Love them or hate them, cover letters aren’t going away. While some companies no longer want them, plenty still do. Yet many people make common cover mistakes.
Your skills and experience should speak for themselves, but the cover letter is your introduction to the company. And, since you never get a second chance to make a first impression, make sure you aren’t making cover letter mistakes that could land you in the “no thanks” pile.
Common Cover Letter Mistakes to Avoid
Keep the formatting simple.
Before we talk words, let’s talk style.
It doesn’t matter if it’s a human reading your resume or a machine, you need to make your resume “readable.” Because you never know who reviews your cover letter, you want to make sure that whoever (or whatever!) reads it doesn’t end up with a headache.
Stick with the easy-to-read, traditional fonts. As much as you might want to use a curly or “fancy” font to give your cover letter some “style,” don’t. Times New Roman and Arial are safe bets because they’re easy on human eyes and easily scanned by machines.
Also, make sure the font is big enough to read. It might be tempting to shrink your font size down to 8 or 9 point so you can cram more information in your cover letter. Resist the urge.
Always keep your font size at 12. If it’s a human reading cover letter after cover letter, they may trash yours because they can’t read it without getting a headache.
Never start your letter with “To whom it may concern” or “Dear sir.”
Don’t start your cover letter off on the wrong foot. “The biggest misstep I find people make is not addressing the cover letter to a real person,” says Marcelle Yeager, president of Career Valet. “It is almost always possible to find the name of a person who works in HR or who would be your potential boss by using LinkedIn or the company website.”
Can’t find a name? Don’t worry. A survey conducted by Saddleback College found that if you don’t know who to address your cover letter to, “Hiring Manager” is an acceptable substitute. It’s direct and doesn’t assume anything about the recipient. If you don’t like that option, you can leave off your greeting and dive right into your cover letter instead.
Don’t settle for generic.
One of the biggest cover letter mistakes is sending one just to check a box—make your words count! Consider the cover letter a prime opportunity to sell yourself. Instead of regurgitating your resume on your cover letter, use keywords from the job posting to paint a vivid picture of why you’re the perfect candidate for this position.
Give examples of problems you’ve solved, or how you contributed to the company’s bottom line. New grads can use examples from school or real-life situations they’ve encountered. For example, you can describe how you used your negotiation skills to settle a heated debate during a group project, which in the end helped the team earn an A-plus grade.
Keep it brief, but not too brief.
“I’m applying for the _______ position. I’ve attached my resume for your consideration. Thank you.”
A cover letter is a letter to your potential boss. At the very least, your cover letter should have a couple of paragraphs that detail why you are the perfect candidate for the job.
Making your cover letter too short is a sign that you a) don’t want to write a detailed cover letter, or b) don’t know how to write a cover letter. Either way, it’s not a good sign to a potential boss. So even if it pains you to write a cover letter, take the time to write one.
But don’t tell your life story.
Sure, hiring managers don’t want to read a super short cover letter that tells them next to nothing about you. But they also don’t want to read The Odyssey. Your cover letter needs to grab the reader’s attention and provide information relevant to your candidacy, not read like a biography.
Ideally, your cover letter should be one page (and one page only), consisting of four paragraphs: an introduction, two paragraphs that relate your experience to the job you’re applying for, and a conclusion. That’s it.
If you find that you have a hard time editing yourself, imagine this scenario: if you only had 60 seconds to speak with the hiring manager about getting the job, what would you say? Being forced to be brief can help you narrow down what you should say in a cover letter.
Stay on topic.
Don’t include irrelevant info: “I’m married and live on a farm located in the countryside…from where I attend to my clients online, grow organic vegetables, and raise my two small daughters.”
An employer—at this point, at least—doesn’t care about your family, living arrangements, or bowling score. In fact, adding personal information could hurt your job application since some hiring managers might harbor some sort of bias (and yes, that is illegal).
If you’re itching to include some personal touches to your cover letter, you can include those soft skills that hiring managers are always looking for. Consider adding information about your volunteer work or how you led the PTO at your kids’ school if they directly relate to the job position you’re applying for.
Don’t make it about you.
That sounds a little crazy. Of course a cover letter is about you! But, employers want to hire people who care about the job and can contribute to the company. Using certain phrases may indicate that you’re more concerned about you and your bottom line and not the other way around. This is a cover letter mistake that can cost you a chance to interview.
“I’m currently looking for any paying position freelance, part-time, or full-time.”
Few things turn off hiring managers more than desperation. Even if you need a job—any job—don’t let on in your cover letter (or any other time during the process, for that matter). Your cover letter should focus on one thing: why you are the perfect person for this particular job.
“I’d like to work for your organization and see where it takes my career.”
Employers want to bring on strong job candidates who can not only help take on a role within their organization but shine in their respective job as well. In short, even though you’re applying for the position, it’s not about you. It’s about what you can do for the company. Make this clear.
“I’ve done X, Y, and Z. I know these will be perfect strategies for your company.”
Brie Reynolds, career development manager and career coach at FlexJobs, advises applicants to be confident in a cover letter, without coming across as arrogant. “Companies want to know you’re trainable and coachable,” she says, “not stuck in your own way of doing things.”
She advises job seekers to demonstrate how they can get the job done. “If you’re talking about your approach to a certain task, saying something like ‘I do it this way because I believe it’s the absolute best way to do it’ is off-putting. What if the team you’re joining has a different method and wants you to learn that? Instead, you can mention that you’ve developed an optimal way to approach the task and that you’re always eager to learn and improve.”
Phrases and words to avoid in a cover letter
There are words and phrases that everyone uses, but should not be included in a cover letter.
“I would be a good fit.”
This is a frustrating cover letter mistake for hiring managers. Of course you think you’d be a good fit—why else would you apply for the position? Instead of asserting your opinion, show an employer why you’d be a good fit. Highlight examples of past work experience, education, or skills that make them think, “Wow, this job candidate would be a good fit!”
Good is just that—good. It’s not fab, nor is it horrible. It’s just kind of mediocre, and that is not the impression you want to give to a hiring manager about you or your abilities.
So saying that your Spanish language skills are “good” doesn’t give your interviewer much of an idea of how good you really are. Are you fluent, or are you still rocking your high school Spanish? Substitute more descriptive words for good with ones like “strong” or “excellent.”
Who doesn’t want to be the best at something (or several things)? But no matter how awesome you are at something, no one is ever the absolute best at anything.
Replace the word “best” with more humble (and descriptive) words like “skilled,” “accomplished,” “experienced,” or “successful.” Those still convey the idea of being the best, without being boastful.
“Feel” or “Believe”
You might strongly believe that you’d be a great fit at the organization, and feel it with all of your heart. But you should avoid this common cover letter mistake because personal feelings don’t necessarily have a place in applying to job opportunities. Rewrite the sentence to not include these words, or drop it entirely.
Sure, you might love your industry or love the company you’re applying to, but love doesn’t always have a place on a cover letter.
Let your passion shine through by talking about what got you into the field in the first place, or what specifically about the company’s culture appeals to you. Using more specific terms can show the love without having to literally spell it out.
“Honestly” or “Seriously”
Unless you were dishonest elsewhere in your cover letter, there is no reason to claim your innocence. Likewise, avoid “seriously” unless you want the hiring team to think your other statements were jokes.
These words do nothing to benefit the body of a letter. A sentence without these fillers is more succinct.
“Used” + “to”
“I used to work at the regional office.” “I worked at the regional office.” Both sentences convey the same idea. Brevity is a value in cover letters. Opt for the option that uses fewer words.
It goes without saying (but we’re saying it anyway!), proofread, proofread, proofread. Then proofread again. If you don’t take the time to proofread your cover letter, don’t expect a potential employer to take you seriously.
Make your cover letter unique, but don’t overdo it.
While there’s nothing wrong with including something interesting about you in your cover letter, don’t go overboard. For example, instead of starting with a “standard” opening, try opening with a story about who you are and why you do what you do:
“As a child, I thrived with rules and order. Sure, the other kids called me ‘bossy,’ but I didn’t care. That characteristic has never faded, which is why I went into data analysis and was thrilled when I saw your job opening for a data specialist.”
However, be careful when trying to make your resume “unique.” For example, don’t explain that in your cover letter you’ve included two truths and a lie about yourself and the only way to find out which is the lie is to interview you. Most hiring managers don’t have time for that and may think you aren’t serious about the job. Save the games for your first company icebreaker!
Follow the instructions.
Finally, make sure you read the whole job posting. To stop people from spamming them with generic cover letters, many companies include special instructions in the post.
For example, at the very bottom, the employer may tell you to use the phrase “I love cake!” somewhere in your cover letter. Make sure you use that exact phrase (punctuation included) somewhere in the cover letter.
If a job posting explicitly states not to include a cover letter, don’t submit one. Some companies do not possess the resources to read this extra material, while others feel they can adequately judge who to bring in for an interview based on the resume alone. Including an unwanted cover letter gives the impression that you either didn’t read carefully or feel that you’re above following directions.
Creating cover letters is a craft.
Avoiding cover letter mistakes can be challenging. Even though you’re writing about you, it can be hard to sound confident without sounding arrogant. But, if you follow our tips, you can be on your way to crafting the perfect cover letter in no time.
If you’re still feeling overwhelmed, FlexJobs offers career coaching to members, including help with cover letters. It’s a collaborative process that’s 100% confidential.
Beth Braccio Hering contributed to this article.
Photo Credit: bigstockphoto.com
This is a version of an article that was originally published on July 10, 2018.
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