Six Elements of a Truly Annoying Cover Letter and One Key to a Good One


July 20, 2015; U.S. News & World Report, “Money”


The experience of applying for jobs can be excruciatingly disempowering. As a result, it comes as no surprise when people freeze and look for common defaults when writing their cover letters. But there is a way to interrupt the fear and loathing, and that is to focus on the “other”—or, in this case, the organization to which you are applying.

Alison Green writes a regular column for U.S. News & World Report where she takes on the job search among other issues. Yesterday’s column dealt with annoying cover letters from job applicants. And, indeed, there are some very common annoyances that may (and probably should) get you dismissed out of hand as relatively dippy.

What not to do:

  • Address the person hiring you as “Dear Sir(s).” Why would anyone wish to hire an individual in this decade who freely illustrates just how dense they are about gender issues? Sounds like an accident waiting to happen and—well, just annoying!
  • Get the organization’s name wrong, or get the job title wrong somewhere in your application. People sometimes do this if they are cutting and pasting between multiple job applications, but it results on occasion in laughable gaffes. You get what you pay for in the time you save not carefully copy-editing and tailoring.
  • Overselling yourself as compared to other possible candidates. There is absolutely nothing persuasive in declaring yourself “perfect for the job” or “uniquely qualified.” Better that you describe the job as perfect for you, as in “I can’t imagine anywhere I would more like to work at this point.” Just be sure to get the name of the organization right.
  • Selling yourself on the basics. “I work well independently and as part of a team.” Yes, and?
  • Befuddling with meaningless buzzwords. That’s as applied to oneself, as in, “You will find I’m a hard-working, detail-oriented, proactive self-starter with great communication skills.” Half the time, these claims are negated elsewhere in the application, and why would anyone want someone like that around the office?
  • Pushing for an independent meeting outside of the process. “I don’t believe a cover letter and résumé can really tell you what I have to offer, so I hope to meet in person.” Actually, if your communication skills are so darn great, you should be able to express in writing why you and that job are such a great fit.

But from here, I am going to take off from Alison’s list a bit and give one tip about what is appreciated and what will make an impression that will place you in the small pile of follow-ups: Talk about what it is in the job or the organization or both that intrigues you. Nothing is more impressive than a candidate who knows and values something or even a lot about the organization they are applying to. Most people who hire want the energy that comes with legitimate interest and understand that there is a kind of magic in the right match—a chemistry born of shared purpose and aligned self-interest, and if the candidate has already explored that and still wants to work there…well, then I’m interested in them.—Ruth McCambridge

  • 0101101

    Annoying things in U.S. News…

    1. Articles that being with “6 Things That….” Click bait with as much credibility as those ads that flash ‘5 Ways to Remove Belly Fat…!!!’ These lists are a lazy way to string together words for publication. I suspect that I spent more time on this comment than she did on an article she was paid to produce.

    2. Complaints that offer no corrective advice. Like, to whom does the author prefer I address my cover letter in the salutation?

    3. Complaints that are actually about the process itself, but that blame the victim by condemning how the process has been used. Buzzwords are there to grease the letter’s slide through electronic filtering; if a human is reading the letter instead, of course it does not make sense.

    4. (See 3.) Job search advice stresses how important it is for the seeker to find and make contact with human(s) at the hiring organization -> outside the hiring process! Some advantage is supposed to come from this although, of course, it can serve to simply annoy people and kill the seeker’s chances at a job there.

    • ruth

      with all due respect, not so! I read many letters of application and in their similarity most end up in the not really file. Those that rise to the top are those who say something like, “I know and admire your organization because… and here is what I think I can bring to that mission.” There is traction there, I think you would agree that most nonprofit hiring managers are more interested in advancing the organization than in seeing that eerily familiar word salad self-applied to yet one more individual. he question is does the applicant have enough knowledge about the organization to be able to talk to the mission?

  • Michal Nortness

    Thanks, Ruth. As a woman with a traditionally ‘male’ first name, I immediately toss any resume or application (or solicitation letter for that matter) which comes addressed to Mr. Michal Nortness. so just quit it, people!

  • R

    Hmmm…. As a 59-year-old male who has been (mostly) out of work for going on six years, this article struck me as smug, snarky and downright cruel. To be sure, plenty of people can probably improve their job-seeking techniques – including the composition of cover letters. But, stop for a moment: Have very many sets of human eyes read any of the sparkling prose I’ve written in the 10,000 or so letters and resumes I’ve sent out since 2009? I think not – and by the way, I usually begin all of my cover letters with the salutation “Good morning.” This is partly in deference to the times and partly because of the sheer number of women VPs, directors and managers (I apply for the most humble of posts) who labor in my former field, corporate communications. I’ve had plenty of people comment favorably on my brilliance, my go-getter-ness, my enthusiasm for the organization at hand, and my apparent work ethic – both on paper and in person (yes, I do manage to secure those real-life interviews, not mindless phone screens, from time to time). But it usually counts for naught. People who are functionaries in big organizations of all sorts – whether nonprofits or for-profits – usually have an ideal candidate in mind, and it isn’t a 59-year-old bald guy wearing bifocals. Nor, usually, might it be a 59-year-old woman, for that matter. Read any job board with a user forum, and you’ll see that my story is quite the norm. I’m glad that the Ruth McCambridges of the world are still going strong in their dotage, but I would expect someone in the compassion industry to demonstrate a bit more decency toward job seekers – who are probably just as sick of hearing ad nauseum about unique value sets, legacies of service, and engaged stakeholders as they are of getting letters addressed, however absentmindedly, to “Dear Sirs.”

    • ruth

      My dotage is right! and I apologize for any lack of sensitivity. I was not meaning to be snarky. My point was really that people need to remember that the organization they are applying to want to hear how you intend to advance it – not yourself – no matter how wonderful you are. That means that you need to mention the group and accurately in the cover letter. What you bring up is the excruciating other issue of ageism which everyone should consider as they envision their ideal candidate.
      And beyond that, I would remind people that although the numbers of people applying for unemployment are at historic lows, the number of people who have withdrawn from participating in the labor market in frustration is high and many of those have been unemployed for a while. Do not use this as a screen!

  • Truth_Hound

    I have to agree with the old-timers, of which I’m now apparently one. I’m Ivy League educated with a distinguished work history, but it comes down to this –I’m in my mid-50s now. In my 20s, I was hired for jobs that were way over my head just because I was in my 20s. And now the opposite is true. Or nearly. I can’t even get jobs way under my head now.I know enough about technology to handle the jobs for which I apply. I’m still fun and funny. I stay current without trying too hard. I listen to The Black Keys and Florence and The Machine because I like them. But damn, in communications it’s so about age, it’s illegal. Just few ways to prove it. In Gen Xers days, the talked about “the gray ceiling” — the mass of Baby Boomers who wouldn’t retire, thus keeping Xers at low-level jobs. But now the gray ceiling is just age discrimination — against the Baby Boom generation who brought you all sex, drugs and rock n roll.

    • R

      Cool! I’ve sparked a discussion! Isn’t that how this social media thing (which we 50-somethings are supposed to know nothing about) is supposed to work? I appreciate the fact that Ruth McCambridge appreciated my lame attempt at humor – and also that I used the word “dotage” correctly. That said: I’ve never managed to be hired for a job that was “way over my head,” nor, apparently, will I ever be at this juncture. It does seem to me that in my mid- to late-40s, I started to feel as if I was being bossed around by people who knew a lot less than I did – a syndrome I suspect is common. Your thoughts, Truth Hound! I often ponder exiting communications altogether and becoming trained as, say, a teacher or a robotics technician. But then a bunch of new freelance work arrives in my inbox, because the scary new truth in organizational America these days is that for every comms or PR org with, say, a staff of 45 managers and directors and other Twitter junkies, they’ve apparently forgotten how to write. That is, if they ever knew how in the first place.

  • ruth

    lame attempts at humor are always welcome here and it is interesting where this discussion has gone. I wonder how it makes sense to follow up?

  • JR

    I am now retired. Up until then, I worked in a variety of businesses before I finally settled on nonprofit, where I worked for the last 25-30 years of my career. And I always feel a little bitter and tad angry when I read an article or see a program on how to create a resume and how to present oneself in a job interview. These are somewhat upsetting to me because I think they are almost always unrealistic. If I were going to write an article or do a program on getting and keeping a job, I would make it absolutely clear that neither has anything to do with knowing who the company is or having an enthusiastic persona. Because what managers and supervisors want in their staff is NOT go-getters, idea people, think-outside-the-box employees, people who question or speak truth to power, people who want to do extra, employees who keep up with that particular industry and their own company so they are knowledgeable and promotion-worthy. What employers/managers want are people who do just enough to keep themselves occupied (out of trouble and with a low profile); never late to work or to a meeting or back from lunch or break (see “low profile”); staff who can sit in a meeting with the boss and never question him/her or present alternative ideas, in fact, never speak at all. Why all this passivity is necessary to keep one’s job? So that the boss can ease through their day of work without having to do anything extra. This has been my and many others job experience. It’s disappointing to those who want more from their job, but good news to those who just want to put in the hours as effortlessly as possible.

    • R

      At the risk of wearing out my welcome… how true! Sad, but true. My own history illustrates that principle:

      “Relax, nobody ever gets fired from here,” said my coworker at our big giant company. Well, guess who became the first? Several years later I was unceremoniously marched out the door. When I reflect back on it I realize that I WAS one of those folks who constantly presented alternative ideas, acted as a thorn in the side to the bossy empty suits, and also would expect forgiveness for arriving late during the winter because I had an 82-mile one-way commute and lived in a different weather band from my workplace. I would also work into the evenings as a habit – even when I didn’t arrive late – and my job often required attendance at weekend events. The distance WAS an issue, but I felt it was my job. My ideas and creativity were always useful and I was complimented on them in my employee reviews. I was also sharply criticized for “struggling with the priorities of leadership.” Read: I was really, really bad at ass-kissing. When it all came down to it, that was the only quality that mattered.