If you’re on the job hunt, chances are you’ve written more than your fair share of cover letters, and it can certainly be a challenge to keep each letter fresh and interesting. One simple way to up your job application game is to recognize and root out cover letter clichés, including words and phrases you’ve probably heard a million times.
Calling yourself "a go-getter," "a self-starter," or "detail-oriented" won’t tell your potential employer much about what makes you unique. And clichés can work against you in another way; readers may interpret vague positive phrases as a way to disguise your lack of qualifications for the job.
Don’t sell yourself short. Instead, use your limited cover letter space to tell a story no other applicant can.
Retire clichéd buzzwords
Adjectives like dynamic, proactive, motivated, and responsible might seem like great words to describe yourself—who doesn’t want an employee like that? But employers are a lot more interested in specific accomplishments than general traits. After all, most workplaces expect employees to have motivation, dedication, and responsibility; without examples to back them up, these buzzwords only reiterate the obvious.
Anyone can say they’re a hard worker, but it’s a lot more challenging to put in the work and produce measurable results on a long-term project. Similarly, it’s easy to claim you’re an innovative forward-thinker, but readers would rather hear what innovations you came up with (think of the Writing 101 "Show, don’t tell" adage).
- If you describe yourself as a "team player," for instance, think of the last time you worked on a team—what did you learn from that experience? Maybe you interacted with people in different departments, taught a skill to a co-worker, or compromised to achieve a goal together.
- If you claim to be "detail-oriented," another frequent cover letter cliché, can you point to a task that required you to interpret data, help out with event planning logistics, or scrutinize details in another way?
- If you pride yourself on being a "problem-solver," describe a workplace problem you faced and the solution you discovered. You get the idea.
Watch out for words like "unique" and "expert" as well; for example, stating you’re "uniquely qualified" for a job. Unless you have an unusual niche skill set, chances are your expertise is more common than you think. If you do have accomplishments, credentials, or experiences that set you apart from the average candidate, tell these stories and let them speak for themselves.
Reconsider these clichéd phrases
I think outside the box.
I go the extra mile.
I’m an independent self-starter.
I’m highly organized.
I have excellent communication skills.
I thrive in a fast-paced environment.
I’m a quick learner.
Any of these cover letter clichés, and others like them, risk wasting space and making you sound like all the other candidates out there.
Try using this trick to help you avoid clichés as you’re writing: if a phrase sounds familiar or like a statement you’ve heard before, maybe in a job advertisement, there’s likely a better way to get your point across. Usually this involves pinning down a concrete example of the traits these phrases describe, like a seminar you helped organize (I’m highly organized), a content management system you mastered in a few weeks (I’m a quick learner), or a language you taught yourself in quarantine (I’m an independent self-starter).
Many cover letter writers mention skill sets they’re "familiar with" or have "knowledge of." While these phrases aren’t exactly clichés, they’re still vague and unclear. Familiarity could mean weeks or months of classroom and working experience, or simply an awareness you’ve gained from studying and observing others. At worst, such general phrasing can suggest you’re more comfortable with a skill than you actually are, which can backfire if you need to use the skill on the job. Avoid possible confusion by being upfront about just how much expertise you have.
As a final defense against cover letter clichés, reread your letter and look for any "I" phrases and statements you can change or eliminate. You may have quite a few "I" statements, naturally, since you’re writing about yourself in the first person. Try changing some of them to "you" statements that highlight what the organization is looking for. This helps immensely when you’re tailoring a cover letter to a job, and it shows the reader you’ve done your homework. "I thrive in a fast-paced environment" could become "Your fast-paced atmosphere requires employees who can make smart decisions under pressure. At my internship with X organization, which ran on a tight schedule, I..."
Go from general to specific
You may have heard a cover letter is the place to tell employers something they couldn’t find out from your resume. Often this means making connections with a reader by telling stories, showing examples, and demonstrating your passion for the industry.
If you’re tempted to take the shortcut of a cover letter cliché, think about a brief anecdote you could use instead. Your reader is more likely to remember an example of hard work or innovative thinking, even in a brief two-sentence story, than they are to remember an overused phrase.
Numbers and metrics are an easy way to get specific, whenever you can provide them. Think of any way you can "quantify" achievements—how many people you mentored or served in your role, how many subscribers read the newsletter you edited, etc. These details don’t take up much space, and they show your impact in a quick and measurable way.
Keep in mind your goal is for the reader to remember you. Employers are sifting through piles of repetitive cover letters; you want to be the one who says something different.
Did you enjoy this post? If you’re looking to spruce up your resume with more impactful language, be sure to Try Using These Action Verbs to Get Your Resume Noticed.