3 common cover letter mistakes

Dec 23, 2015

Like many copywriters, I have done some work as a resume writer – work that often entailed doing cover letters, as well. I’ve probably done over 500 cover letters throughout the years, working both privately and as a freelancer for big resume-writing companies.

In that time, I saw perfectly qualified, lovely people make the same mistakes over and over again in cover letters. The good news is that they’re simple fixes – if you know to look out for them:

1.) Non-specificity

The sad truth is that recruiters can smell “generic” a million miles away. Nothing will resign your application to the informal Ignore pile faster than a:

Dear Sir or Madam:

I am extremely interested in the job at your company….

Applications are exhausting. Writing specific, individually-tailored cover letters can feel like a futile effort. But taking the extra minute or two to target specific people and fill in relevant, exact details pays off. Nobody enjoys feeling like the target of a mass mailing; people like individual attention.

Try to find out exactly who you should be contacting about this gig (a quick phone call does wonders). If that’s not possible (if, for example, you’re replying to a blind online submission), be specific about the EXACT title of the position you’re applying for, and how your job history qualifies you, specifically. Try not to be general! What did you do, when, and what is special about you?

If you can find out any information about the gig/employer in question, try to briefly work that into the content of your letter. A demonstration of foundational research never hurts.

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2.) Verbosity

Recruiters and employers often sift through hundreds of cover letters for open positions. After one or two, they start to skim. If you write a novella, they will not read it. It’s not personal! Their eyes are tired.

Don’t be disheartened by the volume of applications! Beat the competition by being concise, relevant, and breaking up text with smart formatting.

After a brief paragraph introducing yourself and your specific interest in a position, move onto a bulleted list detailing your accomplishments and relevant experience. For example:

Dear Mr. Dylan,

As a proofreader with over 5 years of experience, I am extremely interested in the position of Chief Editor.

Selected highlights from my career include:

  • Publication in several nationally-distributed journals, including Convenient Example Weekly and Fake Magazine Daily
  • Supervising two teams of junior proofreaders simultaneously
  • Acting as ghostwriter for a major celebrity client

3.) Flubbed-up details

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; people are spelling/grammatical snobs, even when they, themselves, are prone to making mistakes. We’re all the most terrible hypocrites imaginable.

Don’t let your cover letter be set aside because of silly spelling or grammatical errors. Proofread carefully; not once, but twice. Have someone else look over your basic cover letter format, just to get an outside eye.

Flubbed-up details are understandable given the sheer quantity of cover letters one sometimes has to send out, but don’t let them sink any opportunities. Review cover letters carefully.

Is all of your contact information correct and current? You’d be shocked how often applications direct recruiters to out-of-service numbers, dead websites, and old addresses. Make sure that interested parties can get in touch with you!

A nicely-formatted, concise, and specific cover letter won’t get you a gig – but it may get you an interview. You can take it from there!

Kate Shea lives and works in New York City, where she consumes an inordinate amount of Sriracha daily. You can catch up with her on Twitter at @katerone.

Kate Shea

Kate Shea lives and works in New York City, where she consumes an inordinate amount of Sriracha daily.