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:
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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.
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.
Before finalizing your letter, make sure you've touched on how you, as a job candidate, will help the company achieve its mission. And refer to the job description to explain what qualifications you have to best do the job as the duties have been explained. Also be sure to follow the directions as specified in the posting. Don't send a Microsoft Word copy of your letter if you were asked to send a PDF attachment.
When in doubt: This is a cover letter, not a Mad Libs puzzle. Read two of your letters back to back to compare your writing style. If you've just cut and pasted in various action words, you're not doing enough.
4. If you're bringing up something new and different from your resume, you'll appear forgetful and ... something or other. Don't use your cover letter as an explanation of issues you didn't address on your resume, such as not having a college degree, or your two-year employment gap. "I think you have to respect the short attention spans and busy lives of people," Kursmark says. "First of all, a lot of people aren't going to read a cover letter. You have a challenge if it's something important [that you need to explain], but I wouldn't put it in the cover letter."
When in doubt: You'll need to play offense in your activities and when writing your resume, not defense when sending your cover letter. For example, fill an employment gap with career-related volunteer work that you can add to your resume.
5. If you're too wordy, you're probably going to bore the reader, leading them to put your letter in the trash bin, and then... You get the point. Keep it short and simple. A two-page resume is acceptable based on qualifications and level of experience. But the two-page cover letter? Verboten. In fact, you're entering the danger zone if your letter reaches a full page. "Now everything is sent by email, and employers are looking at cover letters on their smartphones and tablets. You don't want to give them too much information too early in the process," Kursmark notes.
When in doubt: Kursmark suggests sticking to a couple of paragraphs, and maybe including a few eye-friendly bullet points, but that's it.
6. If you're using big, outdated SAT words, you'll appear supercilious. Do you actually know anyone who uses the words "bathetic," "perspicacious," and "supernumerary?" Neither does your hiring manager. Save those antics for Scrabble—your manner of speech will convey your intelligence more than the number of syllables per word. "Be crisp and clear and use short words and sentences," Kursmark says. "You don't actually impress people by using $5 words. Especially if you misuse them."
When in doubt: If you're using Microsoft Word to compose cover letters, you can adjust your spell-check preferences to also "Show readability statistics." This tool will estimate the grade level of the writing in your document. Kursmark recommends sticking to a sixth- or seventh-grade writing level.
7. If you're too folksy, then no one will take you seriously, dude. Don't overcompensate on the above-mentioned tip by using too much colloquial speech. The purpose of your cover letter is to help you land a job, not arrange weekend plans with your peeps. "At any stage when applying for a job, whether it's in writing your resume and cover letter, or determining your personal appearance for an interview, you need to be on your absolute best professional behavior," Kursmark advises. "You have to show that you're making an effort. The same thing goes for your correspondence."
When in doubt: If you wouldn't use certain phrases of speech or words with your parents or clergy, they're probably not appropriate for an employer.