Don't Make Your Cover Letter a Waste of Time

John Krautzel
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Your cover letter is the way you introduce yourself to a hiring manager or job recruiter whom you want to impress. You wouldn't introduce yourself to a hiring manager in person by talking to someone else on the phone while you're introduced, or shaking hands with your hand covered in sticky chocolate. Don't commit the equivalent errors in your cover letter. If you don't take the time to get it right, you send an obvious message to job recruiters that they're wasting their time with you. Here are some tips to keep your cover letter from being a waste of time.

Being Impersonal

If you address your cover letter to "Dear Hiring Manager" or even worse, "To Whom It May Concern," you've just sent the message that your application is a waste of the HR department's time. If you can't be bothered to do the simple research required to find out who to address a cover letter to, you can't be trusted to be a self-starter who can work independently and contribute to the company.

Failure to Proofread

Most companies aren't interested in job candidates who send cover letters filled with typos, grammatical errors and misspellings. If you don't bother to proofread your cover letter, you demonstrate a lack of attention to detail that can be fatal in your job search. If proofreading doesn't come naturally to you, get a friend who loves grammar and editing to take a look at it before you send to make it worth your prospective employer's time.

Being Overly Personal

Your cover letter isn't the place to talk about why how you fell in love with the idea of working for an insurance company when you were 10 years old. It isn't even the place to talk about yourself. Instead, use the precious few paragraphs you have to talk about how you could fit into and benefit the company you're applying to. In addition, avoid bringing up personal negatives. These can include anything from why you moved to a new city to get away from a bad relationship to the reason you were let go from your last job.

Being Too Generic

Yes, you probably have a standard cover letter that you can pull out whenever you need to send out a new resume. However, don't just cut and paste it to each company you're interested in. Instead, use it as a template. Write a fresh opening and conclusion to your cover letter each time, and make sure it's focusing on the right details for each specific job. The hiring manager reading your cover letter can tell if you're cutting and pasting.

While you're avoiding using an obvious template, make sure you also keep from using trite phrases that could make an experienced hiring manager roll her eyes. Instead of describing yourself as a "team player," take a sentence to describe a specific situation in which you worked well as a collaborator, or draw attention to your teamwork on your resume.

Sending a Message of Arrogance

You may be the perfect candidate for the job you're applying for. Even if you know that, though, you're not the one who gets to make that call. Be careful in your cover letter not to come across as arrogant or overconfident. Even worse, don't send a subtle message that you're too good for the job. Your hiring manager doesn't want to waste time on someone who is just going to antagonize all his new co-workers.

Writing a Letter That's Just Too Long

Let's face it, the purpose of your cover letter is to introduce the hiring manager to your resume. If you have a personal connection at the company, of course you want to mention her by name. Other than that, the shorter, the sweeter when it comes to your cover letter. Mention a few salient facts, point to your resume, provide all your contact information and offer your thanks. That's all you really need. If you bore the hiring manager, you're wasting her time.

A cover letter that reads professionally and has a clean look goes a long way to moving you up the interview list. Take the time to target your cover letters to each job you apply for, and always take a second look to make sure your letter is perfect before licking the envelope or hitting send.

Photo Courtesy of Kareen SaMaRa at


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  • Jorge A E.
    Jorge A E.

    My opinion is that doesn't matter how beautiful the cover letter could be or how excellent your resume could look ,at the end is your professional experience that talks for your self and if you are willing to work , the way you are showing in your resume , prove it , In my last job ,we hired 80 persons nice resumes they were the worse and 2 persons with out resumes and no High School came out to be the best the rest is cheese and bologna I talk by experience ,the employers these days they want to slave for $10 .00 Dollars an hour regardless of your nice resume and cover letter , thank you

  • FRELA A.
    FRELA A.

    Thanks for that comment sometime i have trouble putting my cover letter together.

  • Nancy Anderson
    Nancy Anderson

    @Emma so very true - thank you. @Jacqueline don't worry so much about word phrasing. Just make sure that you are including at least some of the keywords from the job posting and that your cover letter is written in such a way as to show the company how they will benefit by hiring you - not how you will benefit by the hire. If you think about it that way, you won't have any worries about using trendy wording or trite phrases. Just keep it short, sweet and to the point and you will be fine.

  • Emma Rochekins
    Emma Rochekins

    Writing a cover letter helps you not waste your time pursuing a position you're really not interested in or qualified for. Yes, you're tailoring your cover letter to appeal to the hiring manager; however, you should remain honest at the core. When you sit down to write the cover letter and are struggling to connect your skills with the job or point out ways you'd contribute to the company, perhaps you'll discover that you don't really want to work for the company.

  • Jacqueline Parks
    Jacqueline Parks

    Are there any words that should be specifically avoided in a cover letter? I wouldn't want to offend a hiring manager, or use phrases or adjectives that are trite. How can I keep my cover letter fresh without falling into the trap of using trendy wording? I am probably over analyzing what is acceptable, but I am interested in learning about specific words that are best avoided.

  • Jane H.
    Jane H.

    I have had a wealth of personal experience doing all kinds of interesting work in far flung places, so I'm likely to mention at least one at the interview if it's relevant. However, I am careful to avoid them in a cover letter. If I do decide to include an anecdote, I make sure it is mission critical to the job, to help give me an edge.

  • Erica  T.
    Erica T.

    I agree that job applicants should tailor cover letters to suit each job they're applying for. Cover letters should include specific work/life experiences that relate to the position - it's these unique experiences that can set one applicant apart from the others. A tailored, well-written cover letter also lets recruiters know that an applicant has taken the time to read and thoroughly understand the job posting, has some idea concerning the skills required to complete job tasks, and that they have an understanding of the company and how it operates.


    I think job applicants should always air on the side of over-confidence in the cover letters, in regards to this debate over confidence versus arrogance. It's safe to assume that many of the other applicants will have read the same advice about coming across as very confident in their cover letters, so it's important to follow this trend so that you don't get looked over. A good suggestion is to have a friend read your cover letter to test whether it sounds too arrogant.

  • Nancy Anderson
    Nancy Anderson

    @Duncan for addressing a cover letter, if you can find the hiring manager's name, I would use it - but use the formal such as Mr. Smith instead of Tom or even Tom Smith. This keeps it on the formal side while still addressing him personally. @Jay maybe it is the time to appear smug. After all, the purpose in the application is to sell ourselves enough to get an interview. Then, during the interview, is when we do our close. If you had already included that you improved sales... on your resume, don't include it on the cover letter. The cover letter isn't about you per se but about how the company will benefit when they hire you.

  • Duncan  Maranga
    Duncan Maranga

    I find the point about avoiding being impersonal when addressing the job application a bit confusing. This is because the conventional rules of formal letters dictate that the address should be formal to distinguish it from a friendly letter. So, wont I be breaching this convention if I address the hiring manager more in person than professionally?

  • Jay Bowyer
    Jay Bowyer

    I've struggled with the arrogant vs. confident conundrum in the past. It's so important to showcase our skills in the cover letters we write, but at the same time, we don't want to appear smug. Thankfully, we can more-or-less get around the whole debacle by writing about successful experiences instead. We can write things like, "When I was manager of [X Store], I improved sales 50 percent in three weeks." Facts speak for themselves.

  • Nancy Anderson
    Nancy Anderson

    Thanks for the comments. So very true that you shouldn't get too caught up in the salutation. The most important part of your cover letter, after a quick intro, is what you can do for them. And remember, the cover letter is about them, not about you. If you have the company name, do some research. Check out their website if they have one. You can get a wealth of information there. Try to find out who the hiring manager is through sites like LinkedIn, GlassDoor or Indeed along with many other sites that offer this type of information. But truly, don't get too carried away with this. As @William mentioned - maybe you can use an email as your cover letter and then attach your resume. This way you could pretty much just jump right into the meat of the subject. If you can't find a name - Dear Hiring Manager works well. @Jacob with a little bit of cursory research you should be able to determine if the position is posted by the actual company or if it's posted by a recruiter/agency. Usually, if placed by an agency, it will indicate that they have a "client" who is looking for blah, blah, blah. Hope that helps.

  • Jacob T.
    Jacob T.

    To whom should you address a cover letter if you are genuinely unsure of who is making the decision? The proliferation of 3rd party recruiting firms outsourced initial interviews can make it tricky at times to know for certain what company with which you are applying, let alone a person who may be handling the process.

  • William Browning
    William Browning

    I think the best way to avoid making your cover letter a waste of time is to make your cover letter the email with which you submit your resume. If you fill out an online application, use the provided blank for a cover letter before you download your resume. Make sure you write the letter before you start the application process, though.

  • Lydia K.
    Lydia K.

    @Shannon, I agree this doesn't always have to be a deal breaker. In smaller organizations a little internet research or a few phone calls may lead you to the right contact person. In big organizations this isn't always the case. Sometimes it isn't even clear which department or team you're being considered for. When this is the case, I agree it's okay to focus on the content of your cover letter and not worry so much about the salutation.

  • Shannon Philpott
    Shannon Philpott

    While I agree with so many of these points, I'm struggling with the recommendation to avoid putting "to whom it may concern." Even the best researchers often hit a road block when identifying who to address the letter to during the job search. In fact, I've even called companies and have been told to put "to whom it may concern" because the HR department initially scans the application materials.

  • Nancy Anderson
    Nancy Anderson

    @Abbey there is not a pat answer for your questions. You need to toot your own horn during an interview - but do it with dignity and grace. Do your research ahead of time and ask questions of the interviewer regarding both the position and the company. Show that you really care - that you really want the job and you will come across as confident - confident in yourself and in your ability to be the best for the position and for the company.

  • Abbey Boyd
    Abbey Boyd

    I read all the time about how important confidence is when interviewing for a position. You don't want to sell yourself short, but also don't want to come across as rude. However, when there is stiff competition, how do you find the right balance between confidence and arrogance, and how do you display that in writing?

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