Crafting the perfect cover letter requires creativity applied within tried-and-true constructs. If you're a recent graduate, your cover letter should be specific, direct, and short — half a page will do. And here's what it shouldn't be: generic, copied directly from a template or full of meaningless phrases.
"The most important step in the cover letter process is editing," says Rich Deosingh, district director for staffing firm Robert Half. He recommends reading over your draft several times, then showing it to a friend with strong writing skills before you submit it. "A polished and thoughtful cover letter will go a long way for you and can certainly give you a leg-up in the job search process," he says.
1. "Dear Sir/Madam" or "To Whom It May Concern"
The problem with using these phrases is twofold: They're generic and outdated. Look at the company website to find an employee directory or search LinkedIn for the appropriate contact.
If after a bit of online searching you can't figure out who is doing the hiring, consider calling or emailing the company and asking to whom you should address the letter. If you still can't find out, use "Dear Hiring Manager."
"Think of your cover letter as your very first impression," says Deosingh. "Address the hiring manager personally and write each letter for the role you're applying to. Personalize it for that particular organization."
Do not use a generic, too casual opening line in the first paragraph of you cover letter. You're looking to keep the phrasing conversational but not overly familiar. Your first line is the chance to grab the reader's attention. Instead, focus on showing the hiring manager that you're going to be able to hit the ground running at your new job.
Consider reviewing online examples to get inspiration for your first sentence. But do not cut and paste. "Don't submit a cookie cutter cover letter with a fill-in-the-blank format," Deosingh says. "Hiring managers will see right through it."
3. "I'm applying for..."
Don't start your letter with the most obvious possible statement — that you're applying (they're aware). You want to be more specific. Make sure to name the position you're applying for and then explain why you're a good candidate for it.
"Keep your cover letter simple with an introductory paragraph, some specific examples of practical experience and a final paragraph about what contributions you'll make to the company," Deosingh says. "It's okay to share some of what you're looking to learn in addition to what you hope to contribute, but avoid an overly lengthy letter."
4. "Here is my work experience..."
An effective cover letter for a first job will get to the point quickly as well as offer some highlights about your relevant experience — professional or academic — that will benefit the company. But there's no reason to try to fit all your work experience into the cover letter — the hiring manager already has your resume. Use your cover letter as an opportunity to shine a light on a few of your skills and examples, and let your resume do the rest. As a recent graduate, if you have little to no work experience, your cover letter should introduce your top academic accomplishments and how they've prepared you for a transition to the professional world.
"Without a great deal of experience or past measurable results to share, the cover letter is an opportunity to highlight projects, internships and any applicable work that will show you have familiarity in the field," Deosingh says. "It's also your chance to express interest in learning and growing with the company."
5. "I have strong verbal and writing skills..."
Again, your goal should be specificity. In your cover letter, you want to show, not tell. Show the hiring manager that you can do the job by offering your relevant skills, experience and achievements.
Telling someone that you're accomplished at something, unfortunately, does not make it so. Don't write that you're skilled at making presentations or writing proposals unless you can back it up with facts, ideally in the form of experience.
6. Tired clichés
Avoid phrases like "thinking outside of the box," "team player" and "self-starter." These phrases scream "generic cover letter filler," they don't offer proof and they don't help the hiring manager learn anything about you. Also try to stay away from jargon or buzzwords, as they distract rather than clarify.
Do mention a few keywords — such as specific qualifications or types of experience — from the job description to show that you have read it and understand what's required. But don't overdo it, Deosingh says. "While it's good to use a few of them, you don't want it to feel forced."
7. "I am excited about the position..."
This often-seen phrase is also troublesome in more than one way. Try to avoid vague statements that are obvious. While a few 'I" statements are welcome in your cover letter, don't use too many. Vary the openings of your sentences, focus on active phrasing and let the facts do the work.
For college students and recent graduates with limited work histories, it can be tempting to add in these common phrases to "bulk up" your experience and accomplishments. But your cover letter should be about depth and quality, not length. And don't forget to tailor your cover letter to the job. It's essential that you customize every cover letter and resume to each position you're applying to.
Construct a meaningful, specific — and relatively short — cover letter, and you'll be more likely to connect with the hiring manager and separate yourself from the competition. Looking for more cover letter writing tips? Check out LiveCareer's collection of Cover Letter Examples for inspiration, or use a Cover Letter Builder, and get help with writing your letter in a matter of minutes.