is this a good opening for a cover letter?

A reader writes:

After reading through your blog, I realized I had been writing the type of cover letter that will get a resume/application sent directly to the circular file. I have since revised it, meaning I now write specific letters for each specific job for which I apply, as opposed to a less personal form letter. However, I use the same opener in each cover letter, and would like your guidance on if it is something that might make me stand out, either positively or negatively. Here’s a copy of my latest cover letter:

I am writing to apply for the position of Training Coordinator. I would like to start off by saying I am not very good at this sort of thing, writing cover letters, etc. Please do not take this as a lack of confidence in my abilities or even a false sense of humility. What it boils down to is this; how many times as a Human Resources professional can you read the same cliché and hackneyed phrases such as “motivated self-starter,” or “team player with natural born leadership abilities,” before it all just seems disingenuous? I understand that the goal of writing a cover letter is to explain why I believe that hiring me would be mutually beneficial; however, I do not want to speak in tired buzzwords or come off as a used car salesman trying to give a hard sell to a soft mark, either.

[remainder of letter redacted]

Hmmm. No.  Here’s what I think when I read this letter:  “You’re right it’s tiresome and annoying to read those sorts of cliches, but you’re way off-base in implying that those are the only options for cover letters. Those are horrible phrases for cover letters (or any part of life, really), but why don’t you realize that you could just avoid them entirely, instead of suggesting that ‘tired buzzwords’ are the only options?”  And that that makes me think that you’re naive or unresourceful.

And that’s not a good way to introduce yourself.

You’ve also unnecessarily opened your letter on a negative note. Why not skip all this and just launch straight into the letter you want to write, rather than talking about the letter you don’t want to write, or the fact that you might not be good at it?

Also, as a neurotic grammar curmudgeon, I’m obligated to point out that you’re using a semicolon incorrectly in your fourth sentence, where you actually want a colon. Do not abuse the semicolon! It is the best of all punctuation marks.

{ 52 comments… read them below }

    1. arm2008

      Actually, I stopped reading right after “I’m not very good at this sort of thing” – cringing is bad for my emotional well being.

  1. Jeremy

    Eeeps! Forgive my abuse of the semicolon. That was a pure typo, through and through. I am ashamed that I missed it.

    I thought that beginning might come off as being negative. My initial thinking on it was for subtle humor and acknowledgement of the types of covers that they may often receive. I guess I was waaaaaaaaaay off base, and that little section is being removed from any further cover letter I send out. Thanks very much for your advice.

    1. Long Time Admin

      Jeremy,

      The very first Outplacement Service I ever met with told us, “It’s very important to know when to stop talking. Or when to stop writing.” Say why you’re writing to them, then just tell them why you’re a good match for the job qualifications. Use a business-like closing (such as Yours truly,) and stop. Your letter doesn’t need to fill up the page.

      1. Joy

        Oh really? I get to the end of my cover letters and wonder how I can stretch that last paragraph into a full page. Well, I’d love to stop!

        1. Long Time Admin

          Think about how many cover letters the recipient is reading. They want the facts without a lot of embellishment.

          If you feel you have too much white space, increase the left and right margins a bit, and increase the font size one point. A little more white space is not such a big deal.

          Once you’ve said what you need to say, what else is there?

  2. Julie

    Back when I was writing papers in university, I had a general rule for myself: write the introduction, and then delete the first paragraph. It turns out that all I was doing was setting myself up for an introduction while not actually saying anything.

    This first paragraph sort of reminds me of that. I’d just cut the whole thing out and get right into the meat, which is what I assume the rest of the letter is.

    1. jmkenrick

      I learned & use this trick too. Generally, that first paragraph can be condensed to one sentence.

    2. KayDay

      Haha, I was just about to write literally the same exact thing, but you beat me to it. Argh =\ Anyway, +1 from me.

      To the OP: if you need to write the into paragraph to get yourself in the cover letter zone, do it, but then go back and delete everything after “coordinator.”

    3. Megan

      Yes! I used to do this too – starting is always the hardest part, and even now I find myself easing waaaay too gradually into it unless I do this.

  3. That HR Girl

    I think it’s good that you were trying to come at this whole thing from a completely different angle, but it just doesn’t work. Focus on what you can do for this prospective employer without trying to be too witty or gimmicky.

    In fact – if it’s a Training Coordinator position (which I did for 4 years at the start of my career), you could mention an interesting public speaking experience you once had and how it’s given you confidence to speak in front of anyone, about anything!

    Or – how you have led training efforts in past jobs, even in roles that didn’t usually require it. “Even though I was a Widget Maker, my Supervisor always looked to me to train new employees because she knew I would take my time and train them thoroughly.”

    These are generic examples of course, but THIS is what the hiring manager wants to see, especially if your resume does not have any specific experience as a Training Coordinator.

  4. Dawn

    I’m glad I’m not the only one that cringed at the improper use of the semicolon. I’m just now beginning to appreciate all the possibilities. :)

    I think the opening is jusy WAY to long. As someone else said, just get right to the meat.

  5. Anonymous

    Ditto to what everyone else has said, but I would add one thing.

    I am writing to apply for the position of Training Coordinator. I would like to start off by saying I am not very good at this sort of thing,

    At this point I immediately wondered why someone would apply for a position knowing they are not very good at it. I actually paused in my reading as it was so odd. Then I saw what the second sentence actually referenced.

    1. Laura L

      Yes! That was my first thought, too. Why are you applying to this job if you’re not very good at being a training coordinator?

  6. Anna

    Wait, what’s wrong with the semicolon usage? I thought the hard & fast rule was that semicolons were used to separate two complete phrases, and colons were used to separate a phrase from a fragment. Those are two phrases, yes?

    1. fposte

      Make sure you’re looking at the fourth sentence and not the fifth, where it’s used correctly–I was initially looking at the wrong sentence and was confused as well. In the fourth sentence, “What it boils down to is this” is a classic call for a colon, since it’s preceding an example, instance, or explanation.

        1. Sarah G

          Me too, thank you! I studied that sentence over and over, but was looking at the wrong one. And I LOVE the semicolon, so I was totally baffled!

      1. Ask a Manager reader

        Ah, yes, I was looking at the wrong one! I was really worried for a second there. Thanks!

  7. Jackie

    No one has touched on how the OP brings negative attention to herself by saying “i’m not very good at this sort of thing.” Don’t bring any negative attention to yourself about anything!! By saying that I immediately thought: why am I reading this? So yeah, don’t let any weaknesses show. Focus more on what you can bring to the company and position and people you would help than saying anything like “i can’t write cover letters but here i go…” Good luck!

    1. just another hiring manager...

      I would say there is an exception to this: If a candidate lacks a certain qualification, it would speak volumes if the cover letter convincingly conveyed why she or he is still a strong match for the position. Understanding your weaknesses as a candidate while actively working to mitigate them and showcasing your potential worth in the position in the face of those challenges is a strength…

      Of course, I have never had a candidate do this, but a hiring manager can dream, can’t she?

  8. Kate

    Does anyone else remember the movie Singles, when Steve first hits on Linda in the club by walking up and saying how he doesn’t have an “act”? And Linda says, “I think that, a) you have an act, and that, b) not having an act is your act.” That’s what this reminded me of.

  9. Kate

    Does anyone else remember the movie Singles, when Steve first hits on Linda in the club by walking up and saying how he doesn’t have an “act”? And Linda says, “I think that, a) you have an act, and that, b) not having an act is your act.” That’s what this reminded me of.

  10. Kelly O

    Glad I’m not the only one who cringed when reading “I’m really not good at this kind of thing” in a cover letter, especially one for a Training Coordinator position.

    Because really, you’re coordinating something. That implies being able to communicate effectively with lots of people, over and over, quite often about the same thing. If you can’t write a compelling cover letter without acknowledging everything we both already know about a cover letter, what compels me to choose you over someone equally qualified who doesn’t admit defeat before starting?

  11. fposte

    I think you’re ending up solving the wrong problem here. This paragraph tells me what you think about cover letters. My problem, as a hiring manager, isn’t that I don’t know what an applicant thinks about cover letters; it’s that I don’t know what the applicant brings to the job. Sure, other things can be touched on in solving that problem, but this opening paragraph doesn’t even get close . I’m sure you get to that later in the letter, but that’s a long time to make somebody wait, especially since they’re likely reading dozens of cover letters.

    I rarely, if ever, read a cover letter that strikes me as too abrupt or direct in its opening. I think you’re translating your warming up stage as a writer into a warming-up paragraph in the letter. Your reader is going to be there and warmed up already from the get-go.

  12. shawn

    I also dislike this opening, it just isn’t effective for showing why/how you are a good candidate. At best it’s a waste of space, at worst it’s a turn off.

    Also, and this could be just me, I hate seeing semicolons (even properly used) in writing that isn’t intended to be stiff/super formal/etc. It’s hard for me to put into words why that is, but I just get a negative feeling from them.

      1. Anonnnnn

        Truth! Anytime I get an opportunity to properly use a semi-colon I take it! It’s the king of punctuation.

  13. MLHD

    Agreed on all points. Why start your letter off by telling them about something you CAN’T do?

    Besides, if you are applying for training coordinator-type positions, I’d assume that being able to communicate well is a top priority in a candidate for that position. You are basically telling them that you CAN’T communicate well!

  14. Anonymous

    I would never give them a reason to refrain from hiring me in the first paragraph. It is like leading off with something like, “Before we get started, let me make it clear that I will need at least four weeks of vacation and every major holiday off.”

  15. JT

    I don’t do any hiring, but would urge people writing cover letters to try to put themselves in the readers shoes (which is a good idea in all forms of business communication). Imagine you’ve got 20 or 50 or more letters and resumes to look at. And you’re reading them quickly because you have other things to do. Does an opening paragraph make you want to read more, or go to the next letter and see what that person has to say? And is the second sentence clearly only about writing or is it perhaps also about being a training coordinator? And if the reader is pressed for time, is it useful for him/her to have to try to figure out what the sentence means?

  16. Anonymous

    An old boss once told me, “Never confess your sins to anyone but a priest.”

    Being a good writer is going to part of your job as a Training Coordinator. Saying the same thing over and over again in different ways is going to be part of your job as a Training Coordinator. Unless you are applying for a job that doesn’t interact with other people in writing, you need a good cover letter. Period.

  17. Anonymous

    If someone sent this cover letter to me, I would throw it away immediately. No hiring manager wants to read about an applicant’s perceptions about the other applicants’ cover letters, especially in some rambly, almost angry-sounding letter. Nor do they want to know that you aren’t good at writing cover letters. That type of admission sounds very immature, especially considering that there will probably be 50 other cover letters from 50 other people who do not consider the writing of cover letters to be their specialty, either, but do not admit this in their cover letter and rather opt to just man up and write the letter. We all know that writing cover letters feels unnatural for most people. My first thought upon reading this would be, “If this dude can’t write a cover letter, how will he write training material? I’m glad all of these other applicants figured out how to write cover letters!”

    When you write a cover letter, you need to just tell yourself that you are the best possible candidate for the job, and none of the others come close. Make this type of positive thinking come through in your cover letter.

  18. Jerseyknit

    I’m good at cover letters, but I still understand the OP’s temptation to say, “God, it’s so much easier to say how not to write a bad cover letter than to write a good one.” Narrowing down all of your traits and career history to a few discrete examples you hope will capture the quality of your work is really difficult, even if cover letters come fairly easily to you. The medium is intrinsically hard. If you’re feeling down on yourself and don’t want to think back about your record at a job you may not like, it’s even harder.

    You’re already a step ahead by acknowledging that 99 percent of cover letters are cheesy bs. The truth is, it’s much, much easier to know the elements of a good cover letter than to sit down and hammer those elements out. Thinking critically about what you don’t want in a cover letter, as you’ve done, will help sort out your thoughts, and from there you can shift the focus to finding illustrative examples of your strengths.

    I find drinking a beer while I write a cover letter helps calm the anxiety of the task a little bit. As odd a recommendation as that might sound, it might be helpful to see if it changes the process for you at all.

  19. Fox in the Forest

    Sorry, I have to comment on the semicolon love.!

    In Journalism school, I had a magazine writing professor who taught us that if you ever need a semicolon to make a sentence make sense, you need to start over. I have lived by this my entire professional life. In my current role as an editor/communications manager in corporate communications, I remove semicolons from copy constantly. They are fussy and difficult to use correctly, and most of the time a comma or a well-place em dash serves the exact same purpose.

    1. Jennifer

      You’re arguing against the proper use of semi-colons while at the same time using “, and” to join two complete sentences. (Maybe there’s a difference between magazine writing and academic writing?)

  20. Fox in the Forest

    Cue typos as soon as I say I’m an editor :). Oh well, that’s what I get for multi-tasking on an endless conference call…

  21. Greg

    One other pet peeve: cover letters that start off “I am writing to you to express my interest in submitting an application for potential employment in the role of …” That’s like 50 words to tell me that you’re applying for the job, which I already know BECAUSE YOU JUST SUBMITTED AN APPLICATION. I think there’s this unspoken assumption that using more words to express a thought makes you sound smarter. But it really does the opposite.

    1. CK

      Yes, similar to emails that start with, “I’m just sending you this quick note to let you know…” What does that even mean, “quick note”? Do I have to read it quickly? How does one qualify “quick”?

  22. Ollie B

    We can all agree the cover letter was not impressive. The one thing concerns me is still a great deal of information, espousing that a professional cover letter begins with…..I am applying for the position of etc., etc.
    There is a real need to retrain in what is a good cover letter. I believe having the information provided on here is a good beginning.

  23. Dylan

    So true! It really IS the best of all punctuation marks!

    Ask a Manager I was liking your advice before, but now you’ve just moved yourself up on my “Favorite Peoples” list. Congratulations! This should be a very proud day for you, though I might suggest, because my FP list is not widely known, that you do not include this accomplishment on your resume. (Some have tried to suggest my FP list may not be a legitimate source for personal reference; but then again, those people have rarely been ranked very highly on the list anyway. It is my professional opinion they may simply be jaded, but I don’t want my FP list to in any way present itself as an obstacle for any future job seeking you may do.)

Comments are closed.