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When it comes to cover letters, I’ve seen—and tried—it all. I’ve written stiff, formal documents (“Dear Sir or Madame”), overly casual notes (“Hey guys! Cover letters suck, huh?”), and everything in between. One time, I even composed a cover letter entirely in rhyme. (Yes, I did. And no, I didn’t get the job.)
Cover letters are a blessing and a curse. They give you some elbow room to discuss your qualifications, which is a welcome relief from the crunched bullet points of a resume. But because of that freedom (and that intimidating blank page to fill), it’s easy to veer off in the wrong direction and make some common mistakes that can pretty much guarantee you’re not getting a call back.
If you’re in my cover-letter-writing boat, chances are you’ve made some of these blunders before. Read on to learn five of the most common cover letter mistakes—and how you can turn them into successes.
1. You Didn’t Listen to Your Career Counselor
If you’ve ever set foot in a career resource center, you’ve heard all the basic dos and don’ts of cover letters. But somehow, rookie mistakes still make their way into even experienced job seekers’ writing. If, for example, you address the cover letter “Dear Sir” when the hiring manager is a woman, you fill three entire pages with your every achievement since kindergarten, or you forget to proofread and let the opening line read: “I absolutely love you’re company!”—it’ll go straight into the trash can.
You’ve probably heard this advice time and again, but unfortunately, job applicants keep making these classic mistakes, so it bears repeating: Keep your cover letter to a single page, pay attention to details (e.g., address the letter specifically to the hiring manager by name), and most importantly—proofread, proofread, proofread. And then, proofread again.
2. You Regurgitated Your Resume
Your cover letter is meant to complement your resume—not reiterate it. So, it won’t do you much good if you simply take the best bullet points from your resume and repeat them in your cover letter. If your cover letter and resume are replicas of each other, why submit two documents in the first place?
A job application is supposed to be a representation of you as a whole, well-rounded potential employee—so between your various application materials, you should aim to convey a variety of pertinent information. Instead of just repeating yourself (“I was in charge of reviewing invoice disputes”), use your cover letter to describe additional details that you weren’t able to squeeze onto the single page of your resume: “By resolving invoice disputes, I gained a deep analytical knowledge—but more importantly, I learned how to interact calmly and diplomatically with angry customers.” A cover letter gives you the freedom to use full sentences—instead of bullet points—so use them to expand upon your resume points and tell the story of why you’re the perfect fit for the company.
3. You Used a Canned Version
You may not love the idea of composing a unique cover letter for each job you apply to, but it’s worth it. When a recruiter reads, “Dear Hiring Manager, I am so excited to apply for the open position at your company, where I hope to utilize my skills to progress in my career,” he or she immediately recognizes it for what it is—a stock cover letter that you’ve mass-distributed to every place in town. And that’s not going to fly with a company that wants employees who are truly excited about its unique mission and vision.
Write a cover letter that's specific to the job and company you’re applying to, explaining why you’re interested in that particular position. If you take the time to write something thoughtful (“I’m a daily reader of your company’s blog. Your post about personal branding actually inspired me to start my own blog—and that has given me the perfect experience for the open role of Marketing Content Specialist”), you’ll instantly convey that you are genuinely interested in that particular company.
4. You Highlighted Your Weaknesses
If you don’t meet the basic requirements of the job, your resume will clearly indicate that—so you don’t need to begin your letter by stating, “I know I don’t actually have any coding experience or know much about computers, but…” That simply shines light on the fact that you’re not qualified. And once recruiters realize that, they probably won’t make it to the part of the letter where you try to convince them that they should hire you anyway.
Focus on explaining how your past experience—regardless of how irrelevant it may seem at first—will translate to this new role. This is the beauty of cover letters: Resumes barely allow enough room for a few bullet points of duties and accomplishments—but cover letters let you more thoroughly explain how those experiences will make you a perfect fit for any position.
For example, perhaps you were a manager of a bakery in the past, but want to apply for a writing position. The experience doesn’t seem to correlate, does it? But, when you highlight the fact that you composed, edited, and published your previous company’s training materials and employee handbook, you suddenly do, in fact, have some required experience.
5. You Focused on What the Company Can Do for You
When you apply to a job you’re really excited about, it’s natural to want to convey your enthusiasm to the company: “I’ve wanted to work for your company since I was little—this would be my dream job, and it would mean so much to me if you would grant me an interview!”
But when hiring managers read cover letters, they want to see what a potential employee would do for their company—not what the job would do for you. They want to hear about the unique skills and expertise you’d bring to the team and how you’ll help the company grow and succeed.
While it’s fine to convey that you’re excited about a position, use a slightly different angle—one that shows how your enthusiasm will directly benefit the company: “I was very excited to find this open position because I’ve been following your company since its startup phase. My thorough understanding of your company’s background and mission means that I can jump in and make contributions to your marketing team right away.”
Now you’ve shown that the relationship will be mutually beneficial: You’ll have a great job with a company you love—and the company will have a valuable, skilled, and enthusiastic new employee (who, coincidentally, is also an amazing cover letter writer).
Photo of rejected stamp courtesy of Shutterstock.
After beginning a career in management, Katie realized she wasn’t doing what she loved and determined it was time for a major career transition. Now, as a staff writer/editor for The Muse and a content marketing writer for a healthcare IT company, she gets to do what she loves every day—write and edit content ranging from demand generation campaigns to career advice. Her career and management content has been published on Forbes, Mashable, Business Insider, Inc., and Newsweek. Find her on Twitter @kgwolfie.More from this Author