A photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.

Writing a cover letter is like cooking for a date who is also a reviewer on the Michelin-star guide. You want to impress them but have no idea how – should you stand out with something creative? Probably not, they have seen it all. Or would they appreciate something authentic? Maybe, but it could turn out to be too simple. Unfortunately, cover letters are the necessary evil of job hunting. There are times in almost everyone’s career when we get to write one (and, sadly, usually many more).

So how do you write a good cover letter? There are plenty of resources suggesting what to write about, but that apparently does not stop many people from writing abysmally bad ones. My suggestion here is that you can improve your cover letter by choosing things that you are absolutely going to avoid.

What to avoid in a cover letter

So what should you avoid? Playing yourself down and showering the company with generic praise. That seems straightforward, but is apparently hard to do for quite a number of people. Consider the following evidence.

I am doing a PhD in a fairly prestigious group that receives a lot of applications that are geographically well distributed. My PI forwards the full application pack to everyone in the group, and, as a consequence, I got the chance to read some 30+ cover letters over the past few years. Here are some excerpts that I gathered from these letters:

“As such a reputable lab in the field, it would both be a resource and an honour to receive your supervision […]”

“I knew your research and wanted to join your group when I was a master student many years ago. [n]ow, I am thrilled to know that a postdoc position […] is available. I choose to contact you without any hesitation. I sincerely want to pursue a professional science-related career in your laboratory.”

“To summarise, working on such an original and innovative project in a multidisciplinary environment would be an opportunity I would wholeheartedly dedicate myself to. Spending the next few years in [your laboratory] would be an honour.”

“I am sincerely motivated to reach out to you, as I aspire to join your lab. I perceive your research as a pinnacle to strive for […]”

“I hope I can have the chance to meet you virtually, in order to show you better my passion and love for science and my motivation to get in touch with your research.”

These statements all come from different cover letters, written by both prospective postdocs and graduate students. They all tick boxes for generic compliments and tons of servility. I don’t know about you, but these statements don’t make me want to hire this person – rather they make me pity them. One would almost think that the poor applicant’s life and ability to pay rent is entirely dependent on the generosity and benevolence of the mighty PI.

I assume these statements don’t look that bad when you write them in the context of a motivation letter. However, singled out like this, it becomes quite clear that they are not helping you get a job, unless it’s a job with an egomaniac boss.[^1]

You now know what to avoid. What are you going to write instead?

So, what should you do instead? One, drop blank-statement compliments and replace them with specifics about projects the company or group runs. Two, scan your cover letter for signs of exaggerated subservience and weed them out. Then, connect one and two by highlighting how your previous achievements and the way you obtained them make you a great candidate for typical projects of this group or company. Remember, you already have a lot of value, and your cover letter is your chance to show that.