Covering resumes without plagiarising

You won't stand out with the same CV as everyone else

According to The New York Times, a Manhattan photography studio was recently surprised to receive four job applications with cover letters using identical language.

Times writer David Koeppel says the applicants all lifted the same passage from the Microsoft Office website's template gallery. The incident goes to show that finding tailor-made cover letters for jobs is easy and can just be a matter of googling for “cover letter”.

Koeppel quotes a US university professor and founder of an online job search information site as saying that if it were a student assignment, it would be plagiarism.

“As an employer, I would think this is a lazy individual and question the ethics of taking someone else's work.”

This professor says society has come to see the internet has a “free library" and that some job seekers “see no difference between taking passages from online sites and hiring a résumé consultant to write the documents for them”.

Koeppel quotes a director of a centre for ethics at a US university who finds nothing unethical about helping a job seeker put together a CV, but who says that hiring someone to write the document blurs the line between what is and is not original work.

People not wanting, or not able, to hire someone to write their job application may want to heed the advice from Carol Kleiman, writing in The Seattle Times. She outlines resume writer and career coach David Humphrey’s formula for cover letters.

"The first [paragraph] is the introduction, in which you identify the position, why you are applying and how you learned about the opening. And you can say something about the company, if you've done some research."

At the end of the first paragraph, Humphrey advises that people say they’re a strong candidate because of their qualifications. In the second paragraph, they should explain why they’re so good by matching the job’s requirements to their skills and experience, he says.

In the third and final paragraph, people should write that they’re a strong match for the job and that they looking forward to meeting [the prospective employer] in person.

“And be proactive,” Kleiman writes. “Say that if you don't hear from them within a week or ten days, you will call them.”

Finally, Katharine Hansen, writing on, outlines ten cover letter writing mistakes.

One is failing to address the letter to the specific name of the recipient. It only takes a phone call to get a name and applicants might be able to find out some more useful information about the job in the process.

Hansen says another no-no is applicants telling the employer what the company can do for them, instead of what they can do for the company.

Being boring and formulaic is another way to fail, Hansen says.

“Don't waste your first paragraph by writing a boring introduction. Use the first paragraph to grab the employer's attention. Tell the employer why you are writing and summarise the reasons you are qualified for the position, expanding on your qualifications in later paragraphs.”

As with a resume, applicants should tailor letters specifically for the job they’re applying for.

“If you're answering an ad or online job posting, the specifics of your cover letter should be tied as closely as possible to the actual wording of the ad you're responding to.”

Hansen even suggests a two-column format in your letter comparing your skills with the skills required for the job.

Keep the letter brief and don’t blather out your life story, she says.

“Use simple language and uncomplicated sentence structure. Ruthlessly eliminate all unnecessary words.”

Finally, cut that wimpy language — “avoid phrases such as ‘I feel’ and ‘I believe.’ Your statements will be much stronger without them. It's best to either leave off the qualifier or use a stronger qualifier, such as ‘I am confident,’ ‘I am convinced,’ or ‘I am positive”.

Mills is a Dunedin-based writer. Email her at

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