There’s a little rumour going around that hiring managers do not read cover letters – and I’m here to put that rumour to bed because hiring managers do, indeed, read them. (At least, most of them do, anyway.)
In fact, to some, it’s the most important part of your job application – yes, even more than the awesome résumé you spent a whole week writing and rewriting, then, editing and perfecting. Done right, a strong cover letter it will help you stand out from the competition, effectively helping you secure an interview for potentially the job of your dreams.
A badly written one, on the other hand, can be the deal breaker that gets your application thrown in the bin.
And, of course, we don’t want that. Which is why we’ve compiled this list of the 35 biggest mistakes you need to avoid when writing your cover letter!
1. Not Writing One
This is perhaps the biggest mistake of them all! Even if the job ad doesn’t specifically request a cover letter to accompany your résumé or you somehow know for a fact it will never be read, it’s always a good idea to send one, anyway. It shows initiative and resourcefulness – both qualities employers look for in potential employees. The only time you shouldn’t send a cover letter is when you’re asked not to.
2. Using an Archaic or Sexist Greeting
The days of ‘To Whom It May Concern’ are far gone. Not only is it an outdated phrase but it’s also very impersonal and it makes you look lazy, as does ‘Dear Sir or Madam’. And don’t even think about using ‘Dear Sir’ – the chances of your letter being received by a ‘sir’ are pretty slim, and assuming the company is made up of an entirely male workforce may be viewed as a little sexist on your part. It’s best to use the hiring manager’s name, but if you don’t know this (and weren’t able to find it during your research into the company), then ‘Dear Hiring Manager’ or ‘Dear Human Resources Manager’ is the way to go.
3. Using an Overly Casual Greeting
Even if you’re applying for a job at the coolest, most kickass company in town, remember that you’re applying for a job, so you’ll still need to conduct yourself in a professional manner. This means that opening your letter with ‘Yo, homies!’ or ‘Hey dude, wassup?’ is a big no-no.
4. Not Using a Greeting at All
Yes, applicant tracking systems will scan your cover letter just as much as your résumé for keywords and phrases and will discard those that don’t meet the requirements – but those that do will then get read by a human being. In other words, make sure you take every opportunity to address those humans to create some form of rapport. If you don’t, you then risk creating a boring and robotic letter that nobody wants to read.
5. Addressing the Wrong Person
If you’ve ever accidentally called a date by the wrong name, chances are the night ended in disaster; and they probably never returned your calls after that. You can expect pretty much the same if you address your cover letter to the wrong person. This includes misspelling people’s names – for example, if someone’s called Jon, make sure you call them Jon and not John or, worse, Johnny.
6. Starting with Your Name
There’s really no need to introduce yourself – the hiring manager can hazard a pretty good guess who’s sending the letter just by taking a quick look at the ‘From’ field in your email. Another hint would be the name in big, bold writing on your résumé. Don’t insult their intelligence!
7. Using a Weak Opening
‘I am submitting my application for the Business Manager position for your consideration.’ Yawn. Practically every other cover letter begins like this, and it can become tiresome for hiring managers reading the same thing over and over again. So, why not open with a bang, instead, and start with something like: ‘Your need for a high-performing and dedicated business manager is an excellent fit to my qualifications and 10-year history as an award-winning executive in the field’?
8. Using a Generic Template
Templates exist to help you and guide you write your cover letter – not for copying content! Remember: there’s no one-size-fits-all cover letter out there, and each letter you send should be tailored to the specific job you’re applying for (you can do this by matching the wording in the job ad). That said, it’s okay to use a so-called template if you’re applying for many similar positions – as long as you’re customising each letter!
9. Forgetting to Replace a Job Title or Company Name
If you ignore my advice above about not using a generic template, and you find yourself simply replacing words, names and titles to save time, at least double-check that you’re using the correct company name. Get this wrong - and you sure as hell won’t impress a potential employer.
10. Not Mentioning the Company You’re Applying To
Even if it’s a simple ‘I’m writing to apply for the position of Chief Accountant at Company ABC’, it shows that you care about the company and the specific position you’re applying for. If you don’t, the person reading your application may think you’ve simply copy-and-pasted and emailed it to a hundred different companies – and that doesn’t make anyone feel special.
11. Being a ‘Diehard Fan’ of the Company
Continuing from the previous point, you don’t have to mention how much of a ‘diehard fan’ of the company you are – even if it’s true. Yes, employers want employees who are passionate about their company and its products and services but giving off a I’m-a-Justin-Bieber-stalker kind of vibe will only hurt, not help, your application.
12. Not Doing Your Research
Before you submit any application for any job, it is absolutely necessary that you do a little research into the company, the role, the industry and even the person you’re contacting. If, for example, you misunderstand what the company does, this will likely show in your letter and it tells employers you don’t care enough about the job to check the details.
13. Not Using Keywords
As mentioned previously, your letter needs to be tailored to the particular job you’re applying for. A good way to accomplish this is by carefully reading the job ad and incorporating any keywords into your letter. For example, if the ad is looking for someone who is punctual and willing to learn new things, you should find a way to mention these two attributes.
14. Repeating Your Résumé
Remember: your cover letter is meant to complement your résumé, not reiterate it. They are two entirely separate documents with their own unique purpose: a résumé is intended to be a record of your educational background and employment history, while a cover letter is used to express interest in the job you’re applying for. In other words, don’t regurgitate your résumé on your cover letter, and instead, use it to expand on information you weren’t able to squeeze into two pages…
15. Introducing New Information
…That said, be careful not bring up something new or different from your résumé. For example, if you list a law degree on your résumé but then take it back on your cover letter and say that you dropped out of university before you completed the course, it might make you seem forgetful or, worse, dishonest.
16. Highlighting Any Lack of Skills
Chances are you’re not going to meet the job ad’s requirements to a T, but there’s no need to draw any unnecessary attention to the professional skills and knowledge that you are fundamentally lacking. After all, starting off a letter with ‘I know I don’t yet have…’ is only useful if you want to undersell yourself to employers. Instead, focus on the things that you do have! (Of course, if the ad requests something that is absolutely necessary to do the job – like a medical degree, for example – but you don’t have one, then don’t even bother applying.)
17. Making Excuses
Although you may be tempted to make up for potential shortcomings on your résumé by explaining why you dropped out of high school or quit a past job, for example, remember that employers don’t want to read your explanations or excuses. What they do want to read about is your suitability to the role and company, so focus on your qualifications, experience, skills, accomplishments and passion, instead. Only offer explanations when you’re asked for them (typically during an interview)!
18. Speaking Ill of Current or Former Employers
So your last boss was a chauvinistic pig, and getting away from him was the best thing that ever happened to you. But that’s no reason at all to badmouth him to potential employers – it only reflects badly on your character. Remember: they want someone with a positive and team-oriented attitude, and they really don’t care about your past woes.
19. Mentioning Irrelevant Experience
Let’s say you’re applying for a banking job but you only have experience as a writer. Now, unless you’re able to translate your writing experience to the banking job, leave it out completely. Likewise, just because you were a Girl or Boy Scout when you were younger, it doesn’t make you an expert at sales – so you might want to avoid mentioning this on your application for a digital media sales position!
20. Not Providing Examples
You say you meet the position’s requirements – that you’ve got the skills and background needed to do the job – but if you don’t show employers how exactly you’ve got what it takes to succeed, then you’re not convincing anyone about your suitability for the role. In other words, always back up your statements with concrete examples of your accomplishments and capabilities to maximise the effectiveness of your cover letter. For example, instead of saying you ‘increased the company’s revenue’, say how much you increased it by!
21. Talking about Me, Myself and I
Another common mistake – and perhaps one of the worst – is making your cover letter all about ‘me, me, me’. Yes, you should use this as an opportunity to boast about your strengths and accomplishments, but it’s important that you acknowledge how these will benefit a prospective employer – not you. And whatever you do, do not say the job will be a great ‘stepping stone’ for you, even if it’s true. If anything, this merely shows that you’re not in it for the long run and that you’re only really applying for the job for the benefits it offers.
22. Omitting Your Top Selling Points
Your cover letter and résumé are your primary sales tools in your job search and these should provide the hiring manager with compelling reasons why you should be invited for an interview. In other words, you need to highlight important accomplishments and details, like any money-saving changes that you implemented, to effectively market yourself to employers and convince them you’re the right candidate. For example, if the ad requires ‘excellent communication skills’ and you have years of experience in public speaking, make sure that you mention this. Omitting your top selling points would just be plain stupid!
23. Being Too Confident
It’s natural that you portray self-confidence in your cover letter – in fact, it’s a huge turn-on for employers – but too much of it can be a deal breaker. So, find the perfect balance of demonstrating your suitability for the role without telling the hiring manager you’re the ‘best candidate’ or ‘perfect fit’. You’re in no position to make that assessment, after all, so leave it to the person who is responsible for reviewing applications. Remember: there’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance – make sure you don’t cross it.
24. Writing a Novel
Your cover letter provides you with the perfect opportunity to showcase your talents and to tell the hiring manager why they should hire you – not bore them to sleep. Which is something you just might do if your letter exceeds one page. Remember: their time is scarce, so the more you ramble on, the more likely they will move on to the next applicant. In other words, stick to three to four concise and compelling paragraphs to get your point across.
25. Sharing Too Much Information
By all means, feel free to explain away an employment gap or to express your interest in relocating to a foreign country, but do not – I repeat: DO NOT – share too much information about your personal life with a prospective employer. Especially if you’re just going to say that your ex broke your heart and you now want to move halfway across the world just to get away from them!
26. Using an Embarrassing Email Address
If you’ve got the same email address since high school or it’s something like [email protected], it may be time to opt for a more professional and grownup-sounding alternative. Especially if you want potential employers to take you seriously or there’s a chance your email will be filtered to the hiring manager’s spam folder.
27. Being Rude
You should aim for a polite, professional and respectful manner when writing your letter, otherwise, you risk being disqualified from the running. Especially if you end up insulting your future coworkers by talking down to them and saying something like: ‘I know something that you don’t’. And always – always – remember to close your letter by thanking the reader for their time and consideration!
The worst mistake you can possibly make on your cover letter (and, indeed, résumé) is lying about or exaggerating your accomplishments and work history. Rest assured: you will get caught – especially when a potential employer calls your references or if they ask you to perform a certain task as part of a pre-employment test! There are many ways to deal with a lack of skills or experience but embellishing the truth or blatantly lying about your capabilities is not one of them!
29. Talking about Money
There’s a time and place for talking about your salary expectations, but your cover letter isn’t it. Unless, of course, the ad specifically asks for this information, though chances are it won’t. We all want six-figure salaries and amazing perks, but these shouldn’t be your focal point of interest in a company or role. No prospective employer wants to hire someone whose only motivation for applying for a job is the money!
30. Forgetting to Format Your Letter
The last thing you want is to get your application discarded due to bad cover letter formatting. First things first, make sure your letter follows a similar design to that of your résumé’s, it has a clear structure (an introduction, a body and a conclusion), it uses plenty of white space and that it’s generally not one big chunk of text. Use short paragraphs and bullet points to effectively get your message across and – for the love of all that is good in this world – do not do something stupid like using Comic Sans as your font choice!
31. Ending on a Passive Note
Never end your letter on a passive note like: ‘Hope to hear from you soon’! Take your future into your own hands and, instead, say something like: ‘I will follow up with you in a few days to answer any preliminary questions you may have for me. In the meantime, you can reach me at 01632 123456.’ Of course, you don’t want to sound too pushy, but the general idea is to show your enthusiasm for the role, as well as, that you’re a go-getter.
32. Listing References
There’s a whole debate on whether or not you should include references on your résumé, but you should definitely leave them off your cover letter – unless, of course, the ad specifically requests them. Remember: you’ve got a limited amount of space to sell yourself to a prospective employer on this document, so don’t waste valuable real estate by listing your references here – you’ll typically be asked for a list of references as you progress to the next stages of the hiring process.
33. Not Following Instructions
Do yourself a favour and reread the job ad before you submit your application. Oftentimes, employers will ask for specific information to include in your letter (like answering a question or providing samples of your work) – so make sure that you deliver! They may also ask you to follow special instructions, like sending your letter as a PDF to a specific person, for example. Failing to meet their requests only makes you look careless and it gives them an excuse to discard your application altogether.
34. Forgetting to Sign the Letter
There’s nothing worse than a letter that ends abruptly – it could leave the reader wondering what you were hoping to achieve and whether there was more to your message. Not to mention it doesn’t make you look very detail-oriented. Remember: it’s proper business etiquette to sign your letter, so say ‘Thank you for your consideration’ or even a simple ‘Kind regards’ after the closing paragraph, followed by your name. If you’re mailing the letter, meanwhile, make sure to include your handwritten signature, too (usually above your name)!
35. Not Proofreading
One of the biggest mistakes you can make when it comes to cover letters is not taking the time to edit and proofread your letter for typos and grammatical errors before you send it to prospective employers. It simply shows a lack of attention to detail – something that won’t quite impress the hiring manager. So, make sure you use spellcheck, but don’t rely on it; print the letter and read through it at least three times, and then ask a friend or family member to review it, too.
Are you guilty of making any of these disastrous cover letter mistakes? Share your thoughts and experiences with us in the comments section below, and don’t forget to tell us about any other stupid blunders you can think of to avoid!