A cover letter is one of the most effective ways to make a job application stand out, but it's also the part of the application that job seekers struggle with most.
Cover letters can be crucial because the hiring is about more than the skills and experience on your resume. Other factors matter too—communication skills, intellect, emotional intelligence, enthusiasm, motivation, drive, and just what kind of a person you are. And that's where a cover letter can make you rise to the top of the pack.
But all too often, employers find candidates making these eight mistakes when it comes their letters:
1. Not sending a cover letter at all. A surprising number of candidates don't send cover letters at all; they simply submit a resume and hope to be called. In a tight job market like this when candidates need something to help them stand out from the pack, it makes no sense to squander the opportunity to talk about why you'd excel at the job.
2. Writing more of a cover note than a cover letter. A cover letter should truly be a letter—about a full page, not simply a couple of lines explaining that your resume is attached.
3. Simply using the cover letter to summarize your resume. The most common mistake job seekers make with their cover letter is using it to just summarize their resume. With such limited initial contact, you do yourself a huge disservice if you use a whole page of your application to merely repeat the contents of the other pages. The cover letter should add something new to your candidacy—information that doesn't belong on your resume like personal traits, work habits, and why you're interested in the job.
4. Using an overly salesy opener. Hiring managers groan when they read openers like, "You won't find a candidate better qualified than me" or "I'm the best candidate for the job." These types of statements come across as overly cocky or naive; after all, no matter how strong a candidate you are, you have no idea what the rest of the candidate pool looks like. Instead, a good letter is simply straightforward and explains why you're a strong match. In other words, show, don't tell.
5. Being overly formal. Job seekers sometimes feel that they should be stiff or formal, but the best cover letters are written in a conversational, engaging tone. Don't be overly casual, obviously—no slang, and things like grammar and spelling really matter. But your tone and the language should be conversational, friendly, and engaging.
6. Not showing a strong personal interest in the job. A compelling letter will make a convincing case that you're truly excited about the opportunity, explaining why (without resorting to generic reasons that you could use when writing to every other company too).
7. Sending the same letter to every job. Hiring managers can tell when they're reading a form letter and when they're reading a letter tailored to this job. If your letter works for all the jobs you're applying to, that's a signal that it needs to be more customized. Form letters aren't a deal breaker, but people who take the time to write a tailored letter explaining why they're a match for this job in particular, and why they're excited about it, really stand out. Employers want candidates who are interested in this job, not any job.
8. Saying that you'll call in a week to schedule an interview. This comes across as overly salesy, because the reality is that job seekers don't get to decide to schedule an interview; employers do, and it's inappropriately pushy to pretend otherwise.
Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results, and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.