When submitting a job application, your resume can only go so far. Resumes tell prospective employers about your experience and education, but they’re essentially fact sheets. A cover letter gives applicants the opportunity to share more detailed information on why they’d be a good fit for a particular role at a specific company.
We’ll outline some common cover letter mistakes to avoid and share tips and best practices for cover letters that show you in the best possible light.
Cover letter mistakes to avoid
A cover letter can show a hiring manager why you’re the best fit for a position, so getting it right is worth your time and effort. However, crafting an effective cover letter can be challenging. You must showcase your skills without appearing self-important or succumbing to cliches.
Here are six cover letter mistakes to avoid at all costs.
1. Highlighting where you lack specific skills
It’s easy to feel vulnerable when applying for a job, especially if you have limited work experience or few required skills. However, starting a cover letter by underselling yourself or drawing attention to the skills or knowledge you lack is never advisable.
Author and career development professional Lavie Margolin says cover letters aren’t the place to list your weaknesses. “I have seen one too many cover letters with the following phrase: ‘Although I do not yet have,’” Margolin noted. “If you do not have something, why are you emphasizing it?”
Instead, Margolin says job seekers should focus on existing in-demand career skills, experiences and talents that will interest the potential employer.
“If you are looking for a job, then you are in the sales business. What you write in your cover letter should most effectively sell the skills, experience and abilities that you do have, as opposed to emphasizing those things that are lacking,” Margolin advised. “Emphasizing a weakness on your cover letter may be costing you the job.”
2. Not proofreading for typos and cliches
Sometimes, job seekers get so caught up in finding the best way to express their ideas that they forget to pay close attention to their cover letter’s details. Typos, using the wrong company information and cliches are common mistakes to look for in your proofreading efforts.
- Look for cover letter typos. According to Joe Weinlick, COO of Catalyst Experiential, cover letter typos are an egregious yet common mistake. Rigorously proofreading your cover letter will allow your content to shine. “Spell-check is your friend. Use it, but don’t rely on it,” Weinlick advised. “Print out your cover letter, read it from start to finish and make sure there aren’t any typos before sending it out. Your cover letter is the first impression you make on a hiring manager – make sure it’s a good one.”
- Ensure you use the correct company information. You may be tempted to reuse parts of your cover letter when applying for similar positions with different companies. However, failing to update the company information for each letter is an unforgivable offense. Double-check that you have the correct details for the company, including the specific position for which you are applying and the name of the hiring manager, if possible.
- Watch for cliches and buzzwords. When proofreading your cover letter, look for and eliminate cliches and overused buzzwords. Instead of using vague words to describe your work ethic or experience (“I’m a motivated self-starter”), provide specific examples that demonstrate the qualities you’d like to highlight. “Don’t use buzzwords,” warned Bob Kovalsky, vice president of Volt Workforce Solutions. “Including descriptors such as ‘detail-oriented,’ ‘hardworking,’ ‘team player’ and ‘proactive’ doesn’t tell HR managers anything about your experience.”
Watch for cliches and worthless words in your LinkedIn profile. Overused buzzwords won’t convey your unique qualifications and personality.
3. Remaining stuck in the past
Maybe you were let go from your last job, or maybe you’re looking for new opportunities. Regardless of the reason for your job search, don’t spend your cover letter’s limited space focusing on your past.
“The worst thing a potential employee can do [in a cover letter] is to explain why they left their current or former position,” shared Kim Kaupe, co-founder of Bright Ideas Only. “It’s like starting out a first date by talking about your ex! I don’t want to hear about your past; I want to hear about your now and future and how you are going to become an asset to my company.”
Steering clear of the past is especially important if you had a contentious relationship with an employer. “Saying that you’re looking for a new opportunity because your previous employer was unfair or you had an incompetent boss will only make you look bad,” warned Tracy Russell, a talent acquisition coordinator at Intuit. “Oftentimes, if this type of negative information is in the cover letter, recruiters won’t even look at the resume.”
4. Talking about money too soon
There’s a time and place to discuss salary during the hiring process, but your cover letter isn’t it. Lisa Benson, president and CEO of Mary Kraft HR, advises against providing any unsolicited salary information in the cover letter “unless [you] are specifically asked to do so, particularly if there is a disparity between what is advertised or indicated in the ad [you] are responding to. No prospective employer wants to hire someone who is only about the money.”
5. Making it all about you
Another common mistake applicants make is using their cover letter to boast about their talents without acknowledging how they will use them to benefit a prospective employer.
“The worst thing a candidate can do in their cover letter is make it all about themselves and what they’re looking for,” said Ian Yates, senior director of corporate accounts at Thermo Fisher Scientific. “The best thing to do is focus on why they’ll be a great fit, how they’ll make a contribution, and what they’ve done, or will do, to support [the organization].”
“It is a fine line between confident and arrogant,” added Sue Hardek, managing director at ZRG Partners. Hardek noted that candidates should avoid overselling themselves and being boastful about accomplishments and strengths.
Job candidates should also steer clear of oversharing personal history or exaggerating or lying on their resume or cover letter.
6. Letting AI do the heavy lifting
Many generative AI companies boast that their AI tools can save time by drafting perfect cover letters. While AI is transforming business, including the job search process, you must be especially careful when using it for your cover letter.
Opinions about using AI in the workplace are mixed. You don’t want to risk coming across a hiring manager who suspects an AI-generated cover letter and immediately tosses your application. Worse, AI might utilize copied text or provide other job seekers with the same phrasing, leading hiring managers to suspect you of plagiarism.
AI can be a good place to start, but you should never rely on it for a final product. AI can help you generate ideas, synthesize your experience with the history and needs of the company, or assist with general editing. But when it comes to the final product, you want your voice to shine through, so ensure the writing is your own – even if you’ve had some help.
What is a cover letter?
A cover letter is a company’s first introduction to who you are as a person. Your resume will explain your previous work experience and skills, but your cover letter is an opportunity to show recruiters your personal side. It’s also a chance to demonstrate why you stand out from the crowd. Employers get many applications, many of which display similar backgrounds and experience. A cover letter helps narrow down their talent pool.
Cover letters are typically written in a three-paragraph format and should be no more than 300 words.
The benefits of a cover letter
Some job listings require the candidate to submit a cover letter, while others make it optional. However, applicants should always take the time to write a cover letter to express their interest in the company and flesh out their professional experience.
A cover letter brings the following advantages:
1. Cover letters personalize your application.
Even great resumes don’t allow applicants to show off their writing skills. A cover letter can help candidates sell themselves by letting their personalities shine. Recruiters get a sense of who the candidate is beyond their work experience and education. Cover letters also allow candidates to discuss parts of their background that may not be explicitly stated on a resume but are relevant to the job they’re applying for.
2. Cover letters showcase your interest in the position and company.
Many candidates blindly shoot off job applications, believing in quantity over quality. To be as efficient as possible, they’ll either send a generic cover letter or fail to send one. However, this is a missed opportunity.
A cover letter with specific details about why you’d be a great fit for the company shows you’ve done your research and are interested in working for that organization. Employers will notice candidates who researched the business and its company culture. These candidates show they want to be there specifically – they don’t just want a job.
3. Cover letters demonstrate your hard work.
Taking the time to draft a well-researched cover letter shows employers you’re self-motivated and passionate about the position. The skills of researching, writing and submitting clean copy before the deadline demonstrate your ability to work and follow directions.
In addition to crafting an excellent cover letter, job candidates should prepare for the interview process and send a thank-you letter to follow up.
How to write a good cover letter
Hiring managers may receive hundreds of cover letters and resumes for a single job post. Potential employees have only a few seconds to make a good first impression, and a boring cover letter could land them straight in the “no” pile.
Follow these eight tips from hiring experts to write a cover letter that will land you an interview:
1. Be yourself in your cover letter.
You don’t want to sound like everyone else. Give hiring managers a sense of your personality traits and how you might fit into the company.
“One key thing we look for is whether they’ve incorporated aspects of their personality into examples of how they would succeed in this position,” shared Margaret Freel, digital marketing specialist at No Dirty Earth and a former corporate recruiter.
Mentioning experiences that qualify you for a particular position is one way to personalize your letter. “Candidates should be concise and self-aware enough to know how their track record of results makes them unique and [be] able to relate that back to the position,” Freel advised.
2. Do your research and customize your cover letter.
Like your resume, your cover letter should be tailored to each position and company. Instead of a template-style cover letter, use industry-specific language referencing points from the job description and company website.
In your research, determine the hiring manager’s name, if possible. Addressing the hiring manager sets you apart. If you’re unsure who the hiring manager is, use a generic salutation – but only as a last resort.
“Address the cover letter to a specific person within the company, not the general – and much-hated – ‘dear sir or madam,’” advised Alina Cincan, managing director and co-founder of Inbox Translation. “This shows the candidate has done some research and is truly interested in working with that company, not just any company.”
Christa Shapiro, a director at the staffing firm Yoh, said one thing that always draws attention to a cover letter is mentioning why you want to be a part of a particular organization. Show a passion for the organization and industry. Employers don’t want to hire someone who won’t care about their work.
Getting a feel for the company will also prepare you for the types of interview questions the hiring manager will likely ask.
3. Be creative in your cover letter.
Hiring managers won’t finish reading your cover letter if they’re bored after the first line. A strong intro should find a unique way to highlight experiences or something specific from the job posting.
Grabbing their attention is key; hiring managers review tons of cover letters for each position. Find a creative way to stand out so the hiring manager notices you and moves on to your resume.
A creative cover letter moves beyond stiff cover letter templates and stock phrases. A great way to make your cover letter pop is to include a brief story that connects you to the company through its mission or product. “This exercise will undoubtedly separate you from the majority of other candidates,” advised Kenneth Johnson, founder and president of East Coast Executives.
4. Mention referrals in your cover letter.
If you were introduced or connected to a hiring manager via an employee referral or mutual industry contact, include that person’s name in your cover letter (with their permission).
“Candidates can include referrals in a cover letter to make them stand out,” said Bill Peppler, COO of staffing firm Kavaliro. “They should always gain permission for this before they name-drop, but the cover letter gives a great opportunity to include the name of someone that can vouch for your skills.”
5. Address potential resume concerns in your cover letter.
A well-crafted cover letter does more than explain why you’re the right person for the job. It also gives you a chance to explain items on your resume that might otherwise be considered red flags.
“Address any issues that may give a hiring manager pause, such as gaps in employment,” advised Diane Domeyer Kock, senior vice president and managing director at Robert Half.
Unfortunately, studies have shown that an unemployment bias exists, as some companies are reluctant to hire out-of-work people. However, the cover letter allows you to reclaim the narrative and demonstrate that you are an ideal candidate despite your employment history.
6. Don’t just repeat your resume in your cover letter.
While your cover letter should reference material from your resume, it shouldn’t simply be a word-for-word repeat. According to Jane Trnka, a career coach with Rady School of Management at UC San Diego, job candidates can use their cover letter to expand where necessary and discuss their listed experiences from a different angle.
“Craft the letter to acknowledge the requirements of the role and culture of the organization while highlighting the skills and experiences that align with the job description,” Trnka advised.
A cover letter is a great place to discuss any volunteer work or side projects that may not be on your resume but are relevant to the job you’re applying for.
7. Proofread and fact-check your resume.
As mentioned earlier, it’s imperative to check and double-check your cover letter for any grammatical or factual errors. Even the smallest mistake can make a bad impression on the person reading your letter.
“If there are errors of any kind, it’s a huge red flag,” warned Guryan Tighe, leadership coach and founder of Fourage. “This is your one opportunity to impress [the hiring manager] and show who you are. If there are typos, misspellings or formatting issues, it’s generally an automatic out.”
8. Keep your cover letter brief.
Hiring managers are busy and usually have many applications to review. Keeping your cover letter concise and to the point will improve the chances of it being read. It also makes the hiring manager’s job easier – which is always a good thing.
“The best cover letters can [be] concise, friendly and transparent,” explained Chris Wood, managing partner of Paige Technologies. “The best cover letters get right to the heart of why we are a great fit for them and why they are the best fit for us.”