An employer gave you quite a gift when requesting a cover letter: the chance to show off. And so many job seekers blow it. Instead of taking the time to write an original, compelling case for themselves about why they should be hired, they get lazy. They rely on hackneyed jargon and subjective adjectives that effectively make their letters sound like everyone else's. What a waste.
You can do better. The job candidates you're competing against may use these cover letter cliches below, but their letters will be thrown in the "eh" file. You, on the other hand, will make the time and effort to avoid these blunders.
1. "Dear Sir or Madam." Here's one way to annoy a potential employer from the get-go: Begin your letter with this boring greeting, "Dear Hiring Manager" or -- shudder -- "To Whom It May Concern." The generalized opener is simply lazy, which is not a trait companies seek in their new hires.
"A generic salutation shows you didn't take the time to look up the name of the hiring manager or even find a specific person in HR to address it to," says Mary Ellen Slayter, Monster's career advice expert and founder of the marketing company Reputation Capital Media Services. She suggests hunting down the name of whomever you believe will read the letter. U.S. News blogger Vicki Salemi agrees and offers advice for identifying said person in her post, " 5 Alternatives to 'To Whom It May Concern."
2. "I'd like to apply for a job at ..." Hope you mail your letter with an alarm clock, because you're sending the reader to sleep.
Jeremy Schifeling, author of "Get It Done: Write a Cover Letter" and vice president of marketing at Fidelis Education, an ed-tech startup that helps students, points out that so many cover letters start the exact same way. He puts it like this: What if Charles Dickens had taken this same mundane approach when writing "A Tale of Two Cities"? "If, instead of starting it with 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,' he started it with, 'Dear reader, here is a very long book.' You probably wouldn't read past the first page," he says.
No need to write a novel, but do tell an anecdote if you have one that's relevant. "Even in an age where computers are processing everything, at some point, an actual human has to read your cover letter," Schifeling says. "And that human has been raised from thousands of generations of people who've been raised on stories." No intriguing story to reel in your reader? "Play your strongest connection upfront," he says. "If you're a passionate user of a company's product, or if you're amazing at this one thing, start with that, and use it as a hook."
3. "I think I'm the perfect candidate for this position." This is a two-fold offense: "'Thinking,' 'feeling' and 'believing' are wishy-washy for the business environment," Slayter says, "And you really aren't in a position to judge if you're a perfect fit or not." She says starting the statement with "I am" sounds more confident than these weak verbs. As for the premature perfection-claiming: "Stating how you match the listed qualifications is better than declaring yourself a perfect candidate."
4. "I'm a detail-oriented team player." Nix these general buzz-word traits. "Fill your letter with measurable items or accomplishments," Slayter says, adding, "'Improved engagement by 17 percent' sounds better than 'team player.'" As Schifeling puts it: "What did you actually do, and what was the result for the company?"
Schifeling also advises against too much "I" talk in general. "Like dating, applying for a job has to be a give and take," he says. "If you're not spending equal time talking about why the company is a good fit for you and why you admire the company, it's a little bit of a selfish turnoff." But ...
5. "I'm such a huge fan of this company." Schifeling says job candidates will often go to the other extreme and use the bulk of their cover letters to gush about how much they love the prospective company. This swooning comes off as "over-the-top and ridiculous," he says. After all, no one likes a kiss up.
Like writing generic greetings and subjective buzz words, rattling off compliments about the company in your cover letter like it's a Mad Libs puzzle is just lazy. And a waste. "Think of the cover letter less as a hurdle to be overcome," Schifeling says, "and more as an opportunity to show off your best self."
Laura McMullen is the Careers editor at U.S. News and was previously a Health + Wellness reporter. You can follow her on Twitter, connect with her on LinkedIn, circle her on Google+ or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.