Despite some debate around the topic, the cover letter remains an indispensable job search tool. It’s your chance to forge a connection with hiring managers before you’ve even met them, so you want to get it right. You’ll find, though, that much of the advice on how to write a cover letter centers on what to put into this appendage. Less is said about what to omit, and yet it’s as valuable to be familiar with the bits to exclude as it is to know what to include. So, here are six things to leave out of your first cover letter so you can write a lean personal-branding document that conveys only what it should—and nothing more.
1. Repetition of your résumé
Your cover letter is meant to be an accompaniment to your résumé, not a duplication of it in narrative form. If you’re just restating what you said in your résumé, you’re making a grave mistake. Hiring managers will almost certainly have already scanned your résumé, so they’ll want to find additional context and original content in your letter. Rather than falling back on “and then I studied this…and then I interned here,” pick two or three pertinent points about your background and unpack them in detail to show how they set you up for success in this new job. A cover letter is also an opportunity to express what you didn’t, or couldn’t, fit in your résumé—to tell a story, share unique anecdotes, and let your personality shine through.
2. Too much emphasis on education
If you’re fresh out of college and you’re writing your first cover letter with little or no work experience, it’s easy to fall into the trap of spending too much time discussing your scholastic achievements and educational qualifications. The truth is, hiring managers don’t want to read about every detail of every topic you covered in your curriculum. They want to know what you’re capable of and what you can deliver in a work environment. Think back on your study time and pull out key experiences—internships, volunteer work, practicums and on-the-ground projects—that helped prepare you for employment. Focus on these, the results you achieved, and the transferable skills you honed by participating in them.
3. Overused descriptors and generic phrases
Lines like “My name is x and I’m writing to apply for the position of y” and “I’m an ambitious, hard-working go-getter” have been seen a million times by recruiters. Stay away from these generic phrases or your letter will simply get lost amid the masses. You want to come across as a one-of-a-kind individual who has more to offer than other candidates, not as a lemming or a robot. If anything you’ve written sounds trite, delete it now and replace it with something fresh, creative, and personable—something that sounds like you.
4. Empty claims
Anyone can say that they’re a brilliant mathematician or a great problem solver, but it means nothing if you can’t back it up. The only way you’ll impress hiring managers is if you leave out all unsupported claims and focus on giving concrete examples of times you applied your abilities to attain measurable results. It comes down to showing, not telling. Say you want to stress that you’re a great leader in your cover letter. Instead of declaring it, tell a story about your leadership experiences—the time you tutored a group of 30 students or captained a complex group project, for instance. If you’re not able to support an assertion with a clear anecdote, don’t make the claim at all.
5. False or exaggerated praise
It’s important to communicate your passion for the industry and your drive to join this particular company, but don’t overstate your enthusiasm or be excessively complimentary. Your interest must sound genuine. A real story that sheds light on how you came to love your field or how the business’s products have brought value to your own life will come across as much more meaningful and sincere than over-the-top sweet talk.
6. Filler talk
If you want hiring managers to actually read your cover letter, it should be as concise as possible. Omit long-winded explanations, and make sure every single word you use deserves to be there. While you’ll be talking about yourself in your letter, it would be a mistake to make the focus just you—your needs, your aspirations, your accomplishments. Instead, think about the problem the business is trying to solve by hiring someone new, and shift the emphasis onto how you could effectively fill the gap and assist them in moving toward their goals.
How to write a cover letter: Basic tips
Now that you know what to leave out of your first cover letter, keep the following points in mind for overall success:
- Structure your letter as follows: opening greeting, opening paragraph, body paragraph(s), closing paragraph, closing remark.
- Never use “To Whom It May Concern”; rather, address your letter to a specific person (do some research if you don’t know the hiring manager’s name).
- Make sure your opening statement is unique and attention grabbing.
- Be sure to highlight your transferable skills in the cover letter body.
- Don’t dwell on gaps or requirements that you don’t meet.
- Always sign off professionally and thank the reader for their time.
- Keep your letter to one page long.
While a cover letter seems like a steep mountain to climb, simply think of it as a great opportunity to introduce the real you to a potential employer—just in written form. Be honest, be authentic, and be confident. Keep it concise and effective by expressing your passion and what you could truly bring to the table in the desired position. After a rough draft and a round of editing, you’ll have a great cover letter that is sure to impress.
Find more advice to help your post-grad job search in our Internships and Careers section.