The Two Biggest Mistakes Lots of People Make in Cover Letters
I review dozens if not hundreds of cover letters and resumes in a given semester. I work for a large organization, non-profits don’t pay enough for people to complain about wearing “golden handcuffs,” and the work is hard and sometimes thankless. So, there’s turnover.
I don’t mind the hiring process. In fact, I rather enjoy it. I meet lots of interesting people and try to help them get to the next stage of their careers, so it is gratifying work. Once enough applications come in, I print them out and put them in a huge stack on my table and proceed to read cover letters first and then the resumes. As I proceed, I move each application into the YES, NO, or MAYBE pile.
There are two surefire ways to get me to move an application immediately to the NO pile.
- Starting the letter with “My name is….” Why do people do that? I can see your name at the top of your cover letter, if you have done it correctly. A quick glance to the end of the letter reveals your name, too. I also espy it at the very top of your resume. So, I have three very reliable places to find your name. Why start a paragraph telling me what it is? It seems like a real rookie move to me.
- The second error is using the cover letter to explain what I see in the resume. Don’t do that! The resume and cover letter should be doing very different work. Use the cover letter to let me know how your experiences and interests meet the qualification for the job for which you are applying. In other words, tell me what you are going to bring to and do for the organization. I can already see what your previous jobs have been, how long you were there, and what your main responsibilities were. That is the work of the resume. Don’t recap that in the cover letter. Tell me something new. How are you going to contribute to the mission and vision of the place you say you want to work? How have your past experiences made you qualified for the job?
Here is an actual cover letter I received.
To Whom It May Concern:
Thank you for considering me for this position. I hope to hear from you soon.
Seriously? This applicant did absolutely no work in the cover letter. He or she expected, I guess, that the resume would stand on its own. But that is not the case. Ever.
This one strikes me as too cloying and it’s just bad English:
“I would like to express my gratitude for taking the time to consider me for the position of [title].”
As a first sentence, this one seems a bit overly confident for my taste:
“As a Student Affairs professional with over 4 years of experience working in higher education, I would make an excellent addition to the [organization] as a [position].”
Here’s a really bad one:
“My name is […] and I am interested in an entry level position. I have had experience handling a variety of positions where accuracy and productivity is a must…. I would appreciate an opportunity at your convenience for an interview to pursue my current goals.”
- This person did not state the position for which they were applying, nor the organization that was hiring for the role.
- The position for which the person submitted the letter was not entry level.
- Accuracy and productivity are not on the forefront of the reviewers’ minds for this position. In fact, those words did not appear in the job description at all.
- I don’t know what to say about the third sentence.
Here’s another actual letter I received:
“My name is […] I’m writing accept this letter as my formal application for your [incorrect position title] vacancy. As a prospective applicant I have attached my resume. I believe that my credentials are perfect to meet the specified job requirements.”
- The first sentence has errors and no punctuation.
- The position title is incorrect.
- The person is not a prospective applicant. Once they have submitted their application, they are an actual applicant.
- Then, the person started every sentence of the remainder of the letter with “I have” or “I am.”
Here are some good beginnings for cover letters – or at least ones that made me interested enough to learn more about the applicant:
- It is with distinct pleasure/great enthusiasm/excitement that I submit my materials for consideration for the [title] position at [organization name].
- I am writing to apply for the [title] position at [organization name]…. My keen interest in this position stems from my passion for ….
- As a recent graduate of [relevant educational program], I read your posting for the [position title] with great interest.
- I am excited to submit my application to your search committee for the position of [title] at [organization name].
- I write today to express my sincere enthusiasm for the [title] position at [organization]. Not only do my qualifications meet and, in some cases, exceed those outlined in the job posting, but I believe that my professional background and interests dovetail beautifully with the mission and vision of [organization name].
I know that writing cover letters is not easy. They can take hours. Here are some tips:
- It may help if you pretend you are a hiring manager reviewing hundreds of them.
- Try to make yours stand out in a way that reflects who you are and what you can bring to the hiring manager’s organization.
- Don’t repeat what’s in the resume.
- Write a different cover letter for every position.
- Get honest feedback. Not just from people who love you. Show it to a number of people in the relevant industry, if possible.
- Ask someone reliable to proofread it. Spelling, grammar, and syntax errors are really problematic for a hiring manager.
If you have more tips, I’d love to hear them!