7 Killer Cover Letter Mistakes

A hot topic of discussion these days in my industry is whether job seekers should bother writing cover letters. Some recruiters say they no longer read them. However, in my recent experience working with job seekers, I've seen plenty of well-written cover letters in the latest formats help candidates stand out and land job interviews. Unfortunately, most people don't study up on the right way to write a cover letter. And that, leads to this ...

5 Unbelievable (Yet True!) Cover Letter Horror Stories

I'm part of a private Facebook group for recruiters. It's where hundreds of staffing professionals connect, share, and blow off steam. Today, I posted the following question:

What's the WORST thing you've ever seen in a cover letter?! I'm looking for the craziest things you've witnessed in a cover letter and/or email outreach from a candidate in the last year.

It didn't take long before responses came flying in. Many were the typical blunders, i.e., addressing the cover letter to the wrong company, bad writing, loads of typos, applying to the wrong job, sharing religious or political preferences. But the following five recruiter responses definitely win for relating the most epic of cover letter failures:

1. Cooking preferences and lady issues. Ashley M. told me: "Where to start ... the cover letter attachment that was actually a list of the candidate's favorite recipes? Or, the candidate that disclosed incredibly detailed information about the effect of their menstrual cycle on their work?"

2. No fear of identity theft. Jennifer F. shared, "I got the candidate's picture, DOB, SSN, marital status, and number of children."

3. Selling yourself with a little too much passion. Ian E. says, "One candidate wrote, 'I get sh*t done' in the first line of his cover letter."

4. Thinking a little too much outside the box. Michael H. offered this gem: "Creativity points to the person who sent their cover letter written in crayon. Wanted to stand out, but it was a finance position. No kidding."

But here, my friends, is the grand-prize winner ...

5. When a picture isn't worth a thousand words. Kylie T. says, "I once got a cover letter which was just a picture of a guy and a tiger. What else do I need to know really?"

I guarantee if I waited a week, I could share dozens more of these with you. My recruiter friends have seen it all -- and aren't afraid to share what doesn't work with them! I hope the key takeaway for any job seeker reading this is the importance of investing time in learning how to write a proper cover letter.

P.S. Playing It Safe Isn't the Answer Either

While the mistakes above might make you think I'm encouraging you to write a boring, conservative cover letter, you'd be wrong. That won't work either. You still have the challenge of creating something that's interesting enough to get the recruiter's attention. It just needs to do it for the right reasons. The solution is to create a disruptive cover letter, a.k.a. something that showcases how you feel connected to the job and the employer. It's not a recap of your résumé. It's an introduction to you as a potential co-worker. That means revealing something about yourself that proves your personality, aptitude, and experience are a potential match for the company's corporate culture. In short, spending time perfecting a killer cover letter can actually help you open doors and get coveted job interviews. 

Seven Cover Letter Mistakes to Avoid

The student's resume was impressive. The formatting was impeccable, the content was excellent, and he did a great job of focusing on accomplishments instead of job duties. If I were an employer, I would have been impressed.

Then I looked at his cover letter and imagined the employer tossing that perfect resume into the trash bin.

Many college students and recent grads destroy their resumes by accompanying them with halfhearted or downright terrible cover letters. While some employers don't bother reading cover letters, most do. And they will quickly eliminate you if you make these cover letter mistakes:

Using the Wrong Cover Letter Format

The student's cover letter looked more like a cut-and-paste email than a business letter. It had no recipient information, no return address and no date. The letter screamed unprofessional.

Be sure your cover letter uses a standard business-letter format. It should include the date, the recipient's mailing address and your address.

Making It All About You

It may seem counterintuitive, but your cover letter, like your resume, should be about the employer as much as it's about you. Yes, you need to tell the employer about yourself, but do so in the context of the employer's needs and the specified job requirements.

Not Proofing for Typos and Grammatical Errors

Employers tend to view typos and grammatical errors as evidence of your carelessness and inability to write. Proofread every letter you send. Get additional cover letter help by asking a friend who knows good writing double-check your letter for you.

Making Unsupported Claims

Too many cover letters from college students and recent grads say the applicant has "strong written and verbal communication skills." Without evidence, it's an empty boast. Give some examples for each claim you make. Employers need proof.

Writing a Novel

A good cover letter should be no longer than one page. Employers are deluged with resumes and cover letters, and their time is scarce. Make sure your cover letter has three or four concise but convincing paragraphs that are easy to read. If your competitor's letter rambles on for two pages, guess which candidate the employer will prefer.

Using the Same Cover Letter for Every Job and Company

Employers see so many cover letters that it's easy for them to tell when you're using a one-size-fits-all approach. If you haven't addressed their company's specific concerns, they'll conclude you don't care about this particular job.

It's time-consuming but worthwhile to customize each cover letter for the specific job and company.

Not Sending a Real Cover Letter

Some job seekers -- college students, recent grads and even those with years of work experience -- don't bother sending a cover letter with their resume. Others type up a one or two-sentence "here's my resume" cover letter, while others attach handwritten letters or sticky notes.

There is no gray area here: You must include a well-written, neatly formatted cover letter with every resume you send. If you don't, you won't be considered for the job.

Let an expert write you a job-winning resume and cover letter.

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