The first sentence of your job application should ideally hook a hiring manager. But too often, job seekers resort to formulaic introductions in cover letters because selling the story of one’s career on paper is an understandably difficult task.
Nevertheless, cover letters can make or break who gets a callback from an employer.
“I’ve had recruiters in the past couple of weeks that have come to me and said they’ve made their interview decisions based on the candidate’s cover letter. And that’s how they decide who to interview,” said Jessica Hernandez, a career development coach with more than 10 years of human resources experience.
You don’t want to get counted out before you’ve had the opportunity to present your case for why you’re the best candidate. Here are the overused, generic cover letter introductions you need to avoid using if you want your cover letter to actually get read:
“To whom it may concern”
Addressing your cover letter this way is an unnecessary formality, Hernandez said.
“It doesn’t concern anyone, and it’s so formal and outdated,” she said. “We definitely want to avoid that whether you know the person’s name or not.”
Hernandez advises job seekers to use LinkedIn to find the names of hiring managers. If you cannot find the appropriate person’s name, you can leave off the salutation altogether.
“I am writing to express my interest” or “I’m writing in response to the job title posting”
Melanie L. Denny, a career coach, said she sees too many job seekers begin their cover letters with some version of “I’m writing in response to the job title posting as seen on Indeed.com.”
“The employer doesn’t care where you saw the posting and you can reference the specific job in more clever ways,” Denny said.
Hernandez agreed, saying this kind of generic opening doesn’t engage the reader.
“Every cover letter template that’s out on the internet, that’s how they all start,” she said.
“My name is...”
“Are we in first grade? No need to state your name,” Denny said. “It’s likely in the signature of your correspondence. Cut to the chase — quickly.”
Kristen Fitzpatrick, the managing director of alumni, career and professional development at Harvard Business School, said starting off with the job seeker’s name is her least favorite opening.
“You want to tell the reader what’s not obvious,” she said, adding that instead of writing your name, “use the space and the reader’s attention for something that’s going to be interesting and help you stand out.”
“I hope this letter finds you well.”
“This is polite and very thoughtful, but again, it doesn’t mean much to a hiring official looking for the right candidate,” Denny said.
How to actually catch an employer’s attention
To avoid having a hiring manager’s eyes glaze over in boredom, use these tips to immediately catch their interest:
Begin by mentioning your referral if you have one. “Start your cover letter with ‘I was referred to ... by ...’ because referrals are your golden ticket to an interview,” Hernandez said.
Use keywords that show your skills align with the job. Hernandez suggested using keywords to point to your skills, such as, “I’m an investment strategist with strong commercial real estate investment, asset management and operations experience.” That way, “you’re telling the employer, ‘Here’s what I do,’ and you’re giving them the keywords, the skills that go along with it,” Hernandez said.
Show off your research. “The best ones encompass something that required a bit of research,” Fitzpatrick said. One example she gave: “Your recent investment in X to grow your Y division caught my eye.”
And if this sounds like too much work, use that as your sign to move on.
“If this job really matters to you and you’re not willing to spend 10 to 15 minutes Googling them and citing recent articles and going down the rabbit hole a little bit on this organization, I’m not sure you really want to work there,” Fitzpatrick said. “That’s a little bit of a litmus test you can use on your interest.”