If you want to write a good cover letter, beware these mistakes.
There's an art to writing a good cover letter, and it can take some trial and error to find your footing. Whilst this is perfectly understandable, there are some common cover letter mistakes that you absolutely want to avoid, no matter where you are in your cover-letter-writing experience. Here's a handful of the most detrimental cover letter pitfalls and how to rectify them before you submit your application.
Sticking to a template rigidly
Whether you're applying for your first job or have applied for plenty over the years, cover letter templates are incredibly useful for structuring your letter to the tee. However, you mustn't take the template too literally, or your result could be too generic. Instead, use the boilerplate text as a guide – and only that.
Sub in your name, the position you're applying for and other details marked by blank spaces. Continue by tweaking the paragraphs so that they are tailored sufficiently to you and your application, highlighting your most pertinent achievements.
Most importantly, adjust the text so that it sounds like you and isn't obviously a template. Make it personable with your own writing style and point of view. Templates can be great starting points, but your own words are how you'll convince the HR manager that you're genuinely interested and a good fit for the role.
Regurgitating your CV
Repeating your entire CV in your cover letter is a huge no-no. Recruiters already have a copy of your CV, so what value would they gain from a rehash?
Your cover letter is your chance to explain the most valuable achievements in your CV that show how and why you're a fit for the position. Elaborating on your CV will give the recruiter a better sense of who you are as a professional.
Hook the recruiter by explaining your skills and accomplishments that are in line with the company's market position. By zooming in on these details in the context of the company's requirements, you'll show that you could be an asset to them.
Discussing only yourself
The job you're applying for might be a huge opportunity for you and your career, but that alone won't convince the recruiter to hire you. Remember that this is a business and the employer won't hire you out of the goodness of their heart.
You must sell your skill set in your cover letter in a way that demonstrates how it will fulfil the company's needs. Consider why the company is hiring for this role and what dilemmas this position will solve. How can your abilities plug the gap for the employer and make their business better?
Answering these questions will undoubtedly capture the recruiter's attention because you'll display yourself as a solution to their problem.
Poor grammar and typos
Would you buy a product if its packaging was tarnished or error-strewn? Probably not, even if the product inside was A-OK.
Think of your cover letter in the same way. Since your letter is your sales pitch, if it's marred with a few typos, the recruiter is more likely to toss yours out. Why consider the stained cover letter when another candidate's is slick and polished?
Use spell check, Grammarly or similar automated tools to proofread your CV and cover letter. Those are great places to start, but note that they may not catch every mistake. For example, you may have written 'manger' instead of 'manager', but a spell checker won't catch that as they're both legitimate words.
Reread your cover letter, speaking it aloud. You're more likely to spot the errors because you'll physically trip over incorrect words as you talk. Failing that, hand it over to a trustworthy friend for a final proof.
Writing cover letters over one page
Recruiters are quick-moving people who spend approximately six seconds reviewing a CV. It's unsurprising then that most employers favour a cover letter that's one page or less.
There's no need to write a novel; just get your key points across in under a page. And if you're struggling to make your paragraphs fit, don't be tempted to shrink the font or the page margins. White space is important as it creates a positive reading experience, helping recruiters identify essential information in your cover letter quickly.
Being overly formal or informal
One of the most common difficulties when writing a cover letter is judging how formal to make it.
You have the formal take at one end of the spectrum, starting your cover letter with full addresses like 'To whom it may concern', and polishing it up with 'Yours sincerely'. At the other end of the spectrum, there's the informal take, beginning with 'Hi Joe' and finishing with 'Kind regards' or 'Thanks in advance and speak soon'.
A good cover letter matches the branding and tone of the prospective employer. Identify the company culture during the job search by reviewing the company's website, LinkedIn company page and reviews on Glassdoor. If it's corporate, it's safer to opt for a formal approach. But if it's a startup, your cover letter may shoot for a more casual tone. However, resist the temptation to be overly colloquial and stuff your cover letter with exclamation marks and emojis. You still want to paint yourself as a professional.
Since a cover letter is supposed to tell an HR manager about who you are, it's important that you use personalised ideas. There are a number of phrases that professionals gravitate towards because they sound fancy, but writing the same thing as everyone else appears lazy and unoriginal. Not to mention, there's no way you'll stand out if your cover letter is similar to other candidates'. Therefore, the following cover letter clichés should be avoided.
'I have exceptional written and verbal communication skills'
Most HR managers will be looking for a candidate with strong written and verbal communication skills. Luckily for you, simply presenting a well-written cover letter is half the job done, so there's no need to state it yourself.
In addition, use your experience to demonstrate your communication skills. For example, if your previous roles involved conducting meetings, presenting, managing staff, client services, liaising with other departments or similar tasks, you can refer to them to demonstrate your communication skills. Shift the focus so that the HR manager can see your skills in action – it makes a much stronger impression than simply stating the fact.
'I think outside the box'
This may be the most trite cliché of them all. Not only is it overused, but it also doesn't tell the HR manager anything relevant. Instead, give an example of a time when you 'thought outside the box' in a previous job. If you don't prove it through your experience, it will remain an empty statement.
'I am a fast learner/hard worker/problem solver'
These types of statements are considered fluff by most HR professionals, so including them doesn't help you. If a recruiter has specifically written these qualities on the job description and you wish to highlight them, the key is to show that you possess these qualities without stating the fact outright. For example, if you wish to share that you are a fast learner and can pick up new systems quickly, you could write something like, 'In my previous role at [company], I was a proficient user of [database/software name].' This is simple, but shows that you can pick up new systems and have experience with that particular program.
'I work well independently and as part of a team'
This is a popular phrase that has worked its way into many a cover letter for years, so don't feel bad if it plays a starring role in yours. It's true that employers often seek candidates who can work autonomously and be a team player, but you don't need to put it on your cover letter. You only get a few paragraphs to impress, so use them wisely and remove the fluff.
'This is exactly the kind of role I'm looking for'
That may be true, but chances are this is the exact kind of role 240 other candidates are looking for, too. The recruiter or HR manager already knows that you're interested in the role – they're looking at your cover letter for that reason. Your goal is to convince them why this job is right for you by demonstrating your relevant experience and personal attributes. And, more importantly, your goal is to convince them why you are right for the job.
'I'm the best candidate for the job'
How do you know you're the best candidate for the job? Have you met the other applicants? Plus, telling the HR manager that you're the best person for the job can seem a little self-congratulatory. Ultimately, whether or not you are the best candidate is for them to decide. If you want to swing the vote in your favour, it's not about telling them. It's about proving it to them with your best and most relevant skills and personal qualities.
Avoiding common cover letter mistakes
Your cover letter is an essential part of your job application, so you have to get it right. Take care to avoid these common mistakes to ensure that you put your best foot forward at every step of your job search.
There are also common CV mistakes to steer clear of. Get a free, objective CV critique to find out where you stand.
This article was updated in January 2021. It contains work written by Rikki Wimmer.