Cover letter mistakes you should avoid
Nix these things and make sure your first impression isn't the equivalent of a limp handshake.
Avoid these common mistakes when writing your cover letter.
Your cover letter is like a handshake—it’s how you introduce yourself to employers when you apply for a job. Like a good handshake, you want your cover letter to be strong, succinct, and make a great first impression.
This isn’t a part of the job application process you want to skimp on, either. A cover letter allows you to go into more detail than your resume allows, explain gaps in your employment history or your need for a career change, and make a case as to why you would be a great fit for the position. And a great cover letter can open the door to scoring an interview and, ultimately, landing a job.
Make sure your first impression is a good and lasting one by avoiding these common mistakes below when writing your cover letter.
1. Overusing “I”
Your cover letter is not your autobiography. The focus should be on how you meet an employer's needs, not on your life story. Avoid the perception of being self-centered by minimizing your use of the word "I," especially at the beginning of your sentences.
2. Using a weak opening
When writing a cover letter, job seekers frequently struggle with the cover letter's opening. This difficulty often results in a feeble introduction lacking punch and failing to grab the reader's interest. Consider this example:
- Weak: Please consider me for your sales representative opening.
- Better: Your need for a top-performing sales representative is an excellent match to my three-year history as a top-ranked, multimillion-dollar producer.
3. Omitting your top selling points
A cover letter is a sales letter that sells you as a candidate. Just like your resume, it should be compelling and give the main reasons you should be called for an interview. Winning cover letter tips include emphasizing your top accomplishments or creating subheadings culled from the job posting. For example:
- Your ad specifies: Communication skills
I offer: Five years of public speaking experience and an extensive background in executive-level report.
- Your ad specifies: The need for a strong computer background
I offer: Proficiency in all MS Office applications with additional expertise in website development and design.
4. Making it too long
If your cover letter exceeds one page, you may be putting readers to sleep. A great cover letter is concise but compelling, and respects the reader's time.
5. Repeating your resume word for word
Your cover letter shouldn't regurgitate what's on your resume. Reword your cover letter statements to avoid dulling your resume's impact. Consider using the letter to tell a brief story, such as "my toughest sale" or "my biggest technical challenge."
6. Being vague
If you're replying to an advertised opening—as opposed to writing a cold cover letter—reference the specific job title in your cover letter. The person reading your letter may be reviewing hundreds of letters for dozens of different jobs. Make sure all of the content in your letter supports how you will meet the employer's specific needs.
7. Forgetting to customize
If you're applying to a number of similar positions, chances are you're tweaking one letter and using it for multiple openings. That's fine, as long as you customize each letter. Don't forget to update the company, job and contact information—if Mr. Jones is addressed as Ms. Smith, he won't be impressed.
8. Ending on a passive note
When possible, put your future in your own hands with a promise to follow up. Instead of asking readers to call you, try a statement like this: I will follow up with you in a few days to answer any preliminary questions you may have. In the meantime, you may reach me at (555) 555-5555.
9. Being rude
Your cover letter should thank the reader for his or her time and consideration.
10. Forgetting to sign the letter
It is proper business etiquette (and shows attention to detail) to sign your letter. Err on the side of formality, and if you need any help figuring out how to close your cover letter, consider these possible sign-offs.
However, if you are sending an email cover letter and resume, a signature isn't necessary.
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How Long Should a Cover Letter Be?
Cover letters are an important part of the job application process. You should almost always send a cover letter with a job application unless the hiring manager specifically asks you not to.
However, one thing that is less clear is how long your cover letter should be. If it is way too short, employers might think you do not care much about the job. If it is too long, employers might not take the time to read your letter, and will not consider you for an interview.
Read below for more advice on how long your cover letter should be, as well as additional advice on writing a strong cover letter.
Should You Send a Cover Letter?
The majority of employers require cover letters. A Saddleback College Resume Survey reports that more than half (53%) of employers responded that a cover letter is required, while nearly 30% had no preference.
Even when a cover letter isn't required, it can boost your chances of getting hired if you include a cover letter when you apply for a job.
Therefore, only leave out a cover letter when the employer specifically asks you not to send one.
How Long Should Your Cover Letter Be?
Should you keep your cover letter short or should it be a full page or longer? Your cover letter shouldn't be longer than one page. It should highlight your most relevant qualifications for the job and what you have to offer the employer.
In fact, as far as how long your cover letter should be, shorter is better.
Almost 70% of employers wanted a cover letter of less than a full page and about 25% said the shorter the better.
Here are the preferences for cover letter length from the employers who responded to the survey:
- Full page – 12.6%
- 1/2 page – 43.7%
- No preference - 19.5%
- The shorter the better - 24.1%
Cover Letter Format
Just as important as the length of your cover letter is the format.
You want to choose a font that is legible (such as Arial, Calibri, Verdana, or Times New Roman) in a readable font size (typically about 12 point).
Your margins should be about 1 inch all around, with the text aligned to the left.
You also want to leave space between paragraphs, as well as between your salutation and the text (and between your text and the signature), so that your letter is easy to read.
A good rule of thumb is that you always want a good amount of white space on the paper. This will prevent your letter from looking too cluttered and difficult to read.
There is no specific word count you should aim for when writing a cover letter (unless the employer gives you a specific word count). Instead of focusing on the number of words, focus on making your cover letter one page or less, with a readable font and font size, and enough white space between paragraphs and in the margins.
You might want to hand a printed out version of your cover letter to a friend or family member, and ask them if the letter seems too wordy, or too difficult to read.
Email Subject Line
When sending an email cover letter, it's even more important to be concise. The first paragraph is what readers pay attention to when reading an email.
The rest of the message is typically skimmed. Two paragraphs – one that serves as an introduction, and one that explains your qualification for the job – and then a closing is sufficient.
You can also make your email cover letter stand out with a clear, concise email subject line. Typically, you want to include the title of the position that you are applying for and your name. For example: Editorial Assistant - John Smith.
If possible, try to keep the meat of your subject line (specifically, the job title and your name) under about 30 characters. This is about as much as people can see on their mobile devices, which is often how people check their email.