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The Apology Trap in Cover Letters & How to Avoid It

In the professional world, women are faced with a difficult choice. It’s an age-old dilemma that we must confront every day, and one to which there is no perfect solution: We can choose to be confident and assertive, at the risk of being branded pushy, domineering, or worse, or we can be quiet and polite, and allow ourselves to inevitably be walked over and underestimated. Where a man is generally commended for being ambitious, a woman is often condemned for the same characteristic. And while this double standard is horrifically unfair, it is also an unfortunate reality to which many of us have already had our eyes opened, and one that affects our professional pursuits. 

Of course, the temptation when applying for a job is to make people like you. It’s the same temptation most of us feel in our everyday lives, multiplied by the incentive of a paycheck. Add to this an awareness of the stigma surrounding confident and ambitious women, and you have yourself a perfect recipe for what I like to call the apology trap — the most dangerous pitfall in any job application.

job applicant handing her documents and resume to employer during interview
Pexels / Andrea Piacquadio

What is the apology trap?

The apology trap is one that I found myself falling into quite a bit when I first started writing cover letters for job applications. I always felt that in describing my accomplishments I was “bragging,” when of course that is exactly what one should do on any given application. I would try to minimize my accomplishments or goals by couching them in terms like “I was lucky enough to achieve” or “I would hope to become” — phrases that minimized not only my narrative, but my own identity. It is a habit that is so very easy to slide into when trying to make oneself look appealing and friendly, but it actually does exactly the opposite.  

Signs to look out for

Fortunately, there is a cure. You have to remember that, at the end of the day, whoever is reading your application most likely wants to hire the person who will do the best job and require the least training. That isn’t going to be the person who sounds the nicest on their application; it’s going to be the person with the strongest ideas and credentials. 

So don’t be shy! Turn those “I would hope tos” and “I would like tos” into “I wills.” Lead with your strongest attributes. Don’t hide your light under a bushel — turn up the voltage! You want them to be dazzled. Look out for mincing language that makes you sound meek or submissive. Danger words and phrases include “maybe,” “could be,” “might,” “would hope to,” “probably,” and “was fortunate/lucky enough.” If anything, this is the one place where you want to self-aggrandize. No one else is going to tell your future employer how remarkable you are. You have to do it yourself!

Selling yourself

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

The expression sounds terrible, I know, but “selling yourself” just means showing off your strengths! Always lead off with your greatest achievements, and be sure to detail exactly why they are so spectacular. If your resume needs some padding, take some of your more general skills and explain exactly how you would apply them to the job or internship you’re applying for. Are you a compulsive organizer? Tell them how neat you would make that office space! Are you a wiz with spreadsheets? Tell them their Excel woes are over! Above all else, be excited to show them who you are, and they’ll be excited to meet you. It’s that simple.

What to say instead

While there is no exact script I can provide you with to guarantee success, there are certainly some phrases you can play around with. To avoid sounding baselessly self-confident, you can say things like “I believe that these skillsets would benefit your company because [insert explanation here],” or “as an intern, I would provide the company with x, y, and z services which I believe would [maximize productivity, increase efficiency, boost engagement, etc.].”

As with anything, you don’t want to sound overly confident or braggartly, so being able to explain in detail why your specific skills would benefit a company or employer is a good solution, demonstrating that you’ve put some time and consideration into thinking about how you might best perform the job you’re applying for rather than just extolling your own virtues. Provide concrete examples where you can, and let your accomplishments do the talking for you.

Now, please don’t take this as some airtight insider tip into getting your dream job — I don’t want to have to ward off an angry mob at my door if you still get met with some rejection. That’s a natural part of any application process. But I can promise you that you are 100 percent more likely to succeed if you don’t fill out an application apologizing for who you are and what you’ve achieved, or trying to make yourself seem small and polite so that people won’t think you arrogant or intimidating. Be intimidating. Think about it this way — if you’re that scary, don’t you think they’d rather have you on their team than on someone else’s?

Alexandra is a third year at the University of St Andrews in Scotland studying English and Modern History. She is also the founding president and editor-in-chief for the St Andrews Her Campus chapter, and can usually be found buried in a theatre rehearsing for the next musical, opera, or play. In her spare time, she loves writing creative fiction, traveling, and generally enjoying living in Scotland!
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