Make sure your cover letter helps your candidacy by avoiding these all-too-common mistakes.
Once you’ve updated your professional resume, it’s time to prepare your job applications for submission. This usually involves making some small tweaks to your resume and creating a cover letter to accompany your application.
But aren’t cover letters a thing of the past?
Yes and no. While 63 percent of recruiters don’t find the cover letter to be an important factor when evaluating candidates, the remaining percentage do. And since you have no way of knowing which type of recruiter will receive your application, it’s best to cover your bases and include a cover letter with every job application. As an added bonus, a reported 53 percent of employers admit they prefer candidates to send a cover letter.
However, not just any cover letter will do. If you’re going to take the time to craft this document, make sure it helps, not hurts, your candidacy, by following cover letter dos and don’ts. Below are 10 common and costly mistakes to avoid when writing your next cover letter.
Cover Letter Mistake #1: Lack of research
Thanks to the Internet, there’s little excuse to not personalize your cover letters. Whenever possible, research the name of the hiring manager or recruiter (if it’s not listed on the actual job post) and the company who’s filling the position, and use this information to customize your opening document. If you skip this step, you’re sending the message to the reader that you don’t really care enough about the position to do your homework. In a world where employers are inundated with applications, any excuse to eliminate candidates will do. Don’t let this cover letter mistake give them a reason to cut you from the pile.
There are some exceptions to this rule. If you’re responding to an anonymous job posting, you’re not expected to include the name of the company or the hiring manager in the cover letter. When a company goes out of its way to keep its name and the names of its employees confidential, you can assume the hiring manager won’t take off points if you use a generic opener.
Cover Letter Mistake #2: Overly formal or casual greetings
Whenever you’re applying for a job or preparing for an interview, take the company’s culture into account. You can get a better sense of the employer's brand by checking out its Careers section online, reading reviews on Glassdoor, searching for its profile on The Muse, following the social media accounts the company set up for recruitment purposes, and talking to your networking connections who’ve worked at the organization. This will help you decide if you’re better off going with a “Hello Jeff” or a “Dear Mr. Berger” type of greeting.
If you’re unable to address your cover letter to a specific person, steer clear of incredibly formal introductions, such as “To Whom It May Concern,” as they are not conversational and can be considered off-putting. The same goes for super casual openers like “Hi!” Even if you’re dealing with a startup that prides themselves on being non-traditional, this cover letter greeting is a little too laid back for your first communication and may have the reader questioning your professionalism.
Play it safe and stick with a gender-neutral opener such as “Dear Hiring Manager” or “Dear Recruiter.”
Cover Letter Mistake #3: Talking all about me, me, me
Think of your cover letter as your sales pitch to the hiring manager. Instead of spending the entire time talking about yourself and your wants and needs, consider the needs of your prospective employer. Your potential boss is the one who will (hopefully) read your cover letter, after all.
Review the job description again and check out the latest news on the company. Ask yourself why the organization is hiring for this role. In other words, what pain point will this position solve? When you can relate to the hiring manager's concerns and position your skills as the solution to his or her needs, you have a better chance of avoiding cover letter mistakes and capturing the reader’s attention.
Cover Letter Mistake #4: Repeating your entire resume
Remember, the recruiter already has your resume - there’s no need to rehash your entire work history in your cover letter. In fact, I believe this is why so many employers disregard the cover letter; they’ve read so many bad cover letters that merely summarize their candidates’ resumes, that they see no need to read them.
One cover letter tip is to surprise the hiring manager by using your opening to demonstrate your understanding of the company’s position in the marketplace and its needs and then highlight your experiences and accomplishments that speak to these requirements.
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Cover Letter Mistake #5: Generic messaging
Even if you’re applying to an anonymous job listing, a common cover letter mistake is using boilerplate text. While your introduction may not be as specific as it would be for a position where the employer is known, this doesn’t give you license to use a generic template for the main sections of your cover letter.
Based upon the job description, make a list of the top 3-5 requirements for the role. This may have to do with your knowledge of a certain topic or an industry, your experience performing a particular task, or your education and other credentials. Then, brainstorm how you possess each prerequisite, referencing a specific contribution, accomplishment, or experience from your work history that illustrates these qualifications. Summarize this information in a paragraph or a set of bullets. This is a great way to customize your cover letter and grab the reader’s attention.
Cover Letter Mistake #6: Not following instructions
As I previously mentioned, some employers, especially those in the healthcare, education, and legal sector, still value a cover letter and will request one in their job description. Do yourself a favor and re-read the job description carefully to provide context to your cover letter dos and don'ts. Often times the employer will request certain information to be included in the cover letter. The last thing you want to do is ignore this request, as the reader will assume you are not detail-oriented and unable to follow the simplest of instructions.
Cover Letter Mistake #7: Typos
When you're competing against a large pool of candidates for one role, the smallest cover letter mistakes could be used to eliminate you from the pile. These days, we've grown all too reliant on spell-check and autocorrect to edit our communication. It’s easy to overlook the small mistakes, such as using “higher” when you really meant to say “hire.” Don't let these silly details derail your job application.
Follow this simple cover letter tip: Reread your cover letter. Then read it again. Then hand it over to a trusted friend. You know, the one that majored in English. If you’re looking for some resources to improve your grammar and punctuation, check out Lynne Truss’ book, “Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation,” and “Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English” by Patricia T. O’Conner. They’re great reads!
Cover Letter Mistake #8: Writing a novel
If recruiters spend an average of six seconds scanning your resume before deciding if you’re a fit, how long do you think they’ll spend reading your cover letter? Here’s another set of cover letter dos and don’ts: your cover letter shouldn’t be any longer than is necessary to get your points across. And it definitely shouldn’t exceed one page.
Also, keep its readability in mind. Similar to your resume, try to create white space in your cover letter by avoiding dense blocks of text.
Cover Letter Mistake #9: Going off brand
Whether you’re searching for a new job or managing your career path, it’s important to pay close attention to how you present your professional brand to others — online, on paper, and face to face. To that end, another cover letter tip is to give it the same look and feel as your resume. If you’re uploading your cover letter as a separate document to an online application, ensure it uses the same header as your resume. Also, make sure the font type, color, and size, the contact information you provide, and even the name you use on both documents remain consistent.
Cover Letter Mistake #10: TMI
While you can use a cover letter to explain an employment gap or your interest in relocating to a new city, don’t overshare your personal details with a prospective employer. The recruiter doesn’t need to know the gory details of your back surgery or how you had your heart broken and need to find a new city to call home. These extraneous details can’t be used as selling points and will only detract from your qualifications and candidacy.
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