Top 5 cover letter mistakes

According to Pete Cashmore, CEO of Mashable, there’s nothing Millennials like more than a top 10! Actually I think we all love a list – check the current popularity of Buzzfeed….a guilty pleasure I will admit to. What has that got to do with this blog, I hear you ask? Well, it’s been a while since we’ve looked at cover letters, so I’ve taken the path of least resistance and combined a perennial favourite – cover letters – with a Top 5.

A good cover letter is your passport to the next round of the recruitment process.  A bad cover letter is a one-way ticket to the recycle bin.  You might be tempted to skip over this part of the application in the hope your CV will do the talking for you. Big mistake. Spend time and energy getting it right and you’ll soon convert applications to interviews. As long as you avoid these:

1. Me, Me, Me – It’s all about me

If your cover letter sounds self-absorbed, self-centred or self-obsessed then stop, re-think and re-draft. To paraphrase JFK, “ask not what the employer can do for you, but want you can do for the employer“. The company has a need and so do you. But when it comes to applications and interviews, their need to find the best candidate trumps your need to get a job.  At no point are they thinking of offering you an opportunity/leg up/chance of a lifetime “just because”. Employers are not benevolent people (generally!), nor are they charities.  

You don’t want yourself ridiculed online by sending one of these: Awful Cover letter to JP Morgan Becomes Laughing Stock of Wall Street.

2. Writing a biography

Substance is good, but try to remember employers are time-poor (excuse the cliché) and may have hundreds of applications to scan. And I do mean scan. You’ll have to work hard to get their attention, so lengthy narrative is counter productive. It doesn’t matter how interesting you are, nobody wants to read pages – or even paragraphs – detailing your life story. Use your cover letter as a vehicle to show the very best side of you, not ‘warts and all’. Be selective and savvy. Put yourself in the employer’s shoes – what can you say to spark their interest? You have the time it takes to read  three or four paragraphs to make and build your case – don’t waste time and space with irrelevant details.

3. Using tortured language

This tends to happen when students get trigger happy with Shift+F7, and find all sorts of exciting new words to replace the perfectly good one they started with. I think any thesaurus – on or offline  – should come with a severe health warning: use with caution. There’s nothing more painful than reading an overly convoluted sentence, devoid of all meaning. Stick to clear, plain English and leave the flowery, verbose language to the QCs! If you want to play safe, I would suggest writing a professional, business-style letter.  However, in creative fields there’s scope to use a more conversational style and show your facility with language.

4. Overdoing the keywords

Try to ‘speak’ the language of the company or sector – don’t say firm when you mean company, or company when you mean organisation. Show that you are familiar with the organisational culture and would be comfortable working there. But – and this is a big but – don’t pepper your cover letter with buzzwords or sector jargon. This doesn’t show any depth or understanding beyond the ability to read and regurgitate.  A smart applicant will research the company (thoroughly) and use the information to make intelligent connections. 

5. Blending in

Your cover letter should shout, not whisper. Avoid bland, vanilla statements proclaiming your status as a “hard working, results-focussed, team player with excellent communication skills“. Yawn.  This betrays a lack of imagination and worst case can make you seem pretty lazy. Think relevant, specific and unique.  Consider the employer perspective: if you can’t be bothered to invest time and energy crafting an individual, personalised cover letter then what does this say about your overall motivation? Don’t forget to mention other company employees you’ve met at careers fairs or networking events, but always add context: ” I met Sanjar Gopta at a campus event last week and he mentioned that X is looking to develop its CSR strategy. As evidenced in my CV, I have been active in the charitable sector and feel I can really make a contribution here….” This approach can help you stand out for all the right reasons.

I don’t think this is an exhaustive list by any means, but I’ve tried to avoid some of the more obvious mistakes.  I’m hoping by now most of you will know to proof-read, spell-check and find a named contact. If not, then consider yourself told! There’s no magic formula to writing good cover letters – you’ll need to adapt and amend to suit employer tastes. Don’t be tempted to take a shortcut….

5 thoughts on “Top 5 cover letter mistakes

    • Thanks for your feedback Steven. I think we’ve all struggled with cover letters over time – I know I have!

  1. Pingback: Top 5 cover letter mistakes | Bournemouth University Placements & Careers Service Employability Blog

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