The 7 Deadly Sins of Cover Letter Writing

The next letter you receive should be a formal job offer, not a rejection form.

You can gain an edge with your cover letter.
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A cover letter is designed to inform and interest an employer to read on to your resume. All too often, though, the cover letter bores, offends, or sometimes amuses—but not in a good way—the people who read them. Successfully achieving the former is the first step to gaining an interview with the company, but commit the latter and your job materials will be sent to a hiring manager's "no" pile quicker than you could write "References Available Upon Request."

What are some of the gravest sins you could make when composing a cover letter? Read on:

[See our list of the The 10 Best Jobs.]

1. If you're starting with "To Whom it May Concern," you're not as concerned as you should be. File this greeting with smoke signals and pigeon post under obsolete communication strategies. "The employer should say who they want the letter to be addressed to," says Louise Kursmark, the author of 15-Minute Cover Letter and 20 other books on resumes and job search. In other words, using "To Whom it May Concern" as a default greeting, particularly when the name of the appropriate addressee has been given in the job description, would be one of the worst missteps.

If the job post doesn't specify whom you should address, it's not wise to resort to guessing games. Say you're applying for a position within a specific department. Addressing the letter to "Dear Well-Known Department Head" might not be a good move, because perhaps the "Also Well-Known Department Head Assistant" is the hiring manager. Or the human resources department might be handling all first-level correspondence. Either way, you run the risk of addressing the letter to the wrong person. "My recommendation is not to use a salutation at all but to use a subject line," Kursmark says. "Salutations are work-arounds that don't work very well."

When in doubt: If your cover letter feels naked sans salutation, Kursmark suggests addressing a greeting to "Dear Hiring Professional." You can also call the company directly to ask to whom you should address your letter.

2. If you're including typos and misspelled words, "your" going to miss a good opportunity. Often, it's not on obvious spelling errors that job seekers get snagged, but on the little niggling slip-ups that spell check might not catch. Quadruple-check all their vs. there sentences and watch out for its vs. it's mentions. You should also be diligent to avoid common grammar mistakes, and know when to use "that" vs. "which" or "its" instead of "their." These tiny boo-boos won't seem tiny to the grammarian hiring manager.

"Your letter is an indication of your communication skills," says Kursmark. "If you can't write a letter for a job, what are you going to do when you're writing emails, or speaking to people on the telephone?"

Also falling under typos and misspellings: botching the name of the hiring manager. Leslie Smyth won't appreciate receiving Lesley Smith's mail. "People are sensitive about their names," Kursmark says. "They want their name spelled correctly, and they get offended if it's spelled wrong. All might not be lost—it depends on how sensitive the [hiring manager] is. But you should still avoid making this mistake entirely."

When in doubt: It's always harder to spot your own mistakes. Ask an impartial friend or a mentor if they'd be willing to proofread your job materials.

[See 10 Ways Your Email Could Kill Your Job Chances.]

3. If you're using a form letter, it will come across as _______________________ [insert an adjective for "impersonal"]. It's a good idea to have a boilerplate that you can use for most cover letters. It's a bad idea not to customize that boilerplate every time you apply to a new position, addressing what specific qualifications you have that will fulfill the job description. "You don't want to give the impression to the people reading it that you're applying for any job. A custom letter explains how you can be of value to the position and how you can help the company," Kursmark says.