What’s the difference between writing a cover letter that will land you a job, and writing a cover letter that will end up in a paper shredder?
It’s all about language choices.
When writing a cover letter, you have three, maybe four, paragraphs to tell your potential employer who you are and why you deserve an interview. Only four paragraphs means you can’t waste space with ineffective or, worse, damaging words and phrases.
So, what types of language make for a strong or a weak cover letter? I’ve analyzed dozens of cover letters that have come through Kibin’s cover letter editing service and picked apart which word choices will lead to the garbage, and which ones can lead to an interview.
Aside from the obvious, like expletives (#@$!), here are eight examples of bad language to avoid when writing a cover letter, and better word choices you can use instead.
Writing a Cover Letter: Bad Language Example #1
Example: “I believe that I’m a good match for this job.”
The problem: There are two main problems with the phrase “I believe.” First, it’s redundant. Since you’re writing a cover letter, it can be assumed that you believe what you’re writing. If you don’t believe your own statements, then you’re either a liar, delusional, or not paying attention to your writing.
Second, it shows a lack of confidence. It seems like you are trying to convince yourself that what you are saying is true. This adds a level of doubt to your sentence, which is not a message you want to send to your potential employer.
Why is this better? Using “I will” shows assertiveness and confidence without sounding pretentious. It also eliminates any element of doubt from your sentence, allowing your potential employer to visualize you sitting at that corner desk!
*Note* You can read more about the problem associated with the phrase “I believe” and the strength of the phrase “I will” in our previous blog post about persuasive writing techniques.
Writing a Cover Letter: Bad Language Example #2
Example: “I need this job opportunity.”
The problem: Using the word “need” in this context makes you sound desperate. Unfortunately, desperation does not sell well. I know, sometimes, job seeking can feel like an act of desperation, especially if you don’t have enough money in the bank to pay your bills. However, no matter how difficult it is for you, you must always avoid sounding desperate.
Why is this better? Just as desperation is a total turn-off for employers, enthusiasm is a total turn-on. Excitement is contagious, and if you can come across as being excited about the job, an employer will be excited about you as a candidate.
Writing a Cover Letter: Bad Language Example #3
Example: “I’m average at using Excel and incapable of HTML.” (Yes, someone actually wrote that in this terrible cover letter!)
The problem: Don’t put anything on your resume or your cover letter that will highlight you being merely average at or, worse, incapable of doing something. Also, don’t make the mistake of trying to be funny by explaining the things you’re not good at (although, that approach did seem to work for one lucky job hunter who submitted this unusual Wall Street cover letter, but that’s definitely an exception to the rule). Remember, your cover letter is meant to show off your strengths, not give away your weaknesses. Also, the word “incapable” basically says that you are unwilling or unable to learn something new.
Why is this better? If, for some reason, you feel the need to mention something that you’re not amazing at, perhaps because the employer requires you to disclose your skill level regarding certain tasks, then it’s best to underscore the fact that you are willing to put in the time necessary to improve these skills. Potential employers love candidates who are eager to learn. After all, there will always be a learning curve with a new job, no matter how qualified you are.
Writing a Cover Letter: Bad Language Example #4
Example: “The job necessitates an individual who will manage the constant influx of content and promulgate information on a daily basis; my skill set in this arena will burgeon in this position.”
The problem: Don’t use language that your potential employer will have to look up, or that will bog down the message of your cover letter! Honestly, who would want to hire this person? He or she should be taken to pasture for overcomplicating the amazing English language and coming across as a pompous jerk.
Why is this better? Writing in simple English will ensure that your potential employer can relate to you as an articulate human, and not as an alien from Planet Bigword.
It’s best to write in a way that allows the employer to understand what you are saying without having to cogitate…err think…about pointless language. If you’re guilty of being overly verbose in your correspondence, as I am being right now, check out this awesome list of overly complex words to avoid and good, plain-English substitutions.
Writing a Cover Letter: Bad Language Example #5
Example: “I guess I want this job because it’s interesting and fits my qualifications.”
The problem: Well, I guess I don’t want to hire a person who comes across as being completely unenthusiastic. The phrase “I guess” makes you sound apathetic and as if you’re lacking confidence. It has the ring to it of a recalcitrant teenager responding to whether or not he will take out the trash… “I guess.”
Why is this better? Simply taking out the qualifier “I guess” gives this sentence more energy and confidence, and you don’t sound like a teenager… or whatever.
Writing a Cover Letter: Bad Language Example #6
Example: “I’m just emailing you to apply for the swim team manager position.”
The problem: A lot of people unintentionally use the phrase “I just” when sending out correspondence. It’s a phrase that shows a lack of confidence and takes the power right out of your sentence. It comes across as being apologetic. “I’m sorry for interrupting your day with my cover letter… I just wanted to apply for the job.”
Why is this better? Again, by cutting out the unnecessary qualifier “I just,” the sentence immediately becomes more clear and confident.
Writing a Cover Letter: Bad Language Example #7
The problem: If you don’t have the name of the hiring manager, you should make every effort to find it using Google, the telephone, a contact within the company, or whatever other means you have. Not including a name in your salutation shows a lack of effort on your part. Why don’t you know the name of the person to whom you are addressing your cover letter? Why have you not taken the time to find it?
*Note* If you absolutely cannot find the name, then use “To Whom It May Concern:” as your salutation. (Notice how all the words in this formal salutation are capitalized? That’s important.)
Why is this better? The personal touch of addressing the hiring manager by name accomplishes the establishment of a human-to-human connection, and it shows your potential employer that you put in the research to find out who would be reading your cover letter. In fact, with the availability of information on the Internet, the act of including the hiring manager’s name has become one of the new, important rules for writing cover letters.
Writing a Cover Letter: Bad Language Example #8
Example: “With my experience in personal banking, I think I am a good candidate for this position.”
The problem: Similar to “I believe,” the phrase “I think” shows a lack of confidence and is redundant. Of course you think that about yourself. You are, after all, applying for the job!
Meanwhile, “good” is such a lukewarm adjective; it doesn’t really do a whole lot to express how great you really are!
Why is this better? Omitting “I think” immediately makes the sentence sound more confident and direct. Changing “good” to “great” allows you to capitalize on a word choice that will help you stand out from the crowd. Most likely, in order to get this job, you can’t just be good, you have to be great!
This table contains the good and bad language I discussed in this blog post. Next time you are writing a cover letter, use it to find and change any words that you shouldn’t be using:
When writing a cover letter, sometimes the worst language doesn’t have anything to do with the words your mother taught you to avoid. Rather, it can be word choices that take the power, personality, and confidence out of your message. By simply paying attention to your language choices, you can help transform your cover letter into a winning job opportunity.