wayyy too hard.
3. You Cracked a Joke That Could Be Construed as Offensive
Carefully placed humor can be a wonderful thing in cover letters because it’s just so refreshing and unexpected. But if you’re going down this road, you cannot blast out a one-liner that may offend any particular group. I vividly recall a story one HR manager told me about a candidate who made a joke about Irish people in his cover letter. Her last name is O’Sullivan. You already know how this “hilarious” tale ends.
If you’re going to go with strategically placed humor in the cover letter, consider self-deprecating humor. Or, for certain, have a few people you know and trust read it before you hit send.
4. You’ve Slammed Your Current Employer
I don’t care if you currently work for the biggest competitor (and archenemy) of your potential employer. You absolutely cannot bad mouth any individuals, departments, or companies in your cover letter. Do this and the reviewer is going to assume that it’s only a matter of time before you’re bad mouthing THEM to another employer. There is simply no value in trash talking anyone or any company, even if you think it’s perfectly merited.
Save your cover letter real estate to illustrate why you’re excited to work for this company as well as what you can walk through the doors and deliver.
5. It’s Longer Than One Page
While I’m a big believer in using the amount of space you need to entice the reviewer and spell out the ways in which you’ll add value to a particular job or organization, I also know this: Hiring managers, recruiters, and HR people are all moving quickly. They need to find the “meat” as efficiently as possible. If your cover letter is more than one page long, you’re basically saying “I really don’t care about your time.” You’re also saying, “I have no ability to get to the point.” Neither of these are good.
Challenge yourself to keep it to a page. If you truly need a little bit of extra space, that’s OK. Just make sure it’s an incredible read and every extra word is worth it. Also, make sure that the page break’s clean.
You truly can and should use your cover letter as an opportunity to showcase yourself as a perfect candidate, a likable human being, and someone who is going to fit in around the place should they hire you. Don’t be afraid to be personable, make it original, and give the reviewer a glimpse at the real you. All of these are good things.
Just be very careful as you do so. No one hires the guy with the lampshade on his head or the foot in his mouth.