Stupid Things to Put in Your Cover Letter


Crafting a compelling, convincing cover letter is not easy. The pressure to the capture the reader's attention without being annoying can be paralyzing. Concentrate on showing how you can contribute to the employer's success while avoiding these mistakes. (See also: How to Avoid Getting Hired)

Assertions That You Are the Ideal Candidate

Chandlee Bryan, Community Manager at StartWire, shares this advice:

Don't ever say you are the ideal candidate for the job. Unless you've seen the applicant pool and you know the hiring values aside from the job description, you can't assume you are the ideal candidate.

Here's a tactic you can use instead: Restate primary qualifications of the job and show how your past experience and skill set fits "hand in glove" with the requirements. You ask for ____; I offer ___. Bullets work well for this. Including short, concrete examples of past achievements that are relevant for the job is another winning approach.

Statements Indicating That You Are a “Hard Worker”

Career strategist Nicole Darling tells job seekers to eliminate references to being a "hard worker."

My experience tells me that those who claim to be hard workers either 1) substitute effort for finesse, often yielding below-average results or 2) understate the intellect and creativity they contributed in their roles, attributing success solely to effort and long hours. Convey that you are capable of making the time and taking initiative to bring ideas to fruition, not that you are a worker drone who loves to log 80-hour workweeks in an unimaginative setting.

Nicole also recommends avoiding positive but overly used words such as "team player, motivated, excellent communication skills."

Instead, demonstrate how desirable traits manifested themselves in the workplace. For example, state that you headed a team that routinely met tight deadlines for product launches; collaborated with contractors and vendors in remote locations worldwide, overcoming cultural and language barriers; or implemented new methods of delivering customer service at costs well below industry standards.

Anything Non-Personalized

The Red Recruiter cautions against generic terms. Addressing correspondence “To Whom It May Concern” is an example of what not to do.

Get the name of the hiring manager or recruiter to personalize each letter. Likewise, use the company’s name and identifying details (location, industry, etc.) rather than referencing “the company” or “your industry" in a bland letter.

Bungled Wording

Abby Kohurt, author, speaker, and recruiter, has reviewed lots of letters that used twisted phrases:

A fast-paced company is not the same thing as a "face paced," a "fast paised," or even a "fast paste" company. Perhaps someone who uses the keyboard shortcut CTRL+V believes that they are working at a "fast paste" speed. I think not.

The abbreviation for Assistant is Asst. Please don't ever forget that. When you drop the "t" from "Asst" you aren't offering much to be proud of.

Hiring is not the same thing as "highering" or "hiering" or "hireing."

Check word use and verify spelling before sending the cover letter.

A Precise Time of Follow Up

Abby also advises against saying, for example, that you will “follow up with a call on August 1st at 11:00 a.m.” when you won’t actually make that call. Even if your intentions are good, your availability may change, preventing you from being a person of your word.

Mention that you will follow up but don't specify a date or time.

Too Many Sentences That Start With "I"

Meg Montford, career coach, says that emphasis on your needs, characterized by sentences starting with “I,” is unwise.

Make the cover letter about the employer, not about you. Discuss how you can meet company needs and help solve its problems.

Saying You Just Need a "Job" or Need a "Good Job With Benefits"

Revealing that you have little preference for job content is not inspiring to a hiring manager. Though being open to any job seems like a good strategy in times of high unemployment, this approach comes across as desperate and dull rather than practical when expressed in a cover letter.

Differentiate yourself in the job-seeking talent pool. Showcase professional strengths that are in high demand.

Discussion of Past Failures

You don't have to highlight or emphasize imperfections and disappointments with your past employers, coworkers, or economic conditions. Discussing what you have learned from positive and not-so-positive experiences in an interview can be meaningful to a hiring manager, but delete mention of failures from the cover letter.

Talk about experience and successes relevant to the qualifications and accountabilities of desired positions.

Touting a Career Change

Hiring managers view the career changer as inexperienced but seeking a salary commensurate with tenure in an unrelated field. Along with lack of industry knowledge and contacts, this job hunter will bring outdated approaches and mindsets to a new employer. He will need training to perform basic duties. Such a candidate is not attractive to an employer.

If you are truly in the process of building a career in a new field, state what you have done already to accomplish this professional transformation: list certifications and degree programs earned, research papers published, and internships completed. At this point, then, you are not relying on the hiring manager to help you make a dramatic change but offering your depth of knowledge and insights. 

Note, however, that many who claim a career change are simply seeking to apply existing skills to a new industry or a new company. If this situation is yours, discard language relating to “career change” and emphasize how your capabilities enable you to contribute immediately to the employer.

What stupid things do you keep out of your cover letters? What smart things have you included?

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Guest's picture

Excellent list. I admit, the cover letter wasn't my strongest point when I was last looking for jobs in 2005-2006, but the job market wasn't as bad as it is today, either. So, if I were looking for jobs, I would definitely make sure I was more careful about these types of things.

Guest's picture

I get so tired of people telling you to get the hiring manager's name. You can't. I work in IT, and a lot of my jobs come from Craigslist. The company name isn't shown, and even if it was, how would you get the hiring manager's name? Wishful thinking at best.

Julie Rains's picture

Thanks for your comment. Abby recommends using LinkedIn to research hiring manager names based on information embedded in ads, though this process requires some guessing.

Guest's picture

Agreed- I know at my employer, resume's are submitted electronically, and then are read by any of the several people in HR, and then you interview with 3-5 people. And, finding out the names of any of those 11 or 12 people is like pulling teeth. Not to mention, even if you get the name right for the first stage (weeding), it will be wrong for the final stage (interviewing). I think, unless someone can give me good specific advice on dealing with so many layers of bureacracy, "To Whom It May Concern" is probably the safest choice.

Ashley Watson's picture

I have to say that in my recent job searches, I've stumbled on a lot of "how to write a cover letter" articles, and I find myself saying, "well, duh" at the end of most of them. But this one is by far the most useful and succinct one that I have read in a long time. So thank you. Well done!

Julie Rains's picture

Thanks -- glad you found useful information!

Guest's picture
Steve Scmicklehorn

Many of the postings on purpose try to be non-personal and not provide a way of finding out the hiring manager or HR person. What do you do when you can't find out..

Julie Rains's picture

I'd recommend going in a different direction, focusing on opportunities and openings in which you can have a dialogue with a real person.

Guest's picture

If it comes down to sending an impersonal cover letter or not applying to the job, then send the impersonal cover letter and hope for the best. Many companies make it difficult to find out who the hiring manager is, may not have a hiring manager, or the manager that does the hiring may change depending on the position.

Guest's picture

Reminds me of my job searching days out of college. I definitely remember a few mistakes from this list. Cover letters can be frustrating, especially when you're just starting out. This list is a good reference.

I've included this post in TalkingCentsBlog's Web Roundup: Job-Seekers' Edition. I think our readers will find it very helpful.

Guest's picture

These are some good points, but I would chime in with an "amen!" on the near impossibility of finding out the name of a hiring manager. Most applications are online and state "no phone calls", some now state "no cover letters." I recently tried to fill out an application online for which my cover letter, no matter what file type I tried (and I tried them all!), simply would not upload. The application process now seems to be more of a test of whether or not you can outfox the application process.

Julie Rains's picture

Thanks for your comment. You are right that many companies refuse to accept or consider cover letters. In the past, many would not advertise that they removed and discarded cover letters before passing them along to screening staff (or screening systems) so at least these potential employers that you reference are honest about their approaches. If job hunters are not already doing this, make sure that all relevant information is on the resume rather than covering pertinent information in the letter.

Guest's picture

I've had very good luck using the bulleted approach mentioned (matching requirements with experience). Also, when I cannot find a specific name, I've used either Dear People or Dear HR Professional (suggested to me by an HR professional!).

Guest's picture
Kristin Kirchof Cast

Dear People? Really??

Guest's picture

Thank you for your list, I will review my recently prepared cover letters :-).
Unfortunately I have to agree with posts saying that to get the HR manager / contact name is impossible and if you get it, the effect is negative than positive.
They feel annoyed with people calling them without having any appointment and they really want to be those who give the direction to the hiring process.
Usually, the HR person, with whom I agree on the interview appointment even doesn't attend the interview and further communication comes from anybody else, kind of administrator.
Otherwise again for very good tips.