Avoid These Cover Letter Fails

The tips I'm about to share aren't new to the world. You've probably heard them before. But for some reason I still keep seeing these mistakes over and over again. As a service to hiring managers everywhere (and to help you snag that interview), today I'd like to share what to avoid when crafting this important piece of correspondence.

cover letter mistakes
cover letter mistakes

1. Not sending one at all

When I was teaching a career class at the University of Michigan I remember one student vehemently stating that he would never use a cover letter. He said that business majors didn't need one because all the recruiters told him they don't read them. If you want to take the risk of not meeting the application requirements, go for it. But let me remind you - this is your only chance to explain why you're the best person for the job. You have the opportunity to guide someone's attention directly to the accomplishments you're most proud of and discuss why these will benefit their organization. Do you really want to pass that up just to save an hour of your time?

2. "To whom it may concern"

Whom it may concern is not a person. In today's e-world there is no excuse for not finding a person to address your cover letter to. No one is listed on the job announcement? That's okay, go to the company's website. Look under the staff directory to find the senior-level person you would potentially be working with. No luck on the staff directory? Alright, time to move on to LinkedIn. Find the company and complete an advanced search for employees. You can scroll through professionals listed here or narrow your search by keyword. A great keyword to use is the project or campaign listed in the job description. Worst case scenario, find the director of HR and list him/her as your letter's recipient.

3. Repeating your resume

There would be no point of requesting a cover letter if all the hiring committee wanted to know was already listed on your resume. The point of this document is to communicate very clearly how your past experience and skills line up with what they are looking for in an employee. How to do this best? Dig into the job description and identify two major requirements/qualifications they're looking for that you have experience in. Then craft a paragraph for each. Open with what the employer is looking for and swiftly move on to your case study - explain the context, your role, and the result/your achievements.

4. Making it all about you

We all want jobs that will advance us in our careers. Unfortunately this isn't going to sell us as the best candidate to prospective employers. They want to know what's in it for them. Please avoid talking about how great/exciting/interesting this position would be for you. Instead keep referring back to how you can support the organization in their goals.

5. Too long

I have seen applicants get real crafty with margins and font size to make sure ALL of their words fit on one page. Don't push it. Keep the margins at one inch and edit, edit, edit. Follow the age-old advice - never use two words to say when one will do. Typically this means four paragraphs: one intro, two content specific, and one closing.

6. Typos

Microsoft Word will catch most words that are incorrectly spelled, but you won't be saved from misusing the wrong word. Check your there, their, they're for correct usage. I always recommend reading the document out loud, word for word. You'll pick up things that you wouldn't if you just read it on screen. These silly mistakes are easy reasons for hiring committees to toss your application to the side.

7. Inappropriate humor

I used to tell my students - "If you're not funny, now is the not the time to try." Humor does not translate well over email or professional correspondence, so stay safe and avoid it...at least most of the time. My husband was reviewing applications for a position in his company last year when an application stopped him in his tracks. A certain fellow thought it would be great to talk about how his dashing good looks made him a perfect candidate. He went on to talk about how it was almost his birthday and if they didn't offer him the job it would ruin his year. What was funny at first quickly became weird and unprofessional. Don't be this guy.

8. Overusing the same letter

You may think you're fooling them by copy and pasting your content while only replacing the salutation line. Bad news: it's really obvious when you try to recycle old cover letters. The same thing tends to happen that I saw as a university admissions representative: you forget to switch out a name or leave in information that is not relevant to the job posting at hand. Do yourself a favor: come up with 2-5 case studies in which you outline your top skills and achievements. Adapt these for use in cover letters, tweaking them to fit the position at hand. Rewrite the first paragraph ALWAYS. You will come across as more genuine and knowledgeable about the company's needs, not just your own.

9. "I'll follow up"

Closing your letter by saying that you'll follow up in xx number of days is an outdated concept. Most of the time companies do not want applicants reaching out because of the sheer number of applications they receive. Some postings will even say, "No calls, please." Don't waste your space ending like this. Instead reiterate your interest in the position, express your interest in sharing more in an interview, and wait patiently.

What are other questions you have about what to do and what not to do when writing a cover letter? I'd love to address them below.