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Your cover letter and resume are supposed to show off your work. They are essentially a brag list of your experiences. However, there are certain tactics you can use that can make you come off as a complete narcissist, and then you won’t even be considered for the job.
Welcome to the crossroad of imposter syndrome and narcissism—we’ve all been there. To figure out the best ways to navigate a cover letter, Ladders spoke with Dr. Sanam Hafeez, NYC Neuropsychologist and Columbia University faculty member and Brandon Na, Founder of Seattle Organic SEO who has hired dozens of employees and contractors.
There’s a strange compulsion to include your entire life story in a cover letter (we all feel it), but this isn’t the great American novel, and, I hate to break it to you but, you’re not Toni Morrison. Here are Na’s top three cover letter faux pas.
1. Verbosity: Being wordy or unfocused in your message will prevent you from getting the attention you deserve.
2. Poor grammar: Your ninth-grade Language Arts teacher may have been annoying, but they were right.
3. Spelling: Are you write? Or are you right? You will definitely be WRONG, if you spell almost anything in the cover letter wrong.
Additionally, Dr. Hafeez says, “Qualifiers such as, ‘I hate to brag, but…’ can make you sound braggy and narcissistic. Positive labels and self-praise such as, ‘I am the best leader’ or ‘I did really well in the management position at my last job,’ will make you sound like you are tooting your own horn. Belittling and undermining other people and using phrases such as, ‘The last manager didn’t know what he was talking about,’ or ‘Anyone could have done what my co-worker did, but I went above and beyond,’ will make you sound mean and as if you are not a team player. Avoid words such as ‘exceptional, innovative, and creative,’ as these words express feelings you have about yourself.”
Proofread and edit your work! If you have the means, get a copy editor. If you don’t, ask a friend or family member. If neither of these is viable options, read your letter aloud; the ear can be a great grammarian.
Naturally, you want your letter to stand out in a positive way. But that’s easier said than done, specifically because different audiences have different tastes, what works for one evaluator may not work for another. So what is the best approach?
Na believes, “sincerity is key and being able to articulate is even more important. Aristotle highlighted the three modes of persuasion over two millennia ago: ethos, pathos, and logos. If you don’t know these, go and study them. Basically, think ‘character’ with ethos, pathos is emotion and passion, and logos is logic. A combination of showing solid character through emotion and passion will many times trump logic.” (See what he did there?)
Consider how you want to construct and layer your letter for maximum impact. You don’t want to oversell it, but it could be worse to undersell it.
A cover letter is a chance to showcase your personality, but it’s also a chance to toot your own horn in ways a resume/CV doesn’t allow. It’s expected. Of course, your reader doesn’t want a treatise on your infinite beauty or how many celebrities you’ve met, but they want to hear about you and what makes you special.
Dr. Hafeez echoes that sentiment, “The best way to talk about your achievements and skills in a cover letter is to avoid using fluffy adjectives to describe yourself. Instead, include proof of the skills that you mentioned in your resume. Showing and not telling is an excellent way to tell the reader of your cover letter that your attributes would help contribute to the company without sounding boastful or narcissistic. It is helpful to quantify your achievements, such as ‘I delivered a 54% increase in sales.’ By stating this in your cover letter, the recruiter can grasp the magnitude of the achievement. The same applies to discussing your previous jobs. Do not say something like ‘I was the best employee they ever had,’ but instead say, ‘I worked extremely hard as an employee and was dedicated and determined to fulfill all of my responsibilities.’ ‘Each day I completed x, y, and z tasks.’ This way, the recruiter can understand your work ethic at previous jobs and not think you’re arrogant.”
“Confidence oozes more with numbers.” Na suggests that you, “Highlight how you improved product development by 325% over six months after implementing six different specific strategies that helped motivate the team to become more clear with all the objectives.”
As the old writing adage goes, “Show, don’t tell.” Giving examples of the impactful work you’ve engaged in, speaks volumes more than, “Hey! I’m the best.” Similar to showing your work in math class; it’s where you get the bulk of your points.
It’s called a job hunt, but hunting isn’t necessarily what you want to be doing. The days of pounding the pavement with a stack of printed resumes are bygone. These days, social media platforms offer an opportunity to present an assortment of ways to get your name out there, they can serve as a sort of pre-cover letter cover letter.
According to Dr. Hafeez, “Before sending your application in, analyze the job description and ensure that your resume includes the skills they are looking for, and present your strengths that would fit perfectly with the potential role. Also, LinkedIn is a very powerful tool to use when searching for a job. This social media platform opens up several opportunities for networking and job applications that you would be missing out on. Recruiters will often look at your LinkedIn profile while reviewing your application, so showcase your best self on your profile.”
“Don’t hunt,” says Na. “Let the recruiters hunt you. Build the best damn LinkedIn profile on the web. There are so many great models to emulate. Beyond that, you should be active not in just writing great copy for recruiters to read, but you should actively make that copy visible through your own verbal skills in the top audio platforms from ClubHouse to Spotify’s new competitor, Greenroom. Every major social media platform is now giving you the chance to copy the ‘LinkedIn on Steroids’ model (i.e., ClubHouse).”
There are a lot of tools out there—use them. When written well, they allow you to be more efficient with your time and reach a broader audience. You’ve worked hard to make yourself desirable to employers, now make those employers come to you.
Bigging ourselves up doesn’t always come naturally (except that one friend, we all have that one friend), but if you don’t sing your praises, who will? The line between confidence and arrogance is razor thin. The biggest difference between the two tends to be sincerity. Be sincere in who you are and how you present yourself and you’ll be alright.