Let’s talk about cover letters. At this point in the history of hiring, cover letters have very mixed reviews. Some say cover letters are useless, and more employers have stopped asking for them (especially when working with recruiters — so check before you write one!). But when a cover letter is requested in the job listing, it’s important to make the most of this opportunity to strengthen your application. Over my eighteen years working with job seekers, there are many common mistakes I see folks make in their cover letters. Before you hit submit on your next job application, remember these cover letter clichés and step lightly to avoid them.
1. It’s not all about you.
This is the most important thing you need to remember! The cover letter isn’t about you (or at least it isn’t entirely about you). It’s about the employer and their challenges. The best cover letters show that you understand the employer’s problems and are already thinking about how you can help them.
You want the employer to feel like you’re writing this letter just for them. That means you need to research the organization’s specific challenges and address how you can help them in these areas.
Write about how you’ll contribute, and less about what you’re looking for. The hiring manager is likely not going to be interested in how you spent your gap year. They have a pressing problem to solve, or the company wouldn’t be looking to hire a new employee. So focus on trying to find the employer’s pain points, and then show them how you are the right person to address their needs.
2. Bold and unpredictable font choices.
It’s so easy to create a professional impression by simply matching your cover letter to your resume. Use the same fonts, font size, formatting, and paper (if submitting a hard copy version). Avoid quirky fonts that can look unprofessional. Both documents need to be updated and consistent with your job experience. A cover letter and resume that match in appearance and content send a message that you are attentive to detail.
3. Repeating the same highlights from your resume.
Just because your cover letter and resume are formatted the same way, does not mean they need to contain the exact same content. Don’t just repeat bullet points from your resume; instead, repackage your background and skills into a customized narrative that shows how you can solve current organizational needs. In practice, this means that each application you submit should have a cover letter unique to the needs of the prospective employer.
4. Generic cover letters!
Despite what you may have heard, there’s really no such thing as an “all-purpose” cover letter. That’s because you need to customize each cover letter for the specific employer. Do not simply insert the company name and job title into an obvious form letter. This is the easiest way to ensure your application ends up in the “no” pile.
5. Two to three page cover letters.
There’s some debate about the ideal length for a resume, but it is an absolute rule that cover letters should be no longer than one page. Conciseness is a virtue!
6. Paragraphs that take up the entire page.
Each paragraph should be concise and the entire body of the cover letter should be broken into short digestible chunks. Start a new paragraph when you begin a new idea or point, when your readers need a pause, or when you are ending your introduction, main points, or starting a conclusion.
Breaking up paragraphs isn’t just about proper grammar. It also improves readability. Readers tend to skip over big blocks of uninterrupted text. Crafting shorter paragraphs will make it more likely that your cover letter actually gets read.
7. Not following the right format.
You’re applying for a job, not sending a personal letter. So, make sure you structure your cover letter into a formal business letter format. This will show that you know the proper rules of business communications and that you are detail-oriented. Check sample cover letter templates to ensure your cover letter follows the format correctly.
8. A bland, forgettable cover letter.
While the overall tone of your cover letter should be professional, don’t be afraid to show a bit of personality. A creative introduction or some personal information can help your application stand out from the pile of boring cover letters, full of stale business speak.
Remember that culture fit is a major consideration in hiring decisions. It isn’t always the most qualified candidate who gets the job. Sometimes having a shared connection with the hiring manager — a love of baseball, or an affinity for tacos, for example — can make all the difference in getting your foot in the door.
Crafting your cover letter with care will ensure you create a compelling, logical document that impresses prospective employers and lands you more job interviews, and offers. Need more help to avoid cover letter clichés? Find tips, templates, and more career resources to make your cover letter shine in the Mac’s List learn library and the Boly:Welch job resources page.
Contributed by: Mac Prichard — Publisher, Mac’s List
Mac is the founder and publisher of Mac’s List, where he writes regularly about job hunting, leads classes on job search skills, and hosts the “Find Your Dream Job” podcast.