You want your cover letter to act as a foot in the door, not a foot in your mouth. Avoid these common mistakes to write cover letters that lead to interviews.
How to Avoid These Cover Letter Mistakes
1. Addressing the Letter “To Whom It May Concern”
Managers are looking for applicants who are genuinely interested in the role. Neglect to personalize a letter, and you already send a message that you’re not someone who takes initiative.
Some job listings specify an addressee. In that case, ensure you don’t accidentally choose the wrong gender (“Alex” isn’t necessarily a man’s name). If there’s no name, do a little legwork. Visit the company website, or look up employees on LinkedIn to find the right person to address.
Found a few potential contacts at the company? Pick the person whose job title seems most likely to be your direct supervisor, or the head of the department you’d like to join at the company. Even picking the wrong contact in the department is likely to be preferable than writing, “Dear Sir or Madam.”
2. Using a Boilerplate Opening
Cover letter templates often start with something along the lines of, “I am writing to express my interest in the position of XYZ Associate at ABC Company.” No offense, but this line is a snoozer.
You don’t need to get wacky (cheesy cover letter openings aren’t great, either), but you want a strong opening that shows your enthusiasm and skills. Capture a hiring manager’s attention by leading with a relevant accomplishment or pointing out how your career history aligns with their mission.
3. Repeating Your Résumé
Your cover letter is not an extended version of your résumé. Going that route wastes everyone’s time. A few better options:
- Tell a story: “My biggest sale,” “A problem I solved,” or “I have an English degree, but fell in love with learning to code,” can be compelling stories to show passion and skills.
- Describe how you’ll serve the company: Showcase skills that the hiring manager will love.
- Demonstrate a personality “click”: Read the company’s website and social media feeds to understand their attitude and values. Are they snarky or buttoned-up? Do they emphasize warm, friendly customer connection, or round-the-clock ambition? Use examples that show you’ll fit in with the company culture.
4. Focusing on Yourself
This tip may sound strange (aren’t you supposed to be introducing yourself?), but many job seekers get too wrapped up in what they want to get out of a job. The hiring manager is more interested in what you’ll give the company.
Read the job listing carefully. What skills and qualifications are they looking for? Your focus should be on providing examples that prove you check as many items on their list as possible. Identifying key words in the job listing (e.g., organized, fast-paced, analytical) can give you a sense of which qualities to highlight.
5. Relying on Cover Letters to Explain Work Gaps
Although most job listings ask for a résumé and cover letter, you shouldn’t take that as a guarantee that the hiring manager is going to read all materials thoroughly. The hiring committee may weed out a first wave of candidates from résumés alone first and then use cover letters to determine who to interview (for example).
That means if you have a gap in your work history, don’t expect the cover letter to do all the explaining. Include a line in the résumé itself to explain what happened (raising kids, residing out of the country for a spouse’s career, etc.). If possible, briefly mention related volunteer work or classes that kept your skills sharp.
Touching on work gaps in the résumé also allows you more room to use the cover letter for the right reasons: showing how you shine.
6. Forgetting to Proofread
I received a charming email the other day from a group of middle schoolers hoping to interview me for a class project. The only downside was that, a minute later, I received the same charming email, verbatim, except that my name had been replaced with that of another source they also hoped to interview. Oops.
If you must tweak a form cover letter to send to different hiring managers, make sure you’re careful to update the contact person’s name, company name, and the role you’re applying for throughout your cover letter. (Better yet, craft a personalized cover letter for each company.) Middle school students have some leeway to make a mistake, but hiring managers who are flooded with applications are looking for reasons to weed candidates out of the heap. Proofread, and proofread again.
How do you make your cover letter and résumé stand out from the crowd? Share your cover letter tips in the comments below.