Purge the generic crap from your cover letter

Job applications and resumes often allow you to write a cover letter. If you write the same generic promises as everyone else, you won’t get the job.

The purpose of the cover letter is make your application stand out. The recruiters and managers will be reading dozens or hundreds of similar letters. So why write the same lame clichés as everyone else.

  • “I am passionately committed to quality software.” Oh, really. That should differentiate you from all the other coders who wanted to write buggy software.
  • “Diversity and inclusion are important to me.” Nice. Now we can put you in the pile with all the other non-racists. It’s a pretty big pile, you understand.
  • “I believe content marketing is the future.” That’s excellent, and everyone else who applies for this content marketing job probably would agree with you.

Generic cover-letter writing includes anything that either (1) any other applicant could write, or (2) you could write for any job you apply to. Such writing clearly communicates, “This candidate is like everyone else and couldn’t put much effort into the cover letter.” That’s not going to get you the job.

Recruiters see hiring as a pattern matching exercise. Let that guide your cover letter.

How can you avoid the generic crap? Start with the things in your background that connect with the job or company. For example.

  • “I see myself as a product developer. In my senior year, I used CAD modeling to design a surfboard — using the same sorts of principles your product developers are likely using to design streamlined boats.”
  • “I used content marketing to build my resumé consulting business. I’m used to creating content that drives traffic. I would look forward to putting those content creation and promotion skills to work to build inbound traffic your innovation consultancy.”
  • “I worked on or managed six hybrid live-virtual events for the drama department at my university. I love the pressure, interpersonal connections, and focus on performance that events demand. That’s why I think I’m a good fit as an events producer for your software marketing group.”

No one else could write these sentences. They connect your skills to the job description. And a recruiter, reading them, will think, “Ah, this is a candidate who not only has what we are looking for, but has put the effort into demonstrating that.”

True, these sentences are self-centered. They include the word “I.” But a resumé and cover letter are where you market yourself. Use “I” without shame, because this is the place to blow your own horn. The key is not to talk about how great you are, but what you have done.

That’s how to stand out.

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  1. Interesting topic (and I agree with your conclusions). Perhaps a larger issue is the declining trend of actually using or requiring a cover letter at all. Many tech recruiters I know now see the cover letter as optional or not required. They focus on the “matching” process you describe above. I personally prefer a cover letter because it’s a pertinent example of writing and communication skills, and it provides a balance with the typically dry resume. I’m sad to see it starting to disappear. Maybe a follow-up topic?

  2. Most cover letters aren’t read at all. Résumés are scraped or scanned with OCR and compared to a list of key words developed by timorous human resources staffers and sociopathic managers. That narrows the field to the peak of a bell curve, where accumulated credentials outweigh talent, initiative and expertise. Large organizations are risk averse to the point of cowardice. They stuff two or three jobs into one description based on real and imagined cost concerns, demand years of experience for entry level positions, and prefer younger candidates because they’re easier to exploit. If you write a cover letter and someone reads it, you’re the exception.

      1. True, which is why I specified large organizations. But the flip side is curious too. I’ve been pitched the same job from agencies that represent me, job posting aggregators, and third-party recruiters all at once. Sometimes I see the same job listed for months. Did some consultant actuary calculate that agency fees and duplicated effort was more economical than hiring competent human HR staff?