A reader asks:
When you're applying for a job, and especially in something like a cover letter, where is the line between necessary self-promotion and overconfidence?
I'm looking for jobs right now, and I'm finding it really hard to hit the right note to convince a hiring manager that I'd be great at the job without going overboard and sounding delusional about my own value. I'm not coming out and declaring that I'll be the best accounts manager they've ever seen, but even when I say that I'm confident I have the skills necessary to excel in the job, I still feel a little dishonest. I've never done this job before, so how would I know? On the other hand, if I were to honestly state that I think I could do 50 percent of what they ask really well and 40 percent adequately, and will work hard to learn that remaining 10 percent as quickly as possible, that's hardly going to get me the position when there are experienced people applying who have already done the job 100 percent.
Look at it this way: You're applying for the job because there are specific reasons that you think you'd excel in it, right? All you need to do is explain what those reasons are. You don't need to take the stance that you'd be the absolute best person in the world at the job (an outside candidate never has any way of knowing how they compare with other candidates anyway, so positioning yourself that way would sound strange regardless of how good you are). You just need to explain what the evidence is that you'd be good at it. You don't need to quantify it in terms of being great at 50 percent of what they're looking for, decent at 40 percent of it, and awful at the other 10 percent, or anything like that. Just lay out your case for why you'd be, in general, good at this job.
When you're writing a cover letter to accompany your résumé, think of it as writing an email to a friend about why you're excited about the opening and think you'd be great at it. That's the info you want to convey to the employer, too.
And if you've been using language from your letter like "I'm confident I have the skills necessary to excel as an account manager" -- well, drop that entirely. They know that you think that, because you're applying. Just move straight into why you think that. That's the part that's compelling.
About being uncomfortable with self-promotion, think of it like this: You and the employer are both trying to figure out if you are the right match for the job and if the job is the right match for you. You're trying to help them figure out if you might be. You don't need to cajole them into hiring you or put together a complicated sales pitch. You're just saying, "Aha, I see that you have a business problem -- this vacancy -- and I might be the person who can solve it with you." (You're not literally saying that, of course, but that's how you should be thinking of it in your head.)
You know how really good salespeople don't make you feel sold to? They just listen to what you need, and then if they think their product or service is the right fit for you, they explain why -- and the whole time it feels like they want you to decide for yourself because they're not being pushy about it, just giving you information that feels genuinely helpful. That's what a good cover letter does, and that's what a good interview does. Looking at it like that might help you feel less self-promotional about the exchange.
Sometimes people get anxious about this aspect of job searching because they feel like they're trying to win a prize, and they need to sell the employer on picking them for the prize. But that's not the way to look at it. It's really just "I see you have an opening that might be the right match for us both, so let me tell you about me and then we can figure out if we might be a good combination." Framing it like that in your head can help lower the emotional stakes and take some of the anxiety out of the process.
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