Even if you’re one of those lucky souls who enjoys the job searching process, writing cover letters probably isn’t your favorite. For starters, there’s always the nagging sense that many hiring managers don’t even read them … but submit your application without one, and you might as well send your resume directly to the recycle bin.
Given that you have to write them, the challenge is to write them well. Avoid these cover letter mistakes, and you’ll be headed in the right direction.
1. Too Much Personality
Recruiters spend an average of six seconds reviewing each resume. Hiring managers are similarly short on time. It makes sense that you might go a little too far to grab their attention, especially in the cover letter. Be careful.
At The Muse, Sara McCord writes:
Clearly, you’d never talk down to the hiring manager on purpose. But sometimes, in an effort to lighten the tone, applicants end up doing that by accident.
One of the reasons, “I hate writing cover letters and you hate reading them…” doesn’t land is that you’re making an assumption.
It’s easy to jump from personable to snarky and not even realize you’ve made the leap. The solution? Put yourself in their shoes, but focus on the problem they’re trying to solve. Hopefully, it’s not that they hate their job — and if it is, there’s no way your cover letter can solve it.
Instead, think about what they’re hoping this new hire will do for the company … and be as specific as possible about how you’re the one to do it.
2. Not Enough Personality
On the flipside, it’s easy to psych yourself out during this process. One of the worst cover letter mistakes you can make is to make yours so dry, it never gets the hiring manager’s attention at all.
Cover letters are tricky because we’re not used to writing letters, period. Sometimes, job seekers compensate by throwing in as many industry buzzwords and as much canned language as they possibly can.
It might help to remember that you’re trying to tell a story.
3. No Keywords – or the Wrong Ones
Keywords are important, especially if you’re submitting your resume through a job site or corporate portal. Make sure your resume and cover letter list the right ones by combing through the job description and including keywords related to your skills, education, job duties, or experience. For example, you might think it silly to specify that you know Microsoft Office, but if that ad for an administrative assistant includes that requirement, put it in your application materials.
Remember that you’re trying to impress both the humans and the robots at this stage of the process. Fail to use the right keywords, and you’ll get stuck in the application tracking system and never make it to a person’s desk.
4. Skills Mismatch
And speaking of keywords, making sure you have the right ones will help you avoid another cover letter pitfall: emphasizing the wrong skills.
If you’re like most professionals, your career path has zigged and zagged a few times. That can be an advantage, if you emphasize how your experience has prepared to you for success in the role. But you want to make sure you’re calling out the right aspects in the cover letter, not confusing the issue.
For example, and I swear this is true, I once received a cover letter for an editorial role that included a lengthy description of the candidate’s experience cleaning and feeding macaque monkeys. My attention was hooked, but alas, the tie-in to the job description never materialized.
5. You Hate Writing Cover Letters … and It Shows
Here’s the best reason to focus on the positive aspects on the cover letter writing experience: if you really loathe the process, it’ll show. Your letter will be stiff, perfunctory, disengaged … and therefore won’t engage the attention of the person reading it.
What to Do Instead:
You can’t make yourself love this part of job searching, but you can make it less of an ordeal. The key is to remind yourself why you’re writing this cover letter in the first place: to get the hiring manager’s attention and show why you’re the best choice.
How do you do that? Find the hiring manager’s biggest problem, and show how you can solve it. This cover letter formula will help you get started.
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