where’s the line between necessary self-promotion and overconfidence in cover letters?

A reader writes:

My question is a little woolly, but one I was hoping you could shed some light on: In cover letters, where is the line between necessary self-promotion and overconfidence?

I’m looking for jobs right now as a soon-to-be-graduate, and I’m finding it really hard to hit the right note to convince a hiring manager that I’d be great at the job without going overboard and sounding delusional about my own value. I’m not coming out and declaring that I’ll be the best teapot analyst they’ve ever seen or anything, but even when I say that I’m confident I have the skills necessary to excel as a teapot analyst, I still feel a little dishonest. I’ve never been a teapot analyst before, how would I know? On the other hand, if I honestly state that I think I could do 50% of what they ask really well, 40% adequately, and will work hard to learn that remaining 10% as quickly as possible, that’s hardly going to get me the position when there are experienced analysts applying who have already done the job 100%.

It’s probably not helped by the fact that I’m not American, and any kind of self-promotion in our culture is looked at unfavourably. It’s ingrained in us to value things like humility and actions over words. It’s difficult to reconcile that with the necessity to convince someone that, of 150 applicants, you deserve a chance to be their new teapot analyst.

Look at it this way: You’re applying for the job because there are specific reasons that you think you’d excel in it, right? All your cover letter needs to do is to explain what those reasons are. You don’t need to convince them that you’d be the absolute best person in the world at the job (an outside candidate never has any way of knowing how they compare to other candidates anyway, so positioning yourself that way would sound strange regardless of how good you are). You just need to explain what the evidence is that you’d be good at it. You don’t need to quantify it in terms of being great at 50% of what they’re looking for, decent at 40% of it, and absolute crap at the other 10%, or anything like that. Just lay out your case for why you’d be, in general, good at this job.

Think of it as writing an email to a friend about why you’re excited about the opening and think you’d be great at it. That’s the info you want to convey to the employer too.

And if you’ve been using language like “I’m confident I have the skills necessary to excel as a teapot analyst” — well, drop that entirely. They know that you think that, because you’re applying. Just move straight into why you think that.

About being uncomfortable with self-promotion, look at it this way: You and the employer are both trying to figure out if you are the right match for the job and if the job is the right match for you. You’re trying to help them figure out if you might be. You don’t need to cajole them into it or put together a big sales pitch. You’re just saying, “Aha, I see that you have a business problem — this vacancy — and I might be the person who can solve it with you.” (I mean, you’re not literally saying that, but that’s how you should be thinking of it in your head.)

You know how really good salespeople don’t make you feel sold to? They just listen to what you need, and then if they think their product or service is the right fit for you, they explain why — but the whole time it feels like they want you to make the call because they’re not being pushy about it, just giving you information that feels genuinely helpful? That’s what a good cover letter is, and looking at it like that might help you feel less self-promotional about the exchange.

Sometimes I think people get anxious about cover letters because they feel like they’re trying to win a prize, and they need to sell the employer on picking them for the prize. But that’s not the way to look at it. It’s really just “I see you have an opening that might be the right match for us both, so let me tell you about me and then we can figure out if we might be a good combination.” Looking at it like that might help lower the stakes in your head.

{ 99 comments… read them below }

  1. Leatherwings*

    My cover letters have vastly improved over the course of my career, and I think this is really valuable and useful advice that I’ll certainly come back to when I need it. One thing I still struggle with is being overly formal in cover letters. Anyone have advice on how to loosen up your language and make it more of a “writing to a friend” tone that would be really helpful.

    1. Christy*

      Think about what 98% of the regular business correspondence you receive looks like, and try to write more like that tone. Alternately, imagine you’re hiring for the position, and imagine what you’d prefer to read. Or think about what sounds more appealing, someone who is very formal or someone who writes appropriately casual correspondence. I’ve always preferred reading more casual/friendly correspondence, so I try to write it too, particularly in cover letters.

    2. eee*

      I always start out by making an outline/draft by writing informally, like I’m explaining to a friend. I find it’s a lot easier to start off like that, and then go back and business it up, than it is to try to figure out how to phrase things or write things down starting in a formal way–I wind up getting too caught up in the tone when the real focus should be the content. And then when it’s time to business it up, a lot of phrases stay in because I realize they’re actually fine to use, when if I was trying to write with business brain on I would have struggled for an hour trying to figure out a formal way to say it.

      1. Amberrr*

        I do that too!! Then I spruce it up when I’m nearly done. I’ve had some people tell me that my cover letters look way better than typical cookie cutter letters so I just kind of hope that any lack of formality will be overlooked by the manager’s appreciation for my awesome cover letter skillz. :P (I’m not that great lol but I definitely have been using Alison’s examples for inspiration!!)

    3. Summerisle*

      Same here. My cover letters were always very formal and stiff (even by British standards!) and I even struggled to say things like “I’ve” and “I’m” rather than “I have” and “I am” every time.
      One tip I’ve found helpful is to read the cover letter out loud and imagine you’re in an interview scenario. I find that helps to get the tone right without leaning too far the other way.

      1. H.C.*

        In cover letters I would avoid contractions (ditto for acronyms); as for interviews, I wouldn’t interpret it one way or the other (e.g. you wouldn’t sound overly formal using “I am” vs “I’m”)

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          You really, really don’t need to avoid contractions in cover letters, and if you do it can contribute to the letter sounding more stilted (which is not good).

          1. H.C.*

            Good to know and thanks for the deprogramming from high school biz writing lessons, like What’s In A Name below.

          2. Amberrr*

            What about if you’re like applying to a bank or something? I’m applying for finance summer jobs right now and everyone is telling me that I have to be totally formal. I’ve been trying to mix between professional and appropriately casual, but I happen to be really bad at writing strictly formal letters. Does it matter then, or should I still try to prioritize being friendly and casual?

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Write the way you’d write to a coworker — not a BFF-type coworker, but a reasonable and warm person who you have a warm relationship with.

              And you really, really don’t need to avoid contractions, I promise you.

              1. Mookie*

                Honestly, thank you for saying so, because for as long as I live I will probably still be faulting myself for intentionally inserting contractions to sound less stiff (and even split some verbs while I’m at it). It’s so odd how people accustomed to writing in many different manners and tones manage to get writer’s block (accompanied by a contagious bout of purpled prose) when it comes to introductory and cover letters.

        2. Whats In A Name*

          I catch myself doing this in communication of all sorts. I think it’s a holdover from junior high and high school English classes. I don’t think it’s necessarily true for a cover letter.

    4. H.C.*

      One easy way is reading your cover letter out loud (and if needed, record yourself and then playback); you’ll easily realize if you sound awkwardly formal upon hearing yourself saying what you wrote.

      1. H.C.*

        Also, give yourself at least a day between writing and editing. I find that after a night’s rest, I was able spot errors and/or find better words/phrases/sentences that I hadn’t noticed before.

    5. MD*

      I start my draft pretty much thinking like Allison suggested and pretend I’m writing to my mom or a friend. I usually pretend I’m writing an email (sometimes I’ll even just open an email and write my draft there to trick myself). It’s sloppy, bad grammar, quick and dirty, but then you take that and run it through one or two revisions to find that line of formal/friend and you have a cover letter!

      1. Elsajeni*

        I’ve used the “writing to my mom” method before and I think it’s a useful refinement on the “writing to a friend” trick — I feel like I get something that’s closer to the desired tone and requires less cleanup that way. (My emails to my mom are informal and chatty, but they’re also, like, grammatically correct and written in full sentences and mostly free of slang; none of that is true of my emails to friends.)

    6. zora*

      I’ve literally talked it out before writing it down. I struggle with this, too. I’ve thought about actually recording myself and then transcribing, but I haven’t gone that far yet, but you might try it, just to see what comes out.

      I just talk out loud to myself about a paragraph at a time, and then start typing things out, and finesse them as I go. It is so much easier for me to start that way then trying to write first and then edit to make it more loose.

  2. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

    Alison, I just want to say that I value your cover letter advice so, so much. You’ve made something that is difficult and exhausting make so much sense.

    1. Lady Ariel Ponyweather*

      Seconded. I’m working on cover letters right now and wouldn’t be able to write a word without her excellent advice.

      1. RG*

        Same here, Alison! When I was hired at my last job, they specifically mentioned how good my cover letter was, and I’d entirely re-written it following your advice. I now steer every job seeking friend your way! Now I just wish the applicants I see would follow it :)

        1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

          I do too! A friend of mine got fired last year and wasn’t sure how to address it in interviews, so I immediately jumped in and threw a half-dozen AAM links at her like DO EVERYTHING THIS WOMAN SAYS. Friend now has a new job!

  3. Doodle*

    This is super good advice. One thing I’ve tried (especially to work on the less-stilted tone) is to first write the cover letter as if I’m recommending a friend. I’m much better at saying accurate nice things about someone else than I am myself. Sometimes it helps to reduce my anxiety and take the “self” out of it. And if I can’t figure out what I would say if I were a friend recommending me, perhaps it’s not a job I should apply for!

      1. Doodle*

        Yeah — it helped me see the line between “bad salesperson-y” and “enthusiastic about the position.”

  4. Amber Rose*

    Oh gosh, that salesperson analogy made a light bulb go on in my head. Years ago, I was trying to buy a car. I talked to the first salesperson about my budget and my needs, and he proceeded to show me some really decked out, high end cars, and he badgered me into going on a test drive in two of them. When I asked him about the price he said “don’t you worry about that, let me worry about that.” Given that those cars turned out to be five to ten grand over what I wanted to pay, and he had obviously no intention of knocking that much off the price, I have no idea why he thought I would find that convincing.

    Comparatively, the dude I keep going back to when I need car stuff listened to what I wanted, listened to my budget, then showed me a list of stuff with the prices right there and asked if any of those deserved a closer look. When he got a better idea what I liked, he made suggestions. And didn’t try to make me drive.

    This ended up being a long anecdote but the point is, its what I flashed back to and everything made sense all in one go.

    1. Doodle*

      This is so true.

      I went to buy a new car a year ago and drove up in my 1998 [Brand A] car, which I loved. The salespeople at the [Brand A] dealership were super aggressive and even said, “We can’t let you leave here today in a car like that.” It was their car! And they were trying to sell me another one!

      At [Brand B], the first thing they said was something like “Have you liked your [Brand A] car? I hear they’re great, and it’s awesome yours is in such good shape. The car we have that’s similar to that is…”

      I bought a [Brand B] car. Don’t be [Brand A], even though I loved my old car.

      Ending the analogy here, I think the “overly bad salesperson” version of a cover letter is perhaps the “Pain Letter,” which we’ve talked about before? ie. if you have to insult their existing employee/process/product to explain why you should be hired… you’re doing it wrong. If instead you can use your knowledge of their existing systems to explain how you’d be a good fit, you’re doing it right.

      1. Amber Rose*

        I agree. I can picture a pain letter as being basically that pushy salesman, trying to convince hiring managers that they don’t know what they need, I know what they need. And that is obnoxious, and most likely untrue. On the flip side, saying the skills you have and suggesting that they could be applicable per the job posting is way more helpful.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      When I asked him about the price he said “don’t you worry about that, let me worry about that.”

      What?! Unless he is planning to buy you the car as a gift, how obnoxious.

      But yes, that’s it exactly — you’re not trying to sell them something so much as figure out mutually if what you each have to offer makes sense for the other, and inherent in your approach to the whole thing is that it’s totally okay if not (and that in fact, you would consider it a poor outcome if you talked them into hiring you if you aren’t actually well matched).

      1. Amber Rose*

        I know! Literally my first reaction was “are you giving me this car then?”
        I guess his idea was he’d just keep stretching how long I’d be making payments until the monthly payment was small enough, but I was really not happy with that so I left.

    3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      Ugh, I find this is particularly common when you’re a woman (not saying that men don’t get these lines—they do—but there’s a lot of research indicating that car dealerships are particularly obnoxious/pushy with women).

      1. Tableau Wizard*

        I kinda love buying a car for exactly this reason. As a woman with a strong analytical background and a good understanding of my budget and how loans work, I frequently surprise the car salespeople with how well prepared I am. Several times, this has allowed me to negotiate very successfully because I catch them off guard. I love it!

        (Though, when I say “I love it”, I actually totally hate that the world is this way, but I enjoy breaking the mold and challenging the salespeople who make false assumptions about me)

      2. Emi.*

        There’s a really excellent episode of Fresh Off the Boat where the mother (Candace Wu) makes it her personal mission to get the best deal on a car that any human has ever gotten. I recommend it to any woman getting ready to go to a dealership, for inspiration!

    4. Stranger than fiction*

      It’s because, traditionally, they’re trained to sell you a “payment”. (even if it takes you eight years to pay for it)

  5. Callalily*

    “You’re applying for the job because there are specific reasons that you think you’d excel in it, right?”

    In most jobs out of college I was applying because it was a job and they were hiring… I could barely explain why I’d excel in it because frankly I had very little of what they wanted. I had to pick a couple of strong points and run with them.

    This really made me giggle thinking of how many resumes I used to see (from high school kids) stating they were applying simply because they needed money for X, not because they were in any way inclined to work for our organization in particular. It was basically along the lines of “I am a human being, you need a human being, I need money, you are paying money, here is an irrelevant uninteresting fact about my personal life”

    1. Parenthetically*

      “I am a human being, you need a human being, I need money, you are paying money, here is an irrelevant uninteresting fact about my personal life”

      I snorted. This was 100% of my experience applying for jobs as a teen/college student.

      1. EddieSherbert*

        Hahaha, yes! I worked at WellKnownFoodPlace in high school and had to do a cover letter. There was so much grasping-at-straws… I wish I had saved it. It’d probably be hilarious to read now.

        (On another note, I distinctly remember the interview because I was SO NERVOUS… and then it was so lax. The manager didn’t care at all. Two minutes of “business” and then we talked about the x-men and our favorite yogurt flavors).

        1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

          Hah! Yes, my college food-service job had an “interview” that was basically the shop owner saying “Okay, you understand how to show up on time, right? Cool, here’s the employment forms. Can you start today?”

          She had a policy of giving anyone a chance to work, and a bunch of the people I worked with were people who had a terrible time getting jobs anywhere else. There were a few dramatic duds in the bunch, but a few people who turned out to be amazing coworkers that no one else had given a chance.

      2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        This made me laugh because it’s such an accurate description of what I see in college intern letters.

    2. Tuesday*

      I am many years out of school, and recently unemployed, and I’m finding myself applying for jobs that I’m not sure I would excel at. At times, I feel like I’m not that far off from your high school job applicants seeking to be a human being in exchange for money. Although, since I’m an adult with a work history, I can replace the irrelevant fact with, “I have a track record of not using the break room microwave to reheat leftover fish. I am also highly skilled at clipping my nails at appropriate times and locations and not at my desk.”

      It is interesting that there are teenagers who think it would be beneficial to say what they need cash for when applying for jobs. I was a pretty clueless kid but I think even I would have known not to do that.

      1. Collie*

        I am also highly skilled at clipping my nails at appropriate times and locations and not at my desk.

        But can you train in this skill, 'cause I know a guy who could use it…?

    3. Amber Rose*

      My first cover letter was an amalgam of sentences I took out of five or six sample cover letters I found in google searches. Hilariously, while I was searching for cover letter examples, I found a very frustrated and sarcastic blog post that wrote a whole letter along those lines. “You need someone to work a minimum wage job and I need money. Here are some details about my personal life that you couldn’t possibly care about to make me seem interesting. Attached is a list of references who are just some friends pretending to be coworkers that I have paid to say nice things about me.”

    4. That Would Be a Good Band Name*

      It was basically along the lines of “I am a human being, you need a human being, I need money, you are paying money, here is an irrelevant uninteresting fact about my personal life”

      This may be my favorite thing I’ve ever read here.

    5. Mirror mirror*

      I see the same thing in interviews with long-time temp workers applying for permanent positions. They have decent qualifications and *should* have a leg up because they know the organization, and yet so many go wrong. Some will have a cover letter that reads, in its entirety, “Please see my attached resume.” Some will make it to the phone interview and when asked, “Why are you interested in this particular position?”, will respond, “I want a permanent job.” Done. When I’ve tried to give them advice or coach prospective applicants, they’ll say, “But you know me!” or “I don’t like to play games.”

  6. BF50*

    Another thing to remember when you’re new in your career is that there are some real upsides for businesses to hire entry level candidates. It’s not just that they cost less, which you obviously don’t want to highlight in a cover letter.

    They also haven’t developed any bad habits and might be someone the company can mold, train, and grow into a higher level employee.

    Good organizations aren’t looking for entry level people to stay entry level forever, so an ability to adapt and learn is a good selling point, especially if you are a quick learner. That is something to highlight in a cover letter. You aren’t looking to say that you can do 100% of the job with your eyes closed, but that you can get up to speed quickly, you work hard, welcome challenges, etc.

    1. Kyrielle*

      Yes, this. Also, why you’re interested in what you would be doing would be a bonus most places – no one stays entry level forever, but it’s always nice to think the person you’re investing in will be invested in you, at least enough that they hang around until your investment in their training has paid off a bit for your organization. :) Being ready, willing, and able to learn is a selling point. Being excited or interested to learn this – if at all true – is also a selling point.

    2. Kate*

      Very true.

      OP, my college’s career counselor told me this my senior year: “You’re not going to get a job because you’re the most qualified and experienced person applying. That just can’t be the case as a new grad. But you’re going to get a job, and it’s going to be because you’re qualified enough, and have a good attitude, and are eager to learn.” Your 50-40-10% will end up being the right fit for some employer (not that you should phrase it exactly like that in a cover letter). Good luck!

      1. OP*

        That does make me feel better because it is the vibe I’m trying to put out, especially in interviews where I can express my enthusiasm a little more visibly. I was talking to a friend about one role in particular, and she said, “I really hope you sounded this excited while you were talking to them!”

      2. SarahTheEntwife*

        Agree! I hire for student work-study jobs, and enthusiasm for the position also often ends up being one of the deciding factors. I know you don’t necessarily want to go into this field professionally, I’m fine if it’s just a way to earn money so you can pay rent, but if you can drum up some specific interest in the job we’ll both enjoy the experience a lot more and you’re much less likely to flake out on me.

    3. Amberrr*

      Would it be then good to talk about what you’re currently working on learning and etc? I’m usually always working on or planning some sort of project so I do a lot of reading – especially on tech stuff. I’m applying to mostly business internships, but I’m really tech savvy as well, and recently I’ve been teaching myself MS Access and I’m going to also move on to Excel macros and some of that other stuff. And one of my favourite things to highlight in my cover letters is how after a few months of research last year, I built my own desktop computer. Would that be a good way to demonstrate ability to learn/initiative? Etc.? Also, in one of my last jobs I was told by the senior coworker training me that I was doing a super good job and learning quickly. Is that also something that I could use?

      I’m also the go-to tech person among my friends, because I know I can either fix the problem or send them to the right place… even though I’m a noob and just use Google a lot, lol. I feel weird saying all that in a cover letter for like a finance or operations position or something! But it’s one of my biggest interests so I feel weird not saying it, and also I’m really good at learning new computer applications, which I understand is a big thing in business these days. Ahhh!

  7. Cruciatus*

    I’ve been following Alison’s advice about writing to a friend and starting with that first helps me get a more natural tone. And it sometimes helps me make connections I might not have seen otherwise. I used to get so stressed about cover letters and I still don’t love them, but now they don’t seem as daunting. I still can’t do it in 20 minutes like Alison once wrote as a reasonable length of time to spend on them, but I don’t agonize as much and in an hour or two I feel I have something really good (it would literally take me weekends before so this is progress for me!).

    1. Anne*

      I still can’t do it in 20 minutes like Alison once wrote as a reasonable length of time to spend on them, but I don’t agonize as much and in an hour or two I feel I have something really good (it would literally take me weekends before so this is progress for me!).

      Same here – I worked on a cover letter for 2 hours this morning, only because I’m not really used to writing them this way. I know I can still use some improvement, but I’m getting some practice in, anyway!

  8. Observer*

    It might also be useful to reframe both your idea of humility and the concept of “value of deeds over words.”

    Deeds vs words is only an issue if your deeds and words are not the same. So, for instance, you talk up your design skills and submit a design that makes people’s heads hurt, what is a boss going to care about. But if, instead, you design a workstation that reduces RSI by 35% it’s not talk vs deeds. It’s talk DESCRIBING your deeds. Also, even in words show rather than tell. So, you wouldn’t say “I’m a great teapot designer”. You would say “I designed a new teapot spout that reduced spills by x%” Or “I designed a teapot cover that won the X prize”. In other words, even when you talk, describe the things you do / have done.

    Humility is a bit more complex. I would start by recognizing that you can be humble while still understanding your worth – and explaining it to others. There are, of course, a few things necessary for this to happen. For one thing, don’t over-estimate your worth, to others or in your own head. For another thing, understand the limits of whatever it is you have to offer. A good line in this respect is “You are special and unique. So are all of the other 6 billion people on the planet.” (I wish I knew who originally said this.) So, you design sublime teapots. That doesn’t make you smarter than anyone else or more worthy or respect. It doesn’t make you the only important player in any given situation. And it doesn’t make you a better person that anyone else – only what you DO with those skills (and any other skills you have) affects that. Lastly, it helps to remember and acknowledge it’s not all about what YOU did to make it happen. You also got lucky to some extent and had some help. It’s true even for people who “clawed their way” out of very dysfunctional and oppressive situations, although in those cases, the balance is more on hard work than outside help.

  9. Detective Amy Santiago*

    Alison, I just want to say thanks for the “you may also like” links on each of your posts. I’ve only been reading here for a few months and I appreciate having the opportunity to catch up on things I missed like ‘pain letters’.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I’ve started making more of a point of picking those myself rather than letting WordPress pick them (not always, but often), and I’m glad they’re of use!

      1. Tableau Wizard*

        I second this. Especially when you’re looking for a specific topic. I’ll just add it to the list of things I love about this blog!

  10. JustaTech*

    One of the trick’s I’ve found useful when trying to write a cover letter when I’m feeling down on myself (and so have a hard time getting in the right headspace for Alison’s methods) is to be super, unreasonably analytical and treat the cover letter like those 5 paragraph essays you learned to write in school. As in: 1) Thesis “You have a job opening and I can do that job” 2, 3, 4) evidence to back up “I can do that job” 5) conclusion.

    I would never *send* that kind of letter because it reads like a high school essay, but it helps me get around mental blocks about boasting and putting myself forward and it helps me think about specifics.

    Then I go and use Alison’s advice on how to write a letter that sounds like there’s a human at the other end. :)

    1. PhillyPretzel*

      I totally do the same thing. I’m not a natural self-promoter, so it helps me to reframe the cover letter less as “I’m so great” and more as “I think I’d do a great job in this role and here is my evidence.”

  11. Anon Anon Anon*

    I am a huge fan of providing evidence of your qualifications. Granted that is easier to do when you have a track record of work related accomplishments, but even new graduates had experiences that can help provide evidence for their claims.

  12. Alis*

    I teach business writing to new immigrants and without fail, the ones who come from collective cultures always struggle with this aspect of cover letter writing (as opposed to those from more individualistic cultures). A piece of advice is to go to your teachers/former supervisors/references, and ask them outright – what do I do (or did) that you liked? It sounds a bit bold, but sometimes it helps to have someone point out your positive points if you are adverse to finding it within yourself. Also, think objectively at each selling point – is it true? You aren’t writing things like “great with detail” – that is subjectively true or false. You want to write “edited 10+ documents per week meeting XYZ standards each time” – objectively true, if it’s true. Sometimes the challenge of sounding like a show boater is because you are using subjective statements, not objective.

    Alison, I have been forwarding my ESL students to your blog for assignments in employment topics! :)

    1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      Yes! The other major issue I end up with is folks praising the employer or explaining why they think the company is great instead of explaining why they are great for the company. Alison’s advice provides really clear and helpful guidance on these issues.

    2. OP*

      That is a really good idea. My current boss is incredibly great and really on board with me getting a white collar job, so I know she’d be helpful if I asked her that. As for objectivity versus subjectivity, it’s an interesting thought. My CV is purely subjective, so was relatively easy to write. If I shift my cover letter that way too, it might be easier to get through without feeling the braggart and seeming out of touch with the cultural norms where I am. Thanks!

    3. MoodyMoody*

      Oooh, I should probably do some of that as well. I’m also an ESOL teacher (advanced level, adults) and this would probably be excellent for them. I just moved to this level, and it’s much different from teaching basic vocabulary and the simple present tense. Thanks for the suggestion.

      1. Alus*

        You’re welcome! I jumped to advanced students last August and it can feel odd at first but they’re a fun group :) They can even do it as part of a PBLA task (portfolio).

        OP, I’m glad you benefited so much from your question.

  13. Regina*

    I used to have this same humility problem, and here’s what helped me: use praise that you’ve received from bosses/teachers/etc. It can be indirect – e.g. looking at old performance reviews to see what specifics you can pull out – or direct, which I like to use when the praise is really over the top, e.g “My supervisor at Teapots Inc said I was an up-and-coming star of the teapot design industry.” Somehow it doesn’t feel so ballsy if you’ve got someone else’s opinion to back it up.

  14. Knope4President*

    I work with recent graduates, many of whom have little to no work experience. I often suggest an exercise to help them with this.

    I tell them to approach professors, family, friends, and their classmates requesting what they feel like the student’s strengths are. And I do not want things like “you are a hard worker,” I need tangibles such as “remember when you organized x event” or “I can always come to you when I need to figure out how to use testing equipment in the lab.”

    This allows the student to then just present facts and feedback they’ve been given, instead of ‘bragging’ about themselves. They can state things in their cover letter such as “I have been provided feedback that I can work effectively with little direction.”

  15. Anonnn*

    This may be difficult when you don’t have a lot of relevant work experience to draw from, but during my last job hunt, I started to apply the same principles I apply when writing business proposals professionally (which happens to be my field) to cover letters.

    A tried-and-true construct for proposal writing is ISBP — Issue, Solution, Benefit, Proof. A really dumbed-down example might read something like: “To produce the highest quality teapots, Teapots LLC requires a Teapot Examiner with an exacting eye for detail. My front-line experience as a Teapot Assembly Specialist has taught me the critical pieces to look for to ensure a smooth, efficient teapot operation — this can result in a lower error rate on Teapots LLC’s assembly line, as demonstrated by my company-low error rate of 1% at Teapots, Inc.”

    Obviously this doesn’t always apply, but it aligns well with the “non-pushy salesperson” position Alison outlined. You’re taking what you already know they want from the job listing, explaining that you can do it, and explaining why/how. My partner and I have written much, much better cover letters since embracing this mindset.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I would remove that first line — “To produce the highest quality teapots, Teapots LLC requires a Teapot Examiner with an exacting eye for detail.”

      I know you weren’t suggesting this as a word-for-word example, but I often see people include that kind of line, and it usually weakens the letter. You don’t need to tell them what they want (they know!); skip that line and launch straight into why you’d be good at it!

      1. Anonnn*

        Yeah, that first sentence wasn’t a great example. Rereading, rewriting, and chopping anything that could be seen as patently obvious / filler is such a key skill in persuasive writing.

        To keep something like that first sentence relevant, at least in my experience, you’d want to perhaps highlight something you understand about the role / particular line of work that maybe isn’t explicitly spelled out in the listing.

  16. Buffy*

    Just another data point – I’m American and was actually raised in the same way, self-promotion is not to be done. I do kind of regret it in a way. Other kids were told they could be whatever they wanted to be, and I was told to keep my head down because I wasn’t deserving of anything. (Didn’t help with job searching AT ALL!) So it happens here in the States too!

  17. Whats In A Name*

    You know how really good salespeople don’t make you feel sold to? ….. That’s what a good cover letter is, and looking at it like that might help you feel less self-promotional about the exchange.

    I need to keep this in my pocket. Perfect explanation!

    Great advice from Alison here, I don’t know that I haven’t anything else to add.

  18. Clever Name*

    I have this same issue with the self-review portion of my company’s annual reviews. I come from a very WASPy Midwestern culture, and tooting your own horn just isn’t done. It doesn’t help that a coworker’s take on it seems to be “how well can you lie about yourself”, an attitude that gets major sideye from me, especially given the fact that I know he isn’t meeting expectations.

  19. Vin Packer*

    I love this advice so much in theory….
    …but what about those times when you just really really need a job? And “mutual fit” is a luxury you can’t afford–it really is a moment of “please hire me because my kids are hungry and I am generally capable and will do whatever you ask”?

    I guess you still don’t really much choice but to approach it this way, huh. Even if the notion of “mutual fit” sounds a lot more optimistic than you feel.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      That’s all the more reason to write the most effective letter that you can — which still means approaching it this way because this is what’s most appealing to employers.

      1. Vin Packer*

        Yeah, that definitely seems true. It just adds an obstacle to the mental exercise–especially if you’re applying for a job you don’t actually want that much. Doesn’t change the task, just adds a degree of separation–first you pretend that you’re excited about the job and *then* you pretend you’re writing to your work friend about it.

        1. Observer*

          You’ve just provided the best reasons I’ve seen yet for “creative writing” classes. Not everyone can make up stories to write. But most of us do occasionally have to write from a reference point that doesn’t really match how we feel or see things. Of course, being jobless adds another whole level of stress….

        2. Turkletina*

          Depending on the job, you don’t have to pretend to be *excited* about it, just interested. Yesterday, I interviewed for a job as a document scanner. Nobody expected me to be excited about scanning stuff (the same stuff) over and over again all day, they expected me to be interested in learning more about the industry in a behind-the-scenes capacity and to be moderately enthusiastic about working with the rest of the team. I think I used the word “excited” in my cover letter, but it was in the context of being excited to work in the industry, which I don’t have any previous experience with.

  20. MechE31*

    You just brought back memories of a previous job application. I was in the final stages of interviewing for a very high profile company. I had to write a letter to the very well known and high profile CEO stating why I should get to work there. The assignment was to gloat about myself and it was terrible. The recruiter even made me make it even more self promoting before submitting. I hated doing it. I got the job though.

  21. ZVA*

    You and the employer are both trying to figure out if you are the right match for the job and if the job is the right match for you. You’re trying to help them figure out if you might be.

    Yes, this! OP, you’re not self-promoting: you’re providing info that will help the employer figure out if you’re a good fit for them. You both want to make an informed decision, and how will the employer do that if they don’t know what your strengths/skills/etc. are? Maybe thinking about it this way will help… Good luck!

  22. Billy*

    A good cover letter needs to address two things (1) why you want the job and (2) why the employer wants you as an employee. Preferably with specific references to identifiably parts of your resume.

    For a new graduate, you are not going to be an expert at anything other than possibly being a student and you might not have any experience at all at some of the things listed. So by *not* calling yourself an expert, you are ahead of all the other new graduates who falsely claim that they are. But at the same time, surely there is *something* about the job that is relevant to your experience? Did any of your class projects relate to the job duties? Did you have a high school job that did YYYY?

    I think other posters have done a great job of explaining why “I want to get paid” is not a terribly compelling answer to #1. But what caused you to apply for the position? And if your answer is “I’m applying to every open position nationwide” then your problem is not with the cover letter.

    In a lot of ways the first job is one of the hardest to get. It helps to at least be aware of your campus’s career service center; the best ones can help you write cover letters and pick suitable jobs to apply to, but even the lousy ones have job postings for companies specifically looking for new graduates. If it’s not too late, try for an internship. The stakes are much lower, it gives you more experience to point to as answers for (1) and (2) and it’s not terribly unusual for a high-performing intern to be offered a full-time position.

    The general issue of “How do I sell myself without lying” is a thorny one, and honestly the line between “confidence” and “chutzpah” depends on which type of job you are applying for. In general, erring toward humility is safer *AS LONG AS* you clearly explain why you would be able to succeed at the job you are applying for.

  23. Jess*

    Oooh, I hate overly self-promotional cover letters. Here’s a few things that hurt my soul when I see them that I think cross the line:

    “You may have many candidates applying for XYZ position, but I assure you I’m the only one who…” Oh yeah? You sure about that? My favorite was the time someone wrote they were the only candidate who had founded an NGO in Africa. Except they weren’t. Another candidate had also founded an NGO in Africa but framed it in better terms. We hired the latter.

    “I’m confident that I’m the best candidate for this job.” Confidence is nice, but you have no idea who else is applying. Why are you trying to put down people you don’t know?

    “Many people say they have X, Y, and Z skillset, but I actually do.” Again, what is this? Why are you calling all these other people liars? You’ve never met them. They are very nice.

    “I will call you and set up a time for an interview this week so you can further hear about my qualifications.” What, no. I will call you if I’d like to proceed. It says no phone calls please.

    “As soon as I saw the position of Teapot Operator here at [organization name listed in different font], I knew that I was the only choice for this position.” I can tell that the other organizations that received this same letter are going to miss out on their soulmate if I hire you…

    “Your breath stops, a hint of a smile tugging at your mouth even as you coyly feign an air of disinterest.” Is this a cover letter or a Twilight fanfic? (I didn’t want to copy paste word for word from an actual cover letter without permission, so I tweaked it slightly. The real version was worse.)

    Focus on strengths without putting other people down or claiming uniqueness you can’t guarantee. Tell me how you’re great, not how you’re the best. And don’t… be weird. Please don’t be weird.

  24. First Time Commenter*

    As someone who feels incredibly awkward self-promoting, I’ve found a great way to make my cover letters strike the right note: Stay factual. For instance, instead of “I am an excellent teapot maker with tremendous spout-designing skills,” I say “I have made teapots for 10 years and won five spout-designing awards.” The latter is impressive without the self-flattery that feels awkward and sounds disingenuous.

  25. stevenz*

    I have had a nagging thought about cover letter language for a long time. I use a lot of “I believe…” and “I think…” statements. I don’t like the way it sounds but I’m not sure it’s any worse than, say, “I have the skills to take your strategic planning function to the next level” or whatever.

    Adding “I think…” to the beginning of a sentance qualifies it, as in you may not think so but *I* do. Leaving it out sounds too direct or assertive.

    Which is best? Or other wording altogether? (And I’d like to start more sentences with words other than “I”.)

    1. Dee*

      My take as a hiring manager: when I’m reading a cover letter, I’m mainly interested in what you’ve done, how the role/company you’re applying to might make sense as your next step, and how you communicate about those things. I’m less interested in the qualities you claim to have or your general beliefs about things—yes, I want to know that you’re hard-working and conscientious, for instance, but I’ll divine that from talking to you and your references and looking at your record of achievement.

      If you find yourself saying “I believe” and “I think” in sentence after sentence, you might want to make more use of the facts of your professional history. Instead of “I believe I have the skills to . . .,” you might make that case with something like, “I built my skills in X through experience Y, where I managed to achieve Z. My deep knowledge of A came in handy when I had to B, and I’m excited to apply that background to this position.”

      In other words, as a hiring manager, I want to know what *evidence* you have for your beliefs about your skills. :) That evidence can take the form of quantifiable achievements or simply stories that show how you operate, but it’s going to be way more compelling than just claiming to have certain skills and traits.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Yes! Exactly what I came here to say. “I believe” and “I think” usually mean that subjective self-assessment is going to follow, and that isn’t nearly as strong as talking in more concretes.

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