Your cover letter should highlight the reasons you are a great fit for the position and motivate the hiring manager to review your resume and contact you for an interview. Employers expect you to accomplish these goals in about three paragraphs. Writing an effective cover letter requires knowing how to use the space you have available wisely and knowing what you should and should not include. In this article, we discuss how to avoid making common mistakes when writing your cover letter to help you create one that motivates the hiring manager to choose you for the position you desire.
What are you supposed to put in a cover letter?
There is specific information a hiring manager is looking for when reading a cover letter. Always make sure your cover letter includes the following information:
- Your contact information
- A professional salutation
- An introduction to the hiring manager
- Your most important qualifications
- A strong closing that motivates them to take action
- Your signature
Besides the information listed above, your cover letter should include only the details you need to make the most compelling argument for why you are the best candidate for the position.
Things to avoid when writing a cover letter
Here are 15 things to avoid when writing a cover letter with tips and suggestions of what you can do instead:
- Not following instructions
- Using the wrong format
- Discussing why you are looking for a new position
- Using the same cover letter for every application
- Writing without first researching the company and position
- Discussing irrelevant work experience or a lack of experience
- Failing to highlight your strongest or most relevant skills
- Focusing on job duties instead of achievements
- Talking about salary expectations
- Failing to provide support for claims
- Not optimizing your cover letter with keywords
- Repeating information from your resume
- Using the wrong tone or style
- Failing to include a strong call-to-action in your closing
- Forgetting to proofread before submitting your cover letter
Not following instructions
It is crucial to follow any instructions the employer provides. Employers often provide specific instructions for what your cover letter should include and how they expect you to submit it. Your cover letter should make it easy for the hiring manager to find any information they are looking for. Use this as an opportunity to show them you can follow instructions and recognize important details.
What to do: Read the job posting carefully and look for any specific instructions from the employer about a cover letter. Make sure you include any information the job posting specifically asks for and follow the instructions for submitting your cover letter. For example, if the job posting asks for a PDF, make sure you save your file as a PDF. If the instructions say to answer a specific question, make sure your letter does so effectively.
Using the wrong format
Choosing the right format for your cover letter makes it easy for the hiring manager to read. While you want your cover letter to be unique, avoid being too artistic or wordy. Breaking large blocks of text up into short, concise paragraphs makes it easier for them to skim through your letter and find the most important information. Limiting the use of graphics and color helps ensure they remain focused on your most important points.
What to do: Begin with a cover letter template to help ensure you use the correct format. Then customize the template as needed to make your letter unique and help you stand out from all the other candidates. Your cover letter should be a maximum of one page long with one-inch margins and a space between each section. Use a simple and professional font and choose a size that makes it easy to read.
Discussing why you are looking for a new position
There is no need for your cover letter to explain why you are looking for a new position. This is especially important if the reason you are looking for a new position is because of a contentious relationship or history with your previous position.
What to do: Focus on discussing why you are interested in the specific role and company you are applying for and how you will be an asset if chosen for the position. Keep everything in your cover letter positive and focused on your future. Discuss your past only as necessary to describe your skills, strengths, talents and accomplishments.
Even if you use a template to get the correct format, the content of your cover letter needs to be original and relevant to the person reading it. Writing a great cover letter requires you to tailor the letter’s content to the specific needs and requirements of the position and company you are interested in. Your cover letter should require adjustments every time you want to submit it to a new position.
What to do: Begin your letter by addressing the hiring manager by name. Make sure your cover letter states the specific title of the position you are applying for. Discuss how your skills and talents are an asset to the company and how your values align with the company’s culture, mission and vision.
Writing without first researching the company and position
Writing a cover letter tailored to the needs of the position and the company requires research. Researching the company helps you identify the things that matter most to them and can help you determine what information to include. Great research is often the most important factor in writing a cover letter that connects with the hiring manager and shows how you are the best candidate for their company.
What to do: Read the job description and look for any information the company highlights as important to the specific role or about themselves. Then review the company’s mission and vision statement and look through their website for information about their history, goals and culture. Finally, use outside sources such as news outlets, career boards and reviews about the company to gather additional information.
Discussing irrelevant work experience or a lack of experience
Another common mistake is trying to use your cover letter to explain why you are missing relevant experience. While you may want to ease any concerns the hiring manager has about your experience or lack thereof, you want to avoid making it obvious that your experience is irrelevant.
What to do: Focus on emphasizing how the experiences you have helped prepare you to be the best candidate for the position. Discuss the things your experience has taught you and how it has led you to the position you are applying for. Ensure you describe how you plan to transfer the skills and knowledge you learned from the experience to add value to the company and succeed in your new role.
Failing to highlight your strongest or most relevant skills
You may also want to use your cover letter to explain why your resume doesn’t list certain skills the employer included in their job description. As with irrelevant experience, you want to avoid making a weakness or missing skill obvious. It is important to make sure your cover letter highlights the skills that are your greatest strengths and that are most relevant to the position you are applying for.
What to do: Begin by reviewing the job description and finding the skills it asks for that match your greatest strengths. Then, think about the experiences and accomplishments you have that you can use to prove these skills are a strength for you. Avoid mentioning irrelevant skills that will not help you succeed in the role, even if they are a strength.
Your resume will list the duties and responsibilities you had in each of your previous positions. Your cover letter should expand on those duties by discussing professional achievements or how you went beyond the expectations of your role.
What to do: Talk about any professional achievements you have earned, such as awards or special recognition. If you have had several professional achievements throughout your career, choose the ones most relevant to the position you are applying for and the ones that are the most impressive.
Talking about salary expectations
Your cover letter is not the correct place to discuss your current salary or salary expectations unless the employer specifically asks you to do so. Talking about salary expectations too soon can make it look like you are more interested in the benefits the job can provide you than in how you can benefit the company.
What to do: Use your cover letter to explain the value you can bring to the company and the role. If the employer’s instructions ask you to include salary expectations, use a vague range that you would be comfortable with rather than choosing a specific number.
Failing to provide support for claims
It is important to support any claims you make about your skills, abilities and achievements with facts and data. Doing this proves your claims are true and shows the hiring manager why the claim makes you a valuable candidate.
What to do: Use numbers, data and statistics to support claims when possible. For example, “helped my company save more than $5,000 per year and increased office productivity 10% by transitioning to an electronic filing system” is a stronger statement than “helped my company save money and increased office productivity with an electronic filing system.” The statement “consistently achieved a 98% or higher quality assurance rating” tells the hiring manager the value of your skills and shows your commitment to quality.
Not optimizing your cover letter with keywords
Keywords are another essential tool for maximizing the impact of your cover letter. Applicant tracking systems browse application documents, including cover letters, to find qualified candidates for the hiring manager’s consideration. Your cover letter is also more likely to stand out to the hiring manager if they see keywords and phrases relevant to the position and company.
What to do: Read the job description and research the industry and the company to determine the most relevant keywords to include in your cover letter. Then, connect those keywords to statements about your skills, strengths and achievements to help statements about your value stand out.
Repeating information from your resume
The information in your cover letter should support and enhance the information in your resume. It is important to make sure your cover letter provides the hiring manager with information they cannot find in your resume without contradicting the claims your resume makes.
What to do: Make the information in your cover letter and resume complementary but different by using your cover letter to expand upon the information your resume includes. For example, use your cover letter to discuss a specific achievement that highlights some of the skills you included in your resume.
Using the wrong tone or style
Using the right tone and style in your cover letter requires a careful balance of formality and flexibility. It should be casual enough to show the content is original and formal enough to remain professional. Using a tone that is too formal might disinterest the reader, but an overly casual tone may imply you aren’t taking the application process seriously.
What to do: Use your research about the company to match their tone and style. Personalize the letter by addressing the reader by their name instead of saying “To Whom It May Concern” or “Dear Hiring Manager.” Keep it professional by avoiding the use of slang, unnecessary jargon and informal or vulgar language.
Failing to include a strong call-to-action in your closing
The purpose of your cover letter is to sell your value as a candidate to the hiring manager. The details about your strengths and qualifications are your sales pitch, so your closing should include a request for the hiring manager to take action.
What to do: Write a closing statement that asks or motivates the hiring manager to take a specific action. For example, the statement “I look forward to meeting you for an interview and working together to create a new training program” tells the hiring manager you expect them to contact you for an interview and that you are ready to help the company achieve its goals.
Forgetting to proofread before submitting your cover letter
Proofreading is an essential step in any writing process. Not taking the time to proofread your cover letter before you submit it can cause you to miss small details such as errors in spelling or grammar, improper use of punctuation, inaccurate information and missing details.
What to do: Reading your cover letter out loud can help you hear the message you are sending and how it will sound to the hiring manager. Make corrections and changes as you read through the letter. Then, repeat the process until you no longer need to make changes. Consider asking a friend or relative to proofread it as well and ask for their opinion. Sometimes people who know us well can help us identify things we may have forgotten.