Cover letter mistakes you should avoid
Nix these things and make sure your first impression isn't the equivalent of a limp handshake.
Avoid these common mistakes when writing your cover letter.
Your cover letter is like a handshake—it’s how you introduce yourself to employers when you apply for a job. Like a good handshake, you want your cover letter to be strong, succinct, and make a great first impression.
This isn’t a part of the job application process you want to skimp on, either. A cover letter allows you to go into more detail than your resume allows, explain gaps in your employment history or your need for a career change, and make a case as to why you would be a great fit for the position. And a great cover letter can open the door to scoring an interview and, ultimately, landing a job.
Make sure your first impression is a good and lasting one by avoiding these common mistakes below when writing your cover letter.
1. Overusing “I”
Your cover letter is not your autobiography. The focus should be on how you meet an employer's needs, not on your life story. Avoid the perception of being self-centered by minimizing your use of the word "I," especially at the beginning of your sentences.
2. Using a weak opening
When writing a cover letter, job seekers frequently struggle with the cover letter's opening. This difficulty often results in a feeble introduction lacking punch and failing to grab the reader's interest. Consider this example:
- Weak: Please consider me for your sales representative opening.
- Better: Your need for a top-performing sales representative is an excellent match to my three-year history as a top-ranked, multimillion-dollar producer.
3. Omitting your top selling points
A cover letter is a sales letter that sells you as a candidate. Just like your resume, it should be compelling and give the main reasons you should be called for an interview. Winning cover letter tips include emphasizing your top accomplishments or creating subheadings culled from the job posting. For example:
- Your ad specifies: Communication skills
I offer: Five years of public speaking experience and an extensive background in executive-level report.
- Your ad specifies: The need for a strong computer background
I offer: Proficiency in all MS Office applications with additional expertise in website development and design.
4. Making it too long
If your cover letter exceeds one page, you may be putting readers to sleep. A great cover letter is concise but compelling, and respects the reader's time.
5. Repeating your resume word for word
Your cover letter shouldn't regurgitate what's on your resume. Reword your cover letter statements to avoid dulling your resume's impact. Consider using the letter to tell a brief story, such as "my toughest sale" or "my biggest technical challenge."
6. Being vague
If you're replying to an advertised opening—as opposed to writing a cold cover letter—reference the specific job title in your cover letter. The person reading your letter may be reviewing hundreds of letters for dozens of different jobs. Make sure all of the content in your letter supports how you will meet the employer's specific needs.
7. Forgetting to customize
If you're applying to a number of similar positions, chances are you're tweaking one letter and using it for multiple openings. That's fine, as long as you customize each letter. Don't forget to update the company, job and contact information—if Mr. Jones is addressed as Ms. Smith, he won't be impressed.
8. Ending on a passive note
When possible, put your future in your own hands with a promise to follow up. Instead of asking readers to call you, try a statement like this: I will follow up with you in a few days to answer any preliminary questions you may have. In the meantime, you may reach me at (555) 555-5555.
9. Being rude
Your cover letter should thank the reader for his or her time and consideration.
10. Forgetting to sign the letter
It is proper business etiquette (and shows attention to detail) to sign your letter. Err on the side of formality, and if you need any help figuring out how to close your cover letter, consider these possible sign-offs.
However, if you are sending an email cover letter and resume, a signature isn't necessary.
If you need additional writing tips, join Monster today, so the experts at Monster's Resume Writing Service can help you impress employers with a high-impact resume and cover letter.
Don't use a vague greeting
Using this impersonal phrase appears lazy, as though you are unfamiliar with the company. Instead, open the letter by addressing a single person—ideally, the person who is interviewing and hiring for the position. If you don’t know who that will be, don’t be afraid to call the company and ask for a name. Anything is better than the outdated “Dear Sir or Madam.” Learn the only time you should use "To Whom It May Concern."
Don't tout experience you don't have
If you are a new grad looking for your first job, claiming that you have “extensive experience” will be an immediate red flag for hiring managers. It is unlikely that anyone has truly extensive experience right after college; more likely, they are trying to buff up their abilities to appear more impressive. Instead, providing illustrations and examples of your own abilities will make your cover letter unique. But make sure to keep it short and sweet; nothing is worse than paragraphs and paragraphs of clunky examples, especially when they’re already covered in the resume. Here are some other common mistakes first-time job hunters make.
Don't go crazy with adverbs
Your goal is to keep your cover letter succinct and snappy. These words are unnecessary and can clutter an otherwise eloquent statement. Rake your letter free of any excessive language and find a more concise way to say the exact same thing. And please: Never say these words during a job interview.
Don't go on and on about college or education history
Listing your education history on a cover letter is a big no-no, according to themuse.com. Keep your schooling limited to your resume. “At the end of the day, what hiring managers care about most is your work experience (and yes, that can be volunteer or internship experience, too)—and what you can walk through the door and deliver on Day 1,” according to the site. Can you guess the most important section on your resume?
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Avoid passive language
You’re selling yourself short if you use phrases like "responsible for," according to Lily Zhang, career development specialist at MIT, for The Muse. “Aside from being boring, using the words 'responsible for' prevents you from being able to list out your accomplishments.” Opt for more descriptive verbs to illustrate why your experience is specifically relevant to the position, such as “spearheaded” or “implemented.” These grammar rules can make you sound smarter.
Don't use pat phrases
These vague yet common phrases can sound weak and unsure of your abilities. A great cover letter demands the reader’s attention and respect from its opening lines, so don’t be afraid to use phrases like “I am confident that…” Check out these expert tips for making your cover letter stand out.
Don't be vague when you can be specific
According to Fast Company, “this word is fat and lazy, and takes up precious space where a more specific word can work harder.” Omit any general space-fillers in your cover letter and replace them with more vivid, rich details about your experience and “meaningful abilities that will leave a lasting impression.” Learn the secrets HR people won't tell you.
Don't use words you don't need to
“In the month of May” and “the city of San Francisco” are unnecessarily wordy ways to describe what everyone already knows. Use a fine-tooth comb to weed out any superfluous descriptors that are taking up valuable real estate on your one-pager. Here are some other phrases that you probably don't realize are redundant.
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Find a fresh way to describe the work environment you seek
This commonly used adjective is found in cover letters all the time, which can be a snooze-fest for hiring managers. Instead of saying you want to work or have worked in a “fast-paced environment,” try describing the care you take in meeting deadlines or your ability to juggle many tasks at once. These are invisible job skills you might not realize you have.
Be careful about the way you describe yourself in your cover letter
It is easy to come off as overconfident or bragging. Some words, including this one, are of the kind that you want others to say about you—not necessarily for you to say about yourself. Presenting yourself as a passionate, enthusiastic person will make your motivation apparent, without saying it outright. Arrogance definitely qualifies as a cover letter mistake that could cost you the job.
Remember that it's not just about results, but lessons
Although results matter for every career, employers are often looking for someone who can make meaningful contributions to the overall workplace. Use your cover letter to distinguish yourself from others by illustrating that results matter to you, but so did the lessons that got you there.
Want to secretly look for a job while you still have one? Here's how.
Use specific, descriptive words whenever you can
This is a vague word that fails to meaningfully describe your experience or abilities. Replace it with richer, more compelling verbs like “directed” or “negotiated.” And watch out for this common "filler word" that can reduce your credibility.
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Avoid using weak verbs
Don’t be afraid to take credit for what you did—use active and specific terms like “collaborated,” “proposed,” or “launched,” instead. And no matter what words you use, make sure you spell them right. Learn the most commonly misspelled word on job applications.
Avoid using "always," "never," and other extremes
Exaggerations such as "never been more excited to apply" or "have always wished for this opportunity" sounds insincere and untrue, according to Fast Company. They recommend resisting the urge to replace these phrases with “often” or “sometimes,” and just omitting them altogether.
Scan, scan, scan for clichés
This phrase an overused cliché on every cover letter. Leave it to your resume to present the quantified numbers of your success; your cover letter is about showing the positives of your personality. Avoid these clichéd phrases that make you sound annoying.
Tell stories instead of using catchphrases
Cut the fluff, Megan Broussard, creator of the career-lifestyle site ProfessionGal, told themuse.com. Instead, let your experiences and references speak for you. Employers will be more impressed to hear you talk about your passion for the field and dedication to the people or team with whom you worked. Here's how to build trust with your coworkers.
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Show, don't tell
Instead of describing yourself as an innovative person, showcase your skills by trying a narrative approach: tell a brief story about a time you made an less-than-optimal situation work, or found a solution to a problem that seemed unfixable.
Don't use fancy words that sound inauthentic
It’s easy to fall into the trap of using intelligent-sounding words, thinking that it will win you bonus points from the reader. But according to Zhang, “It’s not working. Go back to the basics.” Sometimes, it’s better to keep it simple with an easy term like “used.” Here's why fancy words don't necessarily make you sound smarter.
Watch for bland phrases
This descriptor risks sounding bland, unless you have included context or examples to back it up. Narrating scenarios in which you had to put your problem-solving skills to the test will make for a more compelling cover letter.
Now that you know what not to put in a cover letter, learn the resume pitfalls you should avoid as well.
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