The Worst Way to Begin a Cover Letter

Every word counts — and none more so than your first few.

You only get one chance to make a first impression.

That seems obvious, right? Yet you’d be surprised by the number of people who disregard or downplay this advice when writing a cover letter.

In our business-writing course at the University of Maryland, we teach the art and science of writing a cover letter. We explain how to create a hook. We present ideas for personal connections. And yet, every semester, some students believe that it’s ok to launch this critical document on the strength of a weak opening line:

“Dear Mr. McGarry, My name is C.J. Cregg, and I’m writing to apply for…”

If ever there were a wasted opportunity, this is it.

Imagine you’re a recruiter. An email lands in your inbox. Even before opening the message, the very first (or maybe second) thing you see is the sender’s name. Then you open the message, and it begins:

“My name is C.J. Cregg.”

Really?! Not only is this greeting redundant; it’s also what everybody else is doing. Unoriginal and superficial — not exactly the stuff of memorable first impressions.

Match Your Message to Your Medium

What’s that you say? Isn’t stating your name how people introduce themselves on the phone and in person?

Well, yes. But a letter is not delivered in person. An email is not a handshake.

When writing, you have less time to convey your message. If someone’s standing right in front of you, politeness compels her to indulge your tedious introduction. When writing, you have no such luxury; you can’t buttonhole someone via email.

Bearing that in mind, be honest: Do you really believe that your name is captivating enough to make the recruiter want to read on? Do you believe that it’ll make someone think, “Wow! Let me learn more about this unique writer”?

We hate to break it to you, but unless you’re a celebrity (or his doppelganger), your name is not the most electrifying way to sell yourself.

You Say “Standard.” We Say “Booor-iiiing.”

“Fair enough,” you say. “But isn’t ‘My name is’ pretty standard?”

Well, you just addressed your own objection. The last thing you want is to come across as standard — i.e., forgettable. You want to stand out, to make an impression. As venture capitalist Guy Kawasaki says, “Unless you’re saying something different from the competition, you’re basically saying nothing.”

Indeed, if you’re starting the same way everyone else is, even if the rest of your letter is utterly brilliant, you’re now fighting an uphill battle. You’ve forfeited the benefit of the doubt: Instead of using your letter to show off your personality, you’re now using it to prove you have one.

You Say “Risky.” We Say “Remarkable.”

Still think this approach is too risky? Isn’t it better to play it safe?

Well, you can’t go wrong per se with a traditional letter. The problem is, It’s much harder to distinguish yourself this way; the stiltedness saps your writing of any distinction.

Think about it this way: If you write with brio and passion, then you have two credentials to tout: Your writing and your experience. But if your writing is unremarkable, then you have only your experience.

Don’t Be a Rookie

What’s more, saying “My name is” a rookie move. Rookies take the path of least resistance. Is the image of a slouch who fears creativity the best way to land a job?

You can do better. After all, you’re a P.R. pro; you hawk ideas for a living.

So think about a cover letter the same way you’d pitch a reporter. Both space and attention are scarce, so if you want to catch someone’s eye, then every word you write must resonate  — and none more so than your first few.

Jonathan Rick and Chloe Baerwald teach business writing at the University of Maryland at College Park.

A version of this article appeared in PR News on November 16, 2020.

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