are you making these 8 mistakes on your cover letter?

If hiring were just about who had the best experience to do the job, employers wouldn’t need to conduct interviews — they could just look at resumes and make a hire. But obviously it doesn’t work that way, because other factors matter too, things like what kind of person you are, your communication skills, how smart you are, how motivated you are to do the job, and so forth. And that’s why cover letters matter, particularly in a sea of qualified applicants.

A cover letter is one of the most effective ways to make a job application stand out, but it’s also the part of the application that job-seekers struggle most with. All too often, employers find candidates making these eight mistakes when it comes to cover letters.

1. Not sending a cover letter at all. A surprising numbers of candidates don’t send cover letters at all; they simply submit a resume and hope to be called. In a tight job market like this when, when candidates need something to help them stand out from the pack, it makes no sense to squander the opportunity to talk about why you’d excel at the job.

2. Writing more of a cover “note” than a cover letter. A cover letter should truly be a letter – about a full page, not simply a couple of lines explaining that your resume is attached.

3. Using the cover letter simply to summarize your resume. The most common mistake job-seekers make with their cover letter is using it to just summarize their resume. With such limited initial contact, you do yourself ahuge disservice if use a whole page of your application to merely repeat the contents of the other pages. The cover letter should add something new to your candidacy – information that doesn’t belong on your resume, like personal traits, work habits, and why you’re interested in the job.

4. Using an overly salesy opener. Hiring managers groan when they read openers like, “You won’t find a candidate better qualified than me” or “I’m the best candidate for the job.” These types of statements come across as overly cocky or naïve; after all, no one matter how strong a candidate you are, you have no idea what the rest of the candidate pool looks like. Instead, a good letter is simply straightforward and explains whyyou’re a strong match. In other words, show, don’t tell.

5. Being overly formal. Job seekers sometimes feel that they should be stiff or formal, but the best cover letters are written in a conversational, engaging tone. Don’t be overly casual, obviously – no slang, and things like grammar and spelling really matter. But your tone and the language should be conversational, friendly, and engaging.

6. Not showing a strong personal interest in the job. A compelling letter will make a convincing case that you’re truly excited about the opportunity, explaining why (without resorting to generic reasons that you could use when writing to every other company too).

7. Sending the same letter to every job. Hiring managers can tell when they’re reading a form letter and when they’re reading a letter tailored to this job. If your letter works for all the jobs you’re applying to, that’s a signal that it needs to be more customized. Form letters aren’t a deal-breaker, but people who take the time to write a tailored letter explaining why they’re a match for this job in particular, and why they’re excited about it, really stand out. Employers want candidates who are interested in this job, not job.

8. Saying that you’ll call in a week to schedule an interview. This comes across as overly salesy, because the reality is that job-seekers don’t get to decide to schedule an interview; employers do, and it’s inappropriately pushy to pretend otherwise.

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 17 comments… read them below }

  1. Jamie*

    #5 was always a problem for me. When nervous or dealing with the unknown (both highly at play when applying for a job) I find formality very comforting. As a result my cover letters tended to read as if they were written by Niles Crane.

    For others having this problem I recommend having someone who knows you well read it – if they snicker or raise their eyebrows then edit until it sounds like you. A professional you, but you. And if you’re like me if the person reading it for you has to ask you to define more than two of the words then edit it some more.

    When nervous I tend to sound like text spit out by a random obscure word usage generator.

    Sometimes our comfort zones aren’t doing us any favors.

    1. Anonymous*

      I am overly stiff and formal. I figure that if this comes out a bit in my cover letter, so be it. It’ll come out very fast in the interview and when they work with me.

      That said, I do go through my cover letter and try to soften it up, use shorter words in place of long ones, and reduce sentence lengths. I don’t want to sound like I’m talking down to someone or snobby.

  2. Jamie*

    I tried to comment over there, but I’m not seeing a comment field. There is a field to read comments, but not to leave one. I tried in both Firefox and IE – same issue.

    What am I missing?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      They’re using Facebook comments now (annoying, I know), so it sometimes take a few seconds for the comments field to load, but it’s directly below the post! Just worked for me in Safari.

      1. Alisha*

        It does work really well in Safari…Chrome, too. I lurve those browsers so much these days. I used to be exclusively a Firefox girl, but it betrayed me earlier this year when it would freeze up and dump my links over and over. If I had to guess, I’d say that every “urgent new Firefox update” is actually a perpetual beta state – so I wonder what’s going on??

    2. Josh S*

      The comment link is in the left (floating) sidebar, along with the social media buttons. USNews apparently uses the Facebook Social commenting plugin as its comments manager, so you need FB to leave a comment.

  3. Charles*

    Worth repeating AAM, I loved your suggestion a couple of posts ago about writing a cover letter as if you are telling a friend about how this job is perfect for you!

  4. Work It*

    One of my professors in graduate school who taught “Advanced Rhetoric and Composition” (or something like that) made me add “I’ll call your for an interview” to my cover letter. I immediately took it off. I always thought it sounded annoyingly aggressive, plus I hate the phone and would never call.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Basically, ignore anything professors tell you about cover letters and resumes, unless you’re applying for jobs in academia. They seem to have no idea how the rest of the job market works.

      1. JT*

        If professors are adjuncts working in the industry you want to go into, and are involved in hiring or are often job seeking/switching themselves, or even doing consulting in the field, they can have good advice. I just finished up a grad degree where some of my teachers were totally into what is going on in the job market right now and had advice that was very current. These were mainly the good adjuncts, but also some regular professors. This was in a professional degree program, not an academic degree program.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I should have made an exception for adjuncts working in the field and doing hiring themselves. Really, “doing hiring themselves” is the most important thing, for anyone you take job hunting advice from.

  5. Emily*

    I had a candidate who did #1 recently. I gave him the benefit of the doubt that it was an accidental oversight, and wrote him a short reply saying, “I didn’t see a cover letter attached to your application. Particularly since your professional background is in X, a cover letter would help us understand how your experience has prepared you for success in Y.” He replied back, “My experience in Y is listed under Volunteer Experience on page 3 of my resume.” (Yes, page 3.) I wrote back and thanked him for directing me to that part of his resume, but reiterated that the job posting had asked for both a resume and a cover letter, and he must submit a cover letter to be considered for the position. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I never heard from him again.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I used to write back and say “we’re asking that candidates submit a cover letter as well,” but I eventually realized that these candidates were NEVER the right ones. Even when they’d reply with a cover letter, it was never one that helped their candidacy. So I can’t justify doing it anymore, even though I’m totally programmed to want to.

  6. Anonymous*

    my biggest job hunting mistake is not applying to a job because I despise cover letters. I have intense problems writing them and I end up missing deadlines because I cant ever write one that I think is appropriate. My concern is how do I write a cover letter when I do not have much experience in that particular field. That is definitely my biggest obstacle.

    1. JT*

      If the problem is hating writing, perhaps start by imagining telling the interviewer why you’d be good for the job. Or even telling yourself. Talk it out loud, then write down and edit what you say.

      Speaking can be easier than writing to get started.

  7. Lee*

    Cover letters take a lot of practice. I used Alison’s advice here and in her job hunt book. One thing I do is add a very short (two-three sentences) mini story about a way I handled a key job requirement in a previous position. Try to put yourself in the hiring manger’s shoes while you are reading the job description. Use a highlighter and underline a copy of the job posting (or make notes/comments in Word). It will be a lot easier, trust me. I also save a copy of the cover letter in my job folder on the computer, in case it has been a month by the time I get the interview and what I said is no longer fresh in my mind.

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