Friday, March 26, 2010

Cover Letters: Show, Don't Tell

by Laurel Mylonas-Orwig

Let’s face it—writing a good cover letter is not an easy task. The ideal cover letter will highlight your relevant experience and qualifications, convey to the employer why you would be a valuable employee, and make you stand out of the crowd. To top it off, it needs to do all of that in a single page! This can certainly be a challenge, which is likely why many job seekers latch on to certain phrases and stick with them. These “career buzzwords” may seem like they get your point across, but such overused phrases usually only irritate the hiring manager. Instead of telling the employer about your attributes, a much better strategy is to “show” them, by giving examples pulled from your past work and volunteer experience.

Here are the top six phrases to avoid:

  1. Reliable/Trustworthy

  2. Team player

  3. Good communicator

  4. Problem solver

  5. Well organized/Detail-oriented

  6. Work well under pressure

It’s important to note that hiring mangers definitely are looking for these attributes, so I’m certainly not advocating that you avoid talking about them in your cover letter. But the fact is, just saying that you “work well under pressure” won’t convince the employer that this is the case. However, if instead you say “Translated the entire Facebook site into Arabic in 36 hours” (which, by the way, Facebook did not too long ago, though it took an entire team of engineers and translators to pull it off), that will definitely get your point across. Think of a cover letter as a very short paper for your favorite class (the class about you!). In a good paper, you would never simply make a statement without taking the time to back it up with evidence. The same is true of a cover letter. So, even though those career buzzwords are tempting when you’re rushing to finish an internship application, take the time to consider your experiences and give the employer some context that expresses why you’re so amazing.

Rephrasing 101:

  • Instead of “reliable”: “Within one month of starting at XYZ Co, was given responsibility of internship selection committee.”

  • Instead of team player: “Worked with a team of six to restructure department budget.”

  • Instead of “good communicator”: “Coordinated a campus-wide recycling drive that saved several tons of aluminum cans.”

  • Instead of “problem solver”: “Successfully resolved a conflict between student union and restaurant vendors.”

  • Instead of “well organized” or “detail-oriented”: “Indexed, edited and maintained clinic files for more than 1000 patients.”

A word about length: By showing your accomplishments off, your cover letter will likely get a little bit longer, since you’re using ten words instead of two. This can actually be a good thing, as it will force you to only detail the attributes that are especially relevant to that position. But if you’re torn between using a buzzword and spilling onto a second page, it’s better to run a little long (bear in mind that “a little” does NOT equal an entire second page. Or even half a page. Be concise!).

Do you have any suggestions for rephrasing buzzwords, or know of one we missed? Leave a comment below!

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