A cover letter can demonstrate to a hiring manager why you are the best fit for a position, so it's worth your time and effort to get it just right. However, it can be challenging to craft an effective cover letter that showcases your skills without making you seem self-important or succumbing to cliches.
To help you stay clear of the most treacherous cover letter pitfalls, Business News Daily asked hiring managers and business owners for the absolute worst thing a candidate can include in his or her cover letter. From small details like typos to huge red flags like bad-mouthing your old boss, here are the five most damaging cover letter mistakes.
1. Highlighting any lack of skills
It's easy to feel vulnerable when applying for a job, especially if you know that you have limited experience with some of the skills the position requires. However, starting off a cover letter by underselling yourself or drawing attention to the skills or knowledge you are lacking is never the way to go.
"I have seen one too many cover letters with the following phrase: 'Although I do not yet have...' If you do not have something, why are you emphasizing it?" said Lavie Margolin, author, consultant and career coach.
Instead, Margolin advised job seekers to focus on writing about existing skills, experiences and talents that will be of interest to 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. Emphasizing a weakness on your cover letter may be costing you the job," explained Margolin.
2. Lack of attention to detail
Sometimes job seekers get so caught up with trying to find the best way to express their big ideas that they forget to pay close attention to the fine details. Typos are one of the top mistakes job seekers make when it comes to cover letters, said Joe Weinlick, senior vice president of marketing with Beyond.
Rigorously proofreading your cover letter will give your great content an opportunity to shine.
"Spell-check is your friend. Use it, but don't rely on it," said Weinlick. "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."
You can 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.
"Nothing will get your cover letter thrown in the recycling bin faster than giving the wrong company name," said Chaz Pitts-Kyser, founder and author of Careeranista.
According to Pitts-Kyser, checking for accuracy includes making sure you have the correct company name and address, specifying the position for which you are applying, and including the name of the hiring manager, if available.
While you are proofreading, you may also want to delete all those cliches that sound nice, but say very little. Instead of using vague words to describe your work ethic or experience, provide specific examples that demonstrate the qualities that you'd like to highlight.
"Don't use buzzwords," said Bob Kovalsky, vice president of North Highland. "Including descriptors such as 'detail-oriented,' 'hardworking,' 'team player' and 'proactive' doesn't tell HR managers anything about your experience."
3. Remaining stuck in the past
Maybe you were let go from your last job or maybe you are just looking for new opportunities. But regardless of the reason for your job search, don't spend the limited space available of your cover letter focusing on your past.
"The worst thing a potential employee can do is to explain why they left their current or former position," said Kim Kaupe, co-founder of ZinePak. "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," said Tracey Russell, talent acquisition professional for 5-Star Staffing Solutions. "Oftentimes, if this type of negative information is in the cover letter, recruiters won't even look at the resume," explained Russell.
4. Talking money too soon
There is 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 Staffing & HR Solutions, recommends that job seekers not provide any unsolicited salary information in their cover letter, "unless they are specifically asked to do so, particularly if there is a disparity between what is advertised or indicated in the ad they are responding to."
"No prospective employer wants to hire someone who is only about the money," Benson added.
5. Making it all about you
Another common mistake that applicants make is using their cover letter to boast about their talents without acknowledging how they will use these skills to benefit a perspective 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, co-founder and managing director of Fitzii. "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 partner and talent acquisition consultant at Sue Hardek & Associates.
She noted that any candidate should avoid "overselling him or herself, or being boastful about accomplishments and strengths." Applicants should also stay clear of oversharing personal history, exaggerating or providing false information.
Ultimately, the job seekers who do their homework – researching the company, learning about industry trends, and identifying specific ways they can address challenges faced by the business – have a much better shot at setting the right tone with their cover letters.
Additional reporting by Brittney Morgan. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.
By Joe Issid
Monster Contributing Writer
One of the most mundane aspects of being a recruiter involves poring over dozens of cover letters every week. Somehow, cover letters have evolved into bland summaries of professional highlights mixed in with clichéd claims of expert time-management and organizational prowess. Truth is we have all been guilty of writing yawn-inducing summaries simply because that was the standard template. In fact, I grew so weary of suffering through such tomes that I took the decision to stop mandating cover letters for all of my company's job applicants. I opted to focus more on the candidate's resume and online persona mixed in with some preliminary communications. But, after some time, I realized that something was missing; as an owner of a media company, it seemed a little unfair to bypass the exercise of allowing candidates to present themselves honestly and candidly in writing. But how could I extract the most out of this exercise while making it beneficial for both applicant and recruiter?
To thine own self be true
Honestly, I think it is time that we all stop touting our proverbial “problem-solving” and “high-level communication” skills. Offering such platitudes in a cover letter takes up valuable space and offers a potential employer very little interesting information about yourself. Allow the recruiter to determine for themselves your ability to effectively communicate or your high-energy approach to your career. You should seek to remove as much objectivity from your cover letter and simply stick to relevant details about your professional background. If you have a significant amount of experience as a technical support analyst, for example, it is safe to assume that you have refined troubleshooting skills. There is no need to embellish this detail in your cover letter.
OK, I am not suggesting that you include pictures of your cat or He-Man collection; however, divulging some relevant details about your personal background can add some texture to your cover letter. For example, I have a BA in English Literature yet I spent the first ten years of my career working as a software developer. Without a well-written explanation of this seemingly unusual career path, most recruiters would have had a hard time understanding my resume. My cover letter included the reasoning behind my decision to pursue an education in the Arts yet a career in high-tech. These reasons were as much personal as they were professional. Without a well-reasoned explanation, I am certain my career would have turned out quite differently.
We are all different
If you wrote a college admissions letters, it might be useful to dig that up. At the time, you were (hopefully) encouraged to leverage your unique background and personal interests into a compelling narrative about your future. A professional cover letter does not have to be too far removed from that ideal. If caring for your elderly grandmother played a direct role in your career in healthcare, it would be of great benefit and interest to a recruiter to know that. As much as we may not believe it sometimes, we are all different and we all have unique stories. And there is absolutely no shame in exposing that.
Don't be an infomercial
If your cover letter is littered with superlatives and unsubstantiated claims about how awesome you are, most recruiters will perceive this as a warning sign. It is crucial to tone down the rhetoric and focus on subjective details that present you in a positive, professional light. Additionally, refrain from presenting yourself as an absolute authority on a given matter. Calling yourself a "maven" or "guru" only makes a recruiter feel that you are more fluff than substance.
Have a clear narrative
All good story-tellers focus on keeping a captive audience by constantly moving the narrative forward. And writing a resume should be no different. If you are unsure of where to start, a time-tested approach is to simply tell a chronological history of your education and career thus far. While your resume should contain the factual summary of your experiences, your cover letter should be more anecdotal and informal. Like any writer, you should keep asking yourself: is this detail important to the overall story? For example, should you mention the fact that you completed a marathon last year? Of course! Any achievement that required perseverance, dedication and hard work is always relevant to a prospective employer. Just be sure that it ties in with the flow of the overall story.
In reality, many recruiters will rapidly gloss over a cover letter as it can be just too time-consuming to review them all. As such, it is best to keep your introductions on the shorter side and be sure to only include elements that are relevant to the employer. If you aren't a confident writer, feel free to solicit the help of someone you know. However, I would advise against using a writing service as they simply will not be able to provide a personal, intimate summary of you and your qualifications.