10 Ways to Screw Up Your Cover Letter

Cover letters give you a golden opportunity to get across your passion, communication skills and technical smarts, all of which should make the reviewer want to take the next step and look at your resume. Unfortunately, most of them blow it by making one of these mistakes.

Building ImplosionNo. 1: Obvious Cut and Paste

Sending a blatantly generic cover letter that just regurgitates the information in your resume won’t cut it. The only message reviewers will receive is that you didn’t think their job was worth any real thought and effort.

To fix that, reference the specific position and company in the first paragraph. If someone referred you, be sure to mention that, too. Then, show that you’ve done your homework by mentioning some of the company’s issues or pain points.

And be specific, says Laura Smith-Proulx, a resume writer in Arvada, Colo. “Whether the company is experiencing growing pains or needs to cut costs, show them that you understand their issues and explain how you can help.”

No. 2: Generic Salutation

Don’t use an impersonal greeting or salutation like To Whom It May Concern or Dear Sir or Madam. Track down the hiring manager and address your letter to him or her by name. If you can’t do that by searching the Web or calling the company, try something like Dear Members of the Selection Team at ABC Company or Dear Project Manager. They’re not ideal, but they’re better.

If you don’t like those suggestions, simply reference the job title and jump right into your opening paragraph.

No. 3: Tacky Attention-Grabbing Headline

Starting off with headlines like these are simply going to hurt you.

Stop Looking!!!

DBA Available Immediately!

Actually, they might get you some attention, though being passed around the office as a joke isn’t the kind of notice you’re looking for. So don’t be cute. Use a crisp opening line like this:

After reading about ABC Company’s recent triumphs in the global marketplace, I’m certain that my diverse experience as a user experience architect can help you to maintain your positive momentum.

No. 4: Tone is Too Formal or Informal

The key is to demonstrate both your personality and enthusiasm without violating the tone of a formal business letter. Use adjectives to describe your activities and expertise and avoid contractions, words you don’t normally use, slang, acronyms and industry buzzwords. Remember, a cover letter is a blank canvas. It’s your chance to prove that you really do possess excellent communication skills.

No. 5: It’s All About You

You may be looking to code like crazy or create killer mobile apps, but unless you spell out how you’ll benefit the company, you’re not going to generate much interest. “Don’t make too many ‘I’ statements or focus on your own goals,” says Jason Reece, writing center manager for Washington State-based Career Perfect Resume Writing Services. “Show how your technical skills and experience create value by meeting the company’s needs.”

No: 6: Being Wishy-Washy

If you don’t believe in yourself, no one else will. Use words like confident, sure and convinced to describe your abilities and how you plan to hit the ground running. If you use specific examples and quotes from managers and co-workers to validate your claims, you won’t come off as cocky. For example:

After increasing revenues at XYZ Company by 35 percent over the last three years, I’m confident that my data base management and analysis skills can help ABC Corporation  penetrate new markets by bolstering the efforts of your sales and marketing team.

No. 7: Telling Instead of Showing

If you’re responding to an ad for a security operations analyst or JavaScript engineer,  don’t expect the hiring manager to take you at your word. Talk about the number of attacks you’ve thwarted or how you were recognized by the CIO for keeping customers secure. That way, you’ll prove that you’re as qualified as you say you are.

No 8: Including Inappropriate Information

Your cover letter is definitely the place to discuss an employment gap or desire to change careers. But it’s not the place to vent about your recent divorce, the issues that led to your termination or your disdain for noisy work environments. Also, don’t include salary expectations unless they’re required. At this stage, employers are looking for reasons to screen out candidates. Don’t give them any ammunition.

No. 9: Rambling

Keep your letter focused on your relevant experience and skills, and make sure you do it in no more than 300 words. Don’t wander off track, tailor your message toward the job description and always remember the manager’s needs.

No. 10: Failing to Close

If you’re squeamish about making a bold closing statement, just be polite and re-cap your value before outlining your next step. For example:

I’m very interested in the systems analyst position and confident that I can benefit the entire enterprise by identifying and resolving pressing hardware and networking issues. I will call next week to arrange a time to meet so we can discuss my plan to surpass your expectations.

Yes, it might sound like a sales letter. But when you get right down to it, that’s what a cover letter is. It’s your first shot at convincing the employer that you’re a serious candidate who understands their business and their challenges — and knows how to address them.

8 Responses to “10 Ways to Screw Up Your Cover Letter”

  1. jelabarre

    ONCE AGAIN, a whole list of “don’ts”, yet NOTHING about what I COULD put in a cover letter. When you need to do a cover letter to a company that has intentionally obscured their identity, industry, contact names, etc through agencies and vague job listings, just ***HOW*** are you supposed to write a meaningful cover letter? The answer is, you CAN’T. Face it folks, the person doing the hiring intentionally doesn’t want you to know the first thing about them, so a generic cover letter is the only thing you can do. Also, if you are trying to get your resume/applications out to as many potential employers as you can, then spending half a day to try and research any one company is just ridiculous.

    • @Jelabarre: We’ll write up some posts about how to craft your cover letter, step by step. But the fact they’re not listed here doesn’t change the fact that all of these things are pitfalls you have to avoid.

      I don’t agree with your notion that no one can write meaningful cover letters. It’s true that you can’t always find the name of the manager, which is why Leslie suggested ways to handle that. But the idea that a generic cover letter is the only thing you can do and, worse, that you’re better off spending your time sending out generic packages is just wrong. Doing that makes it all a crap shoot, pure and simple.

      If you send out the same letter and resume to every job you apply for, the chances of your looking like a good fit are minimal. People know when they’re looking at something that’s generic, and the first thing that tells them is that you didn’t bother to learn something about the company. At the least, it doesn’t take half a day to do a Google search.

      An individualized approach is more effective. It takes more time, absolutely, but it gives you a better shot for each application you send out. You’re way better off spending your time on sending out the right packages to the right employers than blasting out identical packages to everyone.

  2. Leslie Stevens-Huffman

    Dear Jelabarre,

    Perhaps you shouldn’t waste time responding to confidential job postings. Why not maximize your return by focusing on companies that want job seekers to do their homework and submit a customized cover letter and resume. By the way, if you need research tips ask your peers for pointers on Dice Discussions.

    Good luck.

  3. I was on an IT team where we all got copies of applicant’s resumes to review and select five or so for interviews for a position on our team. The spelling mistakes were the first to get culled out. After that, I looked for fluff, lies, and irregularities. Those were then discarded. Getting to the meat of the resume was what was important to me. The salutation of the cover letter was the least important. Just tell me what I want to hear. I don’t have time for novellas and biographies.

  4. Bo Kotian Lund

    That is just sad – and fortunately not always true. Maybe some big American companies which are getting 5000 applicants a week because their job postings is to find here, there and everywhere. In the old days you would send your application in a red envelope, sadly today a computer scanning pick out 10 of 1000 for a human look. The truth however is that if the company cares about the person they hire and you have the qualifications they need – they really do not care about spelling and how bad you are at writing the cover letter (except of course if you need to do read proof things). And that is the company you want to work for! Most of these companies will not use mass media for their job postings, but meet them where the candidates are or use specific search tolls through eg. linkedin so the field of potential candidates are very limited. And here they look for honesty written in your own words. “Just tell me what I want to hear” must be the number one thing not to do in a cover letter – except of course you just want any job and do not care for whom – and the job you will get will also be just that – just to fill up the empty seats with whoever wants to sit in it!

  5. Stephen Biemans

    If you can’t use simple pleasantries like dear sir or madam, or to whom it may concern as we were taught at school. What’s the point of having a cover letter at all. Maybe send your CV in to the overly sensitive [expletive] anyway as you will never hear from them anytime

  6. Great suggestions but all of your examples have contractions in it, when rule #4 says not to do that. Quite confusing.

    A question about using contractions was exactly what brought me to this article and it didn’t answer my question at all 🙁