Your cover letter is a major component of your application. In fact, it's one of the first things most employers notice when evaluating candidates.
An effective cover letter can prove that you write well, think clearly, and possess the qualities you need to succeed in the job. A poorly written or structured cover letter, on the other hand, can hold back your application.
Most Common Cover Letter Mistakes
Here are nine of the most common cover letter mistakes — avoiding them will help you jump the first job application hurdle and get screened for an interview.
Submitting a Cover Letter with Errors
Submitting a letter with grammar and/or spelling errors is a sure way to get screened out. Use spelling and grammar checking tools to identify some issues, but never trust that they have caught all your errors. Instead, read through your document carefully. It can help to print out a copy.
Place your finger below every word, then read it out loud slowly. (This helps catch missed words or homophone mix-ups.)
It's also very helpful to have friends and advisors review your communications before sending them to potential employers.
Sending a Generic Letter
Another common cover letter pitfall is sending the same generic letter to every employer. Writing a targeted cover letter, tailored for each job, is always a better approach. Make sure you mention the specific job for which you are applying in your first sentence. Carefully consider the characteristics of the ideal candidate, as listed in the job posting, and explain how your skills, experiences, and personal qualities will enable you to excel in that particular job.
Not Getting the Facts Right
It is surprising how often job seekers address their letter to the wrong person or reference the wrong company. This is often the case when candidates are applying for many jobs at the same time. Carefully check your salutation and be certain that you list the right contact person and mention only your target company throughout your letter. (And, always triple-check that the person's name and the company name are spelled correctly. That's a particularly embarrassing error to let slip through.)
Using an Outdated Greeting
Refrain from using old-fashioned terms like "Dear Sir or Madam" if you don't have the name of a contact person. Try gender-neutral terms like "Dear Human Resources Manager" or another generic greeting. Address women as "Ms. Jones" as opposed to "Mrs. Jones" or simply start with the first paragraph of your letter and don't address it to anyone.
Not Writing a Long Enough Letter
Sending a letter that is too short can send the wrong signal to employers about your work ethic or level of interest in the job. Plus, a very brief cover letter may mean missing an opportunity to frame your background for employers and to lead them towards a positive view of your candidacy.
Or Writing an Overly Long Letter
While a very brief cover letter is a no-no, that doesn't mean you should write a multi-page letter. An overly lengthy letter can burden the reader and increase the likelihood that they will jump over your letter and move right to the resume. The same can be said for paragraphs that are too dense. Aim for 3 to 5 paragraphs no longer than six lines each.
Including Too Much Information
There is some information that you don't need to include in your cover letter. In fact, including it can hurt your chances of securing an interview. Don't give employers potentially disqualifying details. Keep the focus on your qualifications and why you are a good fit for the position at hand.
Not Providing Concrete Examples
Expressing empty opinions about your strengths will generally not convince employers about your suitability for the job. Back up your statements about your assets by referencing a job or role where you successfully employed that strength. For example, instead of simply stating "I possess strong writing skills and an outstanding work ethic." try "Strong writing skills enabled me to revise a grant proposal and secure $100,000 in additional funding from the Jones Foundation."
Not Expressing Enough Interest
Don't leave the hiring manager wondering about your level of interest. For hiring managers, it's frustrating to find the perfect candidate only to have the person drop-out in the middle of the interview process or ultimately decline a job offer. Interviewing takes time for companies, as well as for applicants. Express a genuine enthusiasm for the job so that the employer knows that you are highly motivated to pursue the job.