9 Common Cover Letter Mistakes to Avoid (And How to Fix Them)
Crafting a perfect cover letter can be tricky. Cover your bases by avoiding these common mistakes.
By: David Hartley | Contributor for Let’s Eat, Grandma
Probably the single most asked question I get from my resume writing clients is: What do I do with my cover letter?
Inevitably, that question then breaks into follow-ups which can include: Should I include one? How short? How long? Who do I address it to?
Cover letters are confusing, I’ll admit. And with the advent of business social media platforms like LinkedIn, Ziprecruiter, and Indeed it can feel like the cover letter has become obsolete.
Sometimes it feels like they aren’t even read, but I want to assure you they are.
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Cover letters are your chance to not only give personality to your application, but also breathe life into some of your greatest achievements. A great cover letter supplements your resume to make you more likely to get an interview.
That’s why there are some pitfalls you must avoid when crafting the perfect cover letter for your next job opportunity. Watch out for these gaffes to make sure your cover letter helps your chances as much as possible:
1. [cover letter missing]
Not including a cover letter
This may sound obvious now, but not including a cover letter is the biggest pitfall. You may have heard the rumor that hiring professionals don’t read cover letters, but in a previous blog post of ours, we discovered that to only be partially true. While some recruiters skip over the cover letter on their lightning-fast initial scan, hiring managers value cover letters when applications are passed to them; a CareerBuilder survey found that nearly 50% of hiring managers prefer an application that features a cover letter.
I’m not a gambling man, but it would seem that those odds favor adding a cover letter to your application. A cover letter gives you another chance to sell yourself, so why not take the opportunity to make an impact?
2. For Whom the Bell Tolls
Not personally addressing your cover letter
A cover letter is inherently still a letter to someone. And that someone is very important to your job search. Imagine you were receiving an email or letter from someone you haven’t met yet. An email that is personally addressed to you is going to make a greater impact than a generic greeting, right? That’s why you need to address your cover letter to the name of a real person whenever possible.
On occasion, a job listing will feature the name of the recruiting/hiring manager that will be receiving your resume and cover letter first, but what do you do if you don’t have that information from the job listing?
Fortunately for us, LinkedIn has given us the tools to discover who may be looking at your resume. With some clever searching, you can quickly search through a company’s roster on LinkedIn and discover which people are working as “hiring managers,” “recruiters,” and “talent acquisition managers.”
But what if they aren’t listed on LinkedIn? In that case, Google is your best friend. Search the company’s website and look through their “About Us” section to discover if they have a staff directory that you can access.
But what if all that fails? Then let’s use a generic greeting that is still more personal than: “to whom it may concern.” Something along the lines of “Dear Hiring Manager” or “Dear Human Resources Director.”
Personally addressing your cover letter shows the reader that you’re paying attention and you’ve taken the time to research the company before you applied.
3. Hemingway vs. Tolstoy
Writing a letter that’s too short or too long
A big question I get from clients is how long should a cover letter be? When it comes to length, there is only one big rule: don’t make it longer than a page. Optimally, it should be about a half page to three quarters of a page, but there are some things to consider when deciding your length.
You always need to tailor the cover letter to the position you are applying for. I recently worked with a client who was a Special Education Department Head. This kind of educational position may have different passions and mission statements than, say, someone who works in the math department, so the cover letter might be a bit longer or shorter. (You’ll also take into account the company’s mission as well – we’ll get to that later.)
But how much detail is too much? A very wise man (who happens to be Let’s Eat, Grandma’s Operations Manager) told me anything that doesn’t add value doesn’t belong on the page. With any achievement or expertise you are detailing, be sure to always ask if it adds value to your cover letter rather than inflating it.
4. Restating and not elaborating
Restating and not elaborating (Get it?😉)
An easy trap to fall into is repeating the information from your resume without providing any other details. This negates the value of a cover letter should have, since no hiring manager wants to read the same information twice!
A strategy that I have found that works with my clients is picking an achievement from the resume and telling a story with more context around that achievement.
As an example, one of my current clients mentioned on her resume that she implemented a new growth and development plan for her team, leading to an increase of in-house promotions. I asked her how she did it, and she sprang forth with an incredible story about implementing a creative system.
Each team leader in her department she worked in carried baseball cards with team members’ achievements, interests, and positions they would like to grow into on a traditional baseball card with their contact information listed. These baseball cards would then be passed out to different leaders within the company for internal promotions or position-fills.
This had to be one of the most interesting career stories I have heard in a while, and I let her know that it would make great cover letter material. Why? Because the extra detail about this project – more than what would fit on her resume – helps humanize her accomplishment and offers a specific way she might excel in the future.
“Now, David,” you may say, “I don’t have a good story like that.” I have had clients say this to me before, but with a little digging and conversation, I always find it to be untrue!
5. This cover letter was written by a robot.
Writing without any personality
Another easy trap to fall into is not letting your personality shine through the page. Often, we think of the application process as a very formal thing. But you have to remember: these companies are hiring people and not robots.
You want your cover letter to have a voice. The trick I use to discover that voice is reading the document out loud. This can apply to any writing: emails, cover letters, your LinkedIn “About Me” section, etc.
Read your writing aloud, and listen for places it sounds stilted or uneven. Just doing this once or twice will help lift your voice off the page.
However, there are times where too much personality can negate your goal, which leads to my next point.
6. Dude, where’s my cover letter?
Using a tone that’s too casual or too formal
Ensuring your personal voice is contained within your cover letter is essential, but conveying the right tone is just as important. My colleague Alexis Sicklick wrote an incredible piece about properly setting your tone according to your industry. Industry and position should greatly influence the tone you set in your cover letter.
For example, an analyst’s cover letter should differ from a content writer’s not only in content but in the language they use.
Consider the industry in which you’re applying, too. Let’s remember back to the Special Education Department Head that I worked with. While he worked in a leadership position, his target organization dictated the tone of his cover letter. We touched on his compassion and drive to ensure that each student received an equitable chance at education.
The other client with the baseball card story? I used a more playful tone that sold the creativity she brought to process improvements and marketing.
However, be careful with your tone and always maintain a certain degree of professionalism. You don’t want your cover letter to sound like a text message to a friend!
7. Let me tell you my life story
Going into too many personal details
Your cover letter should be personal, but how personal is a balancing act in itself. When it comes to writing details of an achievement or your passions you should once again ask yourself if what you’re writing adds value to the document.
It’s often fine to talk about how your passions fuel and drive your profession, but talking at length about how you enjoy yoga or long hikes doesn’t add value to your cover letter. Your cover letter is not an open mic; everything relevant to the job.
8. [insert company name here]
Not customizing to the company (Or using the wrong company name)
Much like researching a company to discover who will be receiving your application, you should also research a company to learn its values and goals. Reiterating how your passion aligns with their mission and goals is a terrific way to make an impression.
For example, I had a client who specialized in lean manufacturing and had a passion for health and safety. The organization he was planning to apply to valued safety in their mission statement. We led his cover letter like this:
“[Organization name] is a leader in safety within the Manufacturing industry, and my keen expertise and passion in improving health and safety processes by utilizing lean methodology align perfectly with the type of Operations Director you are looking for.”
Aligning your cover letter to the company gives the document yet another personal touch that helps elevate it in the eyes of a hiring manager or recruiter.
On the flip side, leaving a placeholder or the wrong company name does the exact opposite – it says that you don’t care about the company. Always double-check the company name in your cover letter.
Using a disorganized file name that doesn’t match the resume
Finally, choose a file name that matches the file name of your resume. If the resume is named David Hartley_Resume Writer_Resume.docx then your cover letter file name should be David Hartley_Resume Writer_Cover Letter.docx. This is a no-frills type of strategy but the person opening the document doesn’t need frills – they just need to know what they’re opening.
Don’t just follow the crowd and write a generic cover letter. Following these nine steps will help you craft a strong letter that adds value to your entire application!
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