When writing a cover letter, your main aim is making the recipient think you are the very best candidate for the job, or at least worthy of an interview where you can prove you are.
When drafting your cover letter from scratch, make sure to avoid these common mistakes so that your skills and experience shine through, unhindered by simple errors.
1) Using a non-specific form of address
Make every effort to find out the name of the specific person that your cover letter should be addressed to. Don’t take the easy way out and use a non-specific form such as “To whom it may concern” or “Dear Sir or Madam”. This only demonstrates that you were too lazy to find out the name of the hiring manager.
Make use of the job posting first and try to track down the poster. Look at the company website second, as many larger companies have directory sections with names, titles and contact information.
If all else fails you can either contact the HR directly an ask about the title of a department head you are trying to communicate with, or you can always try searching them out on a professional network liked LinkedIn as well.
2) Repeating what’s on your resume
Your cover letter should never be a repeat of the information your resume contains. Think about that, what would be the point of sending the same document twice to the same person?
You can highlight specific points from your resume on your cover letter if they are relevant to the position you are applying for, but anything that is not specifically relevant to the position should not be mentioned in your cover letter.
Think of your cover letter as an appetizer or starter dish, something to wet the appetite of the reader before delivering the goods in the main course, which would be the resume itself.
3) Using formulaic language
Your cover letter should always be tailored to the job you’re applying for—don not assume that one letter will suffice for all jobs you apply for, regardless of how similar they might be.
It is much more efficient to take the time to be more precise than just blasting out generic applications left and right.
Read the job ad closely, find out what specifically the employer wants, then tell them exactly what skills and experience you have that can supply it. Find a hole they are seeking to fill and explain how you can do it.
Avoid using clichés as much as possible—your letter should be as brief as you can make it, and clichés only waste space without telling an employer anything useful about you.
If you factor the dozens, or perhaps hundreds, of cover letters that HR professionals read in a week, you can imagine cliches and “fluffer” material gets real old, real quick. Just like when writing your career objective, you want to be succinct and to the point. The more direct the better.
4) Using weak or inactive language
Phrases such as “I believe” and “I feel” are weak and lack purpose—replace them with “I am positive” and “I am certain”. When you use qualifiers, make them strong ones.
Resumes are absolute documents and need to clearly articulate information. No company is going to invest potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars over a career on someone who “may or may not” be right for the job.
Similarly, use active language rather than passive language. Instead of using a phrase such as “It was with great interest that I read your advertisement” say “I read your advertisement with great interest”.
The first sentence makes the advertisement the object; the second sentence makes you the object. Active language gives your letter a more dynamic tone, and it makes your writing—and therefore you—sound more interesting.
5) Failing to check for errors
Your cover letter demonstrates your ability to communicate using written language—allowing errors in grammar, spelling or punctuation to creep in demonstrates carelessness and inattention to detail.
Print your letter, proof-read it, and ask a friend to check as well. This tip may sound cliche but like buckling your seatbelt, it is one of those common sense things that is so simple that it is often overlooked, to devastating effect.
Any one of these three no-no’s could weigh down your cover letter and send a confusing — and sometimes amusing — message to the employer who’s reading it. So let’s go over each of these common but easy-to-fix mistakes.
6) Run-On Sentences
A run-on sentence does what its name implies — it runs on and on sort of like a river rambling aimlessly through the country side and they make a cover letter hard to read.
So, just as a traveler on a long, twisted river may lose his sense of direction, so the reader of a run-on sentence can get confused and frustrated. You don’t want to do that to your next boss (the reader of your cover letter), do you?
Hint: You probably have a run-on sentence if one of the following is true:
- You have to come up for air before reaching the end.
- You have to read the sentence more than once to follow its train of thought.
Both are true for this example:
At Westinghouse, I was assigned, and completed, a wide variety of tasks, usually on a limited budget I might add, and I have had significant success at both coming in on- or under-budget and completing the assignments on schedule, much to the satisfaction of my employer.
Phew! That long-winded sentence is a lot to chew on! It should be broken into at least three parts, making it much easier for the reader to swallow. See how simple it is to understand the following revised version?
At Westinghouse, I completed a wide variety of tasks. Despite having limited budgets, I had significant success at coming in on- or under-budget. I even finished the assignments on schedule, much to the satisfaction of my employer.
After writing your next cover letter, go over it with a fine-tooth comb to make sure you haven’t written any run-on sentences. Avoiding this one mistake will help keep your letter concise and easy to read.
7) Hanging by a Dangling Phrase
We’ve all said and probably written them — I’m talking about those tricky little buggers: dangling phrases. What is a dangling phrase? When a phrase at the beginning of a sentence does not agree with the subject of the sentence, the phrase is called a dangling phrase.
Dangling phrases are considered poor sentence structure, which means you don’t want them in your cover letter.
If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, check out the following examples of sentences with and without danglers.
Dangling: After staying up all night, the bank statement was impossible to reconcile. (Did the bank statement stay up all night?)
Correct: After staying up all night, I found it impossible to reconcile the bank statement.
Dangling: To meet the deadline, the data must be input quickly. (The data isn’t trying to meet the deadline. I am!)
Correct: To meet the deadline, I have to input the data quickly.
8) Misplaced Modifiers
A misplaced modifier is a word or phrase that’s put in the wrong place within a sentence. Because it’s in the wrong place, it gives unintended meaning. In fact, it may turn a serious statement into a funny one.
Here are some misplaced modifiers to chuckle over:
- I received some helpful hints on protecting my investments from my local bank. (Hmm, I guess I can’t trust my bank anymore.)
- I think my associate dropped the letter Jim was working on in the mailbox. (Jim was in the mail box?)
Probably the only place a misplaced modifier belongs is in a joke. And since you’re serious about getting a new job, be careful not to have a misplaced modifier in your cover letter.
Copy My Resume Summary
There you have it, the top 5 most common cover letter writing mistakes and things you can do to prevent them from sabotaging your own job prospects.
If you have any questions about your cover letter please let us know in the comments below or in our forum section where HR professionals are always happy to answer questions.