How NOT To Write a Cover Letter

16 Jan

The resume was impressive. The formatting was impeccable, the content was excellent, and she did a great job of focusing on accomplishments instead of job duties. If I were an employer, I would have been impressed.

Then I looked at her cover letter and imagined the employer tossing that perfect resume into the trash bin.

Many people looking for jobs destroy their resumes by accompanying them with half-hearted or downright terrible cover letters. While some employers don’t bother reading cover letters, most do. And they will quickly eliminate you if you make any, all or a combination of these mistakes.

#1: Not Using Standard Formatting

The student’s cover letter looked more like a cut-and-paste email than a business letter. It had no recipient information, no return address and no date. The letter screamed unprofessional.

Be sure your cover letter uses a standard business letter format. It should include the date, the recipient’s mailing address and your address.

Even if you’re e-mailing it, be sure to include this information. In the body of the e-mail, paste the text of the letter. Then attach (as a PDF to preserve any formatting) the full letter.

#2: It’s Not All About You

It may seem counterintuitive, but your cover letter, like your resume, should be about the employer as much as it’s about you. Yes, you need to tell the employer about yourself, but do so in the context of the employer’s needs and the specified job requirements.

The cover letter is really your best opportunity to show the employer why your experience matters to the job to which you are applying. This means that a cover letter’s emphasis should be on relevant skills, not the description of job duties, accomplishments or previous projects. Take a given project, for example, as a jumping off point (i.e. first sentence or clause) of a paragraph then explain what skills you gained from it that are meaningful to your prospective employer.

#3: Typos and Grammatical Errors

Employers tend to view typos and grammatical errors as evidence of your carelessness and inability to write. Proofread every letter you send. Have a friend who knows good writing double-check it for you.

#4: Unsupported Claims

Too many cover letters from college students and recent grads say the applicant has “strong written and verbal communication skills.” Without evidence, it’s an empty boast. Give some examples for each claim you make. Employers need proof.

Alternatively, highlight specific abilities or accomplishments. Don’t just say you’re good on a computer. In which programs are you proficient? Don’t just say you performed well in sales, give numbers.

#5: Writing a Novel

Brevity is the soul of wit.

A cover letter (like a resume) should be no longer than one page. You may think that you have so much experience you need more to effectively detail it. Trust me, you don’t.

Employers are deluged with resumes and cover letters, and their time is scarce. Make sure your cover letter has three or four concise but convincing paragraphs that are easy to read. If your competitor’s letter rambles on for two pages, guess which candidate the employer will prefer.

#6: Using the Same Cover Letter for Every Job and Company

Employers see so many cover letters that it’s easy for them to tell when you’re using a one-size-fits-all approach. When I worked for a government agency and was trying to hire someone, so many of the cover letters mentioned how the candidate’s skills would suit my “company’s” needs. I didn’t work for a “company.” Replacing the name of the employer is just not enough.

If you haven’t addressed the employer’s specific concerns, they’ll conclude you don’t care about this particular job.

It’s time-consuming but worthwhile to customize each letter for the specific job and employer. (And that means more than CTRL+F, Replace All)

#7: Not Sending a Real Cover Letter

Some job seekers, even those with years of work experience, don’t bother sending a cover letter with their resume. Others type up a one or two-sentence “here’s my resume” cover letter, while others attach handwritten letters or sticky notes.

There is no gray area here: You must include a well-written, neatly formatted cover letter with every resume you send. If you don’t, you won’t be considered for the job.

Some job postings will say you have to send one. But even if others don’t, you should.

The only exception: if the employer asks for a resume only and specifically says (preferable in all caps), “NO COVER LETTERS ACCEPTED.”

Adapted from an article written by Peter Vogt

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