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What *Not* to Say in Your Cover Letter

Isabel Morris

We’ve heard it all before – which buzzwords to sprinkle throughout your perfectly planned paragraphs, how many well-researched tidbits of company knowledge will ensure the employer is ringing you for an interview after reading your letter.

Yet – either because the wealth of online data sometimes makes for contradictory advice, or because poor quality information slips through the cracks all too easily on the web – some candidates still seem to be writing pretty bad cover letters. Believe us, we know from firsthand experience.

So, as in our article on how not to write your CV, we’ve taken a slightly different approach. Here’s what not to say in your cover letter.

What’s the point of a cover letter?

Your cover letter is your first point of contact with a prospective employer. It’s your chance to introduce yourself to an organisation, demonstrate an interest in what they do and show your suitability for their vacancy. Particularly if an employer isn’t expecting it, your cover letter should contextualise your CV and motivate its reader to interview you.

With this in mind, the point of a cover letter is NOT:

  • Getting the company’s name wrong. Spell it right, format it right. Remember to triple-check this, especially for start-ups with funky names – like TalentPool! If you manage to mess this up in your cover letter, they’re sure to worry your attention to detail – or lack thereof!
  • Being stiflingly formal. If you wouldn’t say it in real life, chances are you shouldn’t write it. No one wants to interview someone who opens their cover letter with, “I attach my CV for your perusal.” The employer isn’t wondering whether or not you’ve attached the thing your cover letter is meant to be covering.
  • Overusing superlatives. Of course you would “highly relish the opportunity to be highly involved in an innovative start-up at the bleeding-edge of fintech” – that’s why you’re applying for the job, silly! Aside from stating the obvious, overusing superlatives makes you sound insincere.

When is a cover letter appropriate?

If they’re only spending an average of six seconds on each CV, it’s hard to imagine employers will even get to line two of your cover letter if a quick skim tells them it’s unnecessary. If they bother to glance at it at all, that is – which they won’t when:

  • You don’t need to add your CV. For roles that require hard skills – e.g. those in tech – employers initially just want to know whether your relevant hard skills measure up. It’s harsh, but true – they’ll concern themselves with whether you “pine for a job that makes you grow as a person” later. So, your cover letter should be brief and to the point (or simply non-existent) in these cases.
  • You don’t have anything to say. If you’re not bothered about the role and the only purpose your cover letter serves is to say, “I’m just a bloke, looking for a job…” you really shouldn’t be sending it (not to mention applying for the job!). A CV will do.
  • You’ve already completed lots of application questions. If employers have gone to the effort of providing application questions, your answers to those specific questions are what they want. Perhaps hold off on that cover letter illustrating how your life up until this point has prepared you for this role.
  • You’re sending your CV in an email anyway. Unless an organisation specifically asks you to attach a CV and a cover letter in your email to them, it makes no sense to write an email introducing your cover letter introducing your CV. Regard the email itself as your cover letter.

What should I say in my cover letter?

Ah, the cover letter itself… a captivating document that brings adoring prospective employers to beg at your feet. Or so it should. It definitely won’t if you:

  • Brag about completely irrelevant awards and qualifications. Unless they’re directly relevant to the position you’re applying for, your employer is not going to care if you’re a black belt in karate or a qualified barista.
  • Overinflate your experience. We’ve said it already, but we’ll say it again. “Founded, designed and launched www.myname.com” does not count as a job if all that an employer can find at that address is a black and white photo of you and “Get in touch”. Similarly, being captain of your sixth form’s football team doesn’t count as “having extensive leadership experience”.
  • Be vague about why you’re interested in and suitable for the role. Vague, filler phrases such as, “I’m very interested in every aspect of this role,” “I have lots of skills,” or “I’ve done lots of things,” sound disingenuous and vacuous. Use short, specific anecdotes from your experience instead – they’re far more credible.
  • Take the job title at face value. Job titles can mean different things at different companies, so remember to do your research! However similar the names sound, a product manager doesn’t do the same thing as a project manager.
  • Repeat your CV word for word. A cover letter provides the narrative around your CV, explaining why you jumped between different jobs straight out of university or why you weren’t working in 2016. If you’re just listing skills and experience the employer is going to see on your CV anyway, you’re wasting their time.

What should I say in the email attached to my cover letter?

Before you’ve got a job, your prospective employer is assessing your every word – even (especially) those in your email accompanying your cover letter. So whatever you do, don’t:

  • Adopt a tone at odds with your cover letter. Just keep it cool and simple.
  • Being cringely casual. just coz ur emailin dsn’t mean u can let ur guard down !! Please, don’t forget salutations and sign offs, and capitalise your ‘I’s. If someone referred you to the employer, be gracious rather than overly #informal lol xx

Lastly, here’s how to write a CV or cover letter… Just in case you were wondering 😁