Cover Letters: Passive vs. Assertive


I often have the opportunity in my line of work to look over and review cover letters written by job applicants. One of the most common trends I notice is the tendency to use passive language; words that often communicate a different message than the one you intend.

Let me give you a few examples; phrases you might be using yourself and may wish to avoid using in the future.

“I would like to express my interest in applying for the position of…” This sentence, or some version of it is often one I read that starts off a cover letter. So how does it appear to you? Any problem with it? As I read it, I always think to myself, “Well, if you would like to express your interest why don’t you?” In other words, re-word it to read, “I am expressing my interest…” By removing the words, ‘would like to’, the sentence shifts from a passive indication of what the writer would like to do, to an assertive statement of what they are doing; in this case expressing interest in the job.

Another example is, “I believe I have the qualifications you need.” Once again the sentence is not as strong as it needs to be. If you drop the first two words of the sentence – ‘I believe’, the sentence suddenly becomes more assertive. “I have the qualifications you need.” This isn’t in doubt anymore; I have what you stated you need. The first statement leaves room to question whether the writer has the qualifications or not; sure they believe they have the qualifications but they might be mistaken.

Let me provide one more example at this point and it’s a classic. “Please find my attached resume.” Really? Applying for this job is extremely important to you and you are asking the employer to go find it? Did you hide it somewhere? Why make it sound like you’re playing hide and seek? “I have attached my résumé” is actually the case, and therefore why not just indicate so? This is one of the most annoying phrases apparently when I’ve listened to employers tell me what they find irritating in the cover letters they receive.

Now the biggest concern for job applicants when writing assertively is the fear of coming across as aggressive. Take the phrase, “I would like to apply for the position of…”. Somehow it seems aggressive to some people to just drop the, “would like to’ and replace them with, ‘am applying’.

This feeling of being aggressive is even more pronounced in another common cover letter-writing  tendency. Let me set it up first by asking you one question. Do you apply for jobs for which you meet the stated qualifications? I assume you do. While every so often it’s good to stretch yourself and apply for positions where you meet most but not all the employers stated needs, more often than not I imagine you also apply for jobs where you tick all the boxes of what is being asked for. So why then is it seemingly difficult to actually state this in the cover letter and let the employer know that you meet all their stated needs?

Consider writing the phrase, “Having read your stated needs in the job posting, I am confident in stating I have all the qualifications you need. In short, I am the candidate you’re looking for.” Wow! Could you write that? Does it sound like you? Many applicants I work with get a little gun-shy about using this phrase because to them it sounds like boasting. Or, it sounds like they are better than other job applicants. My rebuttal is, “Well aren’t you?”

Now it’s not boasting if you are truly qualified. You can see on the job posting exactly what the employer has stated they need from those applying. If indeed you check all their needs, and if you really want the position, then shouldn’t you believe you are in fact the candidate they are looking for? Of course you should! So why be hesitant to say so?

It probably harkens back to what mom or your primary school teachers said over and over, “Don’t think too highly of yourself. Nobody likes someone who boasts about themselves.” But this isn’t boasting. This is self-marketing; stating that you do indeed have what they are looking for. And quite frankly, should you ever apply for a job where you believe you aren’t the best candidate? Wouldn’t that be a waste of your time? Sure it would. So if you really do believe you have the right combination of skills, experience, education and the right personality to match, I say be assertive and communicate so in your writing.

This need not transform you into some pompous, arrogant know-it-all who will rub the employer the wrong way. I’m not suggesting you change your character and pretend to be someone you’re not either. That’s disingenuous and will always turn out poorly. Writing with assertiveness however just accentuates your position.

Here’s my last point; please ask for the interview. That after all is the thrust of the whole cover letter isn’t it? “I am requesting an interview to best show my strong  interest and suitability for the position of…”.

Re-read a cover letter of your own slowly and see if you can strengthen your presentation by using some of these tips.

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