7 Phrases I Never Want to See on Your Cover Letter

After our “7 Words I Never Want to See on Your Resume” post, many asked if those same rules applied to cover letters and interviews.

Our answer, for the most part, was “yes!” Cover letters, after all, can contain just as many red flags to a prospective employer as a resume – and can end your chances of getting an interview just as fast.

Cover letters, however, have a language all their own… often made worse by overly-verbose authors, dispensing TMI or not doing their homework. So, to help you get much closer to an interview, here are the 7 phrases – or facsimiles thereof – we never want to see in your cover letter…

To Whom it May Concern

When unemployment sat at 3.2% perhaps this generic header – and others like it such as “Dear Sirs” – was acceptable. Now, with the availability of internet based research… there is no excuse. Through LinkedIn, Glassdoor and many other resources it is easily possible to determine the primary recruiter for most any position. At the very least, we can determine the name of the Human Resources director at a larger firm or the CEO of a start-up or non-profit.

Do your homework – and personalize your cover letter – or don’t expect an interview.

I Just Need a Chance

Maybe no one uses these exact words. However, this is the exact perception a recruiter gets when reading a cover letter written by someone dejected by circumstance, more than hungry for a chance to prove themselves – and those who have crossed over into full-blown “victim mode”.

Recruiters are looking for positive team members – to get an interview, you need to be that guy. Don’t allow your cover letter prove anything different.

Salary Expectations

Another left over from a different economy, the inclusion of salary requirements in a cover letter is a huge red flag – and usually the death of your consideration as a candidate. Recruiters often laugh this off as “premature negotiation.”

Get your foot in the door and survive the first interview, and then have the money conversation – and not before.

The Reason I Left…

This phrase comes in many forms – although almost every veteran recruiter has seen this exact phrase in a cover letter. Sometimes, the phrase is harmless. Other times, these words signify a less-than-desirable candidate who… in the next few words… is going to give away too much, deliver a therapeutic (for them) monologue or bash a former employer.

You’ll have plenty of time to discuss this issue with the recruiter. For now, talk about what you can do at this job – not about what happened at the last.

Objective Statement

This archaic sentence from the 1970’s only serves to show how out-of-date you may be as a candidate. Perhaps even worse, instead of helping you get the interview, objective statements can provide a reason for the recruiter to reject you. The worst offender: generic objective statements not tailored to a specific job or application.

Just don’t.

References Available Upon Request

This one is right up there with the “objective statement” – and should only be seen in an Applicant Antique store. After all, what is the opposite: that you have no references available to support your candidacy? In our digital world, if you don’t have several superb references already lined up for the recruiter… well, you can’t win.

Just don’t, part 2.

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night…

Okay. No one would ever actually use this phrase in a cover letter. Instead, think of this as a metaphor for every attempt to tell a long-winded story to either sell the candidate through analogies or a biography that begins at childhood. Trust me, when a recruiter sees even a hint of a story like this, their eyes go into “scan only” mode. Not good.

Resist all temptation to tell a story. Instead, write about your ability to solve their problems – and why you are the best candidate for the position.

Go take a look at your cover letter. Are any of these mistakes present? More important, what will you do differently next time you craft a cover designed to help you earn an interview?


(Also see our previous related post: 7 Words I Never Want to See on Your Resume)


About the Author: A passionate supporter of Gen Y talent, CEO and Founder of YouTern Mark Babbitt is a serial entrepreneur and mentor. Mark has been quoted in the Wall Street Journal, Mashable, Forbes and Under30CEO regarding internships, higher education’s role in preparing emerging talent for the workforce and career development. Recently, Mark was honored to be named to GenJuice’s list of “Top 100 Most Desirable Mentors”. You can contact Mark via email or on Twitter.



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  • Zoointerns

    As a recruiter of interns, I do not care to whom you address the cover letter.  That is the least of my concerns.  More importantly, I want to see that you have followed my application instructions, written a clear and concise cover letter that explains why you are interested in interning at my organization, and meet the minimum requirements for the position.  I don’t want to see a generic cover letter that you have sent to a dozen other companies.  Show me that my company is special to you and you can be special to us.

  • I totally agree with doing your homework to find out who to address the cover letter to and then carrying that on with personalizing the full cover letter. The whole point is that you are on a mission to sell yourself as the product to the organization or hiring manager and sell your abilities as the person who can be the solution. No one hires anyone unless they have a need to fill.

  • In a conversation just last week with a business owner, she said that when she asks the applicant “Why do you want to work here?” and the answer given is “I need a job.” That candidate is likely not to get the job. She’s built a business where synergy among employees is an important factor in the success of the business. She wants to hire people who want to work at her company because they really want to be there. How does someone find out if they want to “work there” ? Research. Obviously, she’s seeking a deeper level of input and interest on the part of the applicant than an impersonal approach would ever deliver and if the first communication comes in the form of a cover letter, then it had better follow the advice you’ve outlined above. 

  • Outstanding! Don’t forget using “responsible for” ad nauseum.

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  • I agree with almost all except the story part. When applying for a pro creative spot (writer , CD, AD, designer etc etc) that story is sometimes what differentiates you from the rest of the pile. I think it’s the way you craft the thing that makes it either relevant and worthy or a slog that makes no sense.

    Just my nickel 🙂

  • Karen Schaffer

    Thanks for this Mark. 

    I do agree with Carl however, I think stories can work if they are tightly written and in context to the larger point on how you can solve a problem. Well-written stories are engaging, entertaining, insightful and demonstrate ability.They can demonstrate personality – if the writer is good enough to know the delicate line between good story and going overboard.

    I took it that your point Mark is that it shouldn’t be “the story of MY LIFE THUS FAR”. That I whole-heartedly agree is a non-starter.

  • Rasha

    This is really outstanding and i totallly agree with the homework part.

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  • Allon

    Probably says just as much about the state of the recruiting function.

  • Markus Schweda

    Lovely, very nice article. One note at the following: “Salary Expectations: Another left over from a different economy, the inclusion of salary requirements in a cover letter is a huge red flag – and usually the death of your consideration as a candidate. Recruiters often laugh this off as “premature negotiation.” Get your foot in the door and survive the first interview, and then have the money conversation – and not before.” In Germany, there is, as usual, with every second vacancy a request to denominate the expected income / salary. Recently, I read in the newspaper that this request should not be ignored, because it is in many cases a first test if the candidate has read the complete job offer, and secondly, a self-assessment regarding your market value. Of course, it is last, but not least, a filter criteria to sort out too expensive candidates, but would you like to work with a company who is doing salary dumping and does not like to honor your qualification and work?

  • David Ffyske

    This was a very useful Article that made me think about my own covering statement.I will bear these tips in mind.

  • Mosab

    All valid points EXCEPT the first point, “to whom it may concern”. It is impossible, in some cases, to know the hiring manager. Yes, quite a few jobs posted on LinkedIn and Glassdoor have the name of the contact in the company who has posted the job, but there are quite a few companies, which go to great lengths to hide their identities, esp. jobs posted on Monster or Workopolis.

    For example, about a month ago, there was a great job at Google Canada in Toronto. Google Canada even lists the HR phone line. Called it. A recorded message. Then, I called the main desk / secretary and she wouldn’t give me the name of the hiring manager. Or I am just looking at another job posting on LinkedIn. Company has even kept its name confidential (it’s clear they don’t want any cover letter).

    Knowing about the Senior VP of HR of Microsoft Canada or RBC or TD Bank or any other company is not going to help me because am I supposed to send my resume and cover letter to that executive. That info is a public info and published on quarterly and annual reports, but I am pretty sure that they would frown upon receiving job applications.

    On top of that, every recruiter / HR expert gives conflicting advice on cover letters. Just in these comments, one said “Dear Sir or Madam” is ok as long as the applicant has showed why he/she wants to work for me and another said no, personalize the cover letter. There was a job opening at GE Canada recently and since, I’ve worked there, I still keep in contact with its recruiters. So I emailed my contact to inquire more about the position and asked, who should I address my cover letter to? She said, don’t worry about the cover letter because we don’t even look at it. Some recruiters say cover letters make the application personal and help it stand out and this recruiter is saying cover letter goes straight to the garbage bin.

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  • JD

    “To Whom It May Concern”…”there is no excuse”

    Exactly right. There is no excuse for such arrogance on the part of HR, recruiters or anyone else in the hiring process for that matter.

    “When unemployment sat at 3.2% perhaps this generic header … was acceptable”

    No, formality and politeness are NEVER unacceptable. The difference is when unemployment sat at 3.2% recruiters and companies could not afford to be arrogant. Those who now find TWIMC “unacceptable” are merely showing the arrogance and contempt they held in check when they were not in the catbird’s seat.

    Mr. Babbitt, let me tell you something. I have a very above average professional career history. I would NEVER assume such things from TWIMC.

    Also, the HR industry’s use of technology to place a barrier between those searching for work and those in the hiring process has created many issues which you seem to ignore. Aside from the already mentioned fact it is NOT as easy finding a name as you might thing. There’s also the fact job seekers are told to write their resumes so they can go through the data mining systems used by recruiters and companies, so the “important” catch words can be found and the resume properly analyzed. The idea, like all new good ideas, was good. However like many good ideas they grow into something they never should and become Frankenstein type monsters.

    I’ve been told by more than one manager – who the position is actually intended to support – that HR/recruiting routinely screw up and re-write the advertisements. When a job seeker does get to a interview conversation and finds such tings out, they begin to rapidly realize the true nature of what is going on and quickly lose confidence in the HR industry and its practitioners. In short, HR become a necessary evil and not a value added. HR is essentially and industry created to protect companies from law suits and engage in “people fishing” for the company.

    Add to that I’ve personally come across HR situations where the recruiter though very nice, the applicant’s resume and the job advertised were completely out of their knowledge base capabilities. Sure HR people know the “key words” but very young children can say “key words” – such capability holds zero correlation to their knowledge base or ability to understand what they are reading or screening.

    So if you want to go with the TWIMC as being a slap in your face, so be it.

    If you or other HR folks round file a resume cover letter for TWIMC, so be it.

    The fact is, if a company is so arrogant and so unprofessional in their process for hiring – then high quality people who consider business formal, as oppose to the fake niceness of “dear” will consider it fortunate to not work for such a business.

    We consider it a blessing to NOT “expect an interview”.

  • Dean Goranson

    This is an interesting take on this subject but do recruiters understand that there
    are so many don’ts the applicant has to be aware of it makes it very hard to shine
    in the application process. Is it any wonder applicants fall on there face so often?

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