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.

2 Goodies For Your Job Search Toolbox

The norm it seems for many job seekers these days is to be rejected by employers several times prior to landing with a company who is willing to take a shot and offer you a position. This can be both disheartening and offer some hope for those of you in the job application game.

Another truism these days is that because a large number of people are out of work, all these unemployed people are applying for multiple jobs. Therefore it stands to reason that after having gone rejected time and time again, it’s equally probable that more than one employer is going to offer you a job around the same time. That’s ironic isn’t it? Moving from no job to multiple job offers!

One skill you had best brush up then that I suspect you may not have given a great deal of thought to is the art of writing both the rejection letter and the, ‘no thank you’ letter. In both cases, you’re communicating with an employer in an effort to come off looking professional. The rejection letter by the way is the harder of the two you’ll find. Let’s have a look at both.

The Rejection Letter

Okay so you’ve been rejected by a yet another company – again. Presumably you were quite interested in working for them, so the job and the company must have had some level of appeal. Naturally therefore, to find out that they aren’t interested in you and chose others over you to interview or hire should be disappointing. The last thing in the world you may be motivated to do then is write them a note asking them to keep you mind for future opportunities.

Only 1% of people typically write these letters, and it’s precisely this extremely low percentage which can make you stand out and in a positive way, giving you an advantage over 99% of the others who have been similarly rejected. However, it is precisely because the applicant hunt is over for the company that the vast majority of job seekers lament, “Why bother? I’ll put my energy into applying for jobs still open.”

This letter goes something like this:

“Dear ________. Today I learned that I was unsuccessful in applying for the position of ____________.  While disappointed, I am expressing my ongoing strong determination in working for _______________. Should this position or one similar in nature become available, I am extremely interested and would like to be considered.

With enthusiasm,


It’s not a long letter to write, but still it requires an envelope and stamp, a sheet of paper and the time to compose it. My counter argument to the investment of your precious time is that if you can’t be bothered to invest this bit of time, what on earth can the company expect of you when you run into barriers should they hire you? Show your determination! Be tenacious!

Look not everyone works out. Some who accept a job right after all the other applicants have been rejected, turn around themselves and accept what to them is a better offer elsewhere. The company then may re-post the position or go back to those they were likewise considering making a job offer to. If you were one of the few they were strongly thinking of, the impact on the company your rejection letter creates may get them thinking, “She really wants this job, maybe we should have hired her in the first place.”

True it doesn’t often result in a job. Then again, it sometimes does. Aren’t you looking for an edge over your competition?

The Thanks But No Thanks Letter

This is the letter you’re writing to thank company for their faith in offering you a position; one you’re rejecting in favour of a preferred job elsewhere. Bear in mind this letter is going to now be a permanent record in your file if they maintain one on you. This is why it’s preferred over a quick and dirty phone call that might be effective with the single person at the other end, but will be subject to their interpretation once the phone is hung up. Others who look at your file in the future might just be left with the impression you interviewed for and were offered a job and just walked away from it without a thought; and they won’t want to repeat that experience. So this letter keeps doors open.

It goes:

Dear _____________

Thank you for your confidence in offering me the position of ______________ with _______________. During my job search, I applied to several positions of interest, and although I ceased such applications once accepting your kind offer, I have subsequently received an outstanding opportunity and must therefore advise you that I am not able to proceed with our arrangement at this time.

It is my sincere hope that this does not greatly disrupt your plans, nor cast our relationship in a negative light moving forward.



Whether the people at the company truly understand and appreciate your predicament or not is out of your hands. You have however, done the right thing and are attempting the best way you know how to move on but keep the parting amicable. You might just meet or need them down the road or reapply.

There you have it; two letters to add to your toolbox; professional, brief and to the point.