Few aspects of the job application process are as awkward as writing a cover letter. You have to strike the perfect balance of talking yourself up while not seeming egotistical, all while capturing your wide breadth of talents and skills in an engaging, eloquent way. And even if you put in the effort, it's still scarily easy to make cover letter mistakes that might deter potential employers from hiring you.
According to a recent Jobvite survey, only 26 percent of recruiters actually consider cover letters important, but you don’t want to run the risk of applying without one. While a resume can show off your experience and skillset, a cover letter can be a huge opportunity to sell yourself as an individual, and stand apart from potential competition, Becky Honeyman, managing partner at marketing firm SourceCode Communications, tells Mic. But of course, you want to stand out because of your assets, not because of the errors riddling your cover letter. After all, no one wants to risk losing their dream job to another candidate due to small mistakes that easily could've been avoided.
Here, career experts break down the most common cover letter mistakes that can cost applicants jobs — and explain how to avoid making them yourself.
Not tailoring the letter
Every employer wants to feel confident that candidates actually read the job description and have a genuine understanding of the responsibilities, so take the time to adapt your cover letter accordingly. “While having a template or keeping a couple of sentences is acceptable, employees really need to go in and tailor each document in order to stand out,” Kat Cohen, CEO and founder of IvyWise and author of The Truth About Getting In, tells Mic.
A great way to generate background knowledge about a company is to visit its website and social media platforms, as well as read any recent news and press placements about it. Incorporating this info into your cover letter will show that you've done your homework and are interested in the specific company, not just any job. “While this may seem tedious, it will actually save you time at the end of the day," says Cohen, because a personalized letter will likely increase the amount of responses and interview offers you receive.
Not proofreading it
While one tiny typo might not cost you the job, there's no question that having several errors — or one big one— in your cover letter will turn a hiring manager off completely. "Anyone who gets our company name wrong, or my name wrong, is an immediate no-go,” says Jaclyn Johnson, CEO and founder of career site Create & Cultivate and author of WorkParty. Jamie Kezner, senior manager of student programs recruiting at Amazon, echoes this, explaining that “not changing the company's name on a cover letter that they have used before […] sends a sign that you aren’t serious about the opportunity."
Once you’ve written your cover letter, step away from it for a day so you can look at it with a fresh pair of eyes. Additionally, get a friend or family member to give it a once-over, and before submitting, double-check all spellings and titles.
Not sending it to the right person
For the love of all that is holy, do not address a cover letter as "To Whom It May Concern." If you don't know who to address it to, try to find the contact information for the company's human resources department and ask a representative for the info. For all you know, HR might even appreciate that level of meticulousness, and relay your information to the hiring manager.
If you can't find a contact from HR or the company's site requires you to paste your cover letter into a field where no people are listed, writing "Dear Hiring Manager" or simply "Hello" should suffice.
Not showing your personality
Hiring managers want to understand you on a holistic level, and that means getting a sense of who you are and what you can do outside of all the hard data and stats on your resume. “The cover letter allows you to show more then what’s in your work history: Why are you a fit for my company? Do your values align with mine?" Johnson says. The best cover letters he's received are more than one sheets — they're sometimes stylized presentations that show who the candidate is an individual.
Good cover letters should display your soft skills, the personal characteristics and cognitive skills that can help a person thrive in a variety of roles and industries, according to a recent LinkedIn report. A 2016 Wall Street Journal survey of around 900 executives found that 92 percent considered soft skills equally or more important than technical competencies, so when writing your resume, tell the reader what about your personality and talents make you the best person for the job, whether that's your creativity, your time management, or your cohesion in a group.
"Qualities that indicate how an employee works and contributes to a team are highly valuable,” says Cohen. In addition to noting those skills in your letter, "reference specific times when these abilities led to beneficial outcomes and incorporate key words that relate back to the areas in which you excel,” she adds.
Not keeping it real
If you’re looking to demonstrate your ability to lead or think creatively, for instance, it's totally fine to use fancier terms like “restructured,” “created” or “launched” instead of plainer words to make your point. But while it’s one thing to demonstrate a working knowledge of industry jargon or use strong terminology, it's another to throw in buzzwords just because you think they'll make you look good.
Spoiler alert: They won't. According to a 2019 workplace study by Addison Group, 47 percent of hiring managers can’t stand the word “expert,” 40 percent hate “synergistic,” and 31 percent can’t stand “innovative.” Of course, this isn't an absolute rule, and you should feel comfortable using those terms if they truly feel right for your cover letter. Just make sure than if you do incorporate buzzwords like those, you're using them sparingly and only in contexts where they directly apply to your situation. Otherwise, keep the language professional but natural.
Of course, mistakes happen even when you work hard to avoid them, and no job is guaranteed. However, if you take the time to give your letter a thorough edit and ensure that your passion for the job comes through, your application will absolutely stand out from the crowd.