Many job seekers spend a considerable amount of time perfecting their resume to best reflect their experience and show off their accomplishments. Yet too often, job seekers neglect a key element in the job application process: the cover letter. Think cover letters are irrelevant today? Think again. Cover letters can be the one element that gets the attention of a recruiter or hiring manager and compels them to review your resume.
Bottom line: make your cover letters amazing by avoiding the following mistakes:
1. No cover letter – Don’t send your resume without a cover letter. In the era of digital communications, cover letters can take the form of a document, an email, or an online application form. Whatever the media, a cover letter is like a quick and to-the-point sales pitch about you. It’s your chance to show some personality, express your interest in a specific company, and increase your chances of getting noticed by a potential employer.
2. Impersonal greeting – Don’t begin a cover letter with a “Hello” or “Dear Sir/Madam.” That’s like writing a letter that is addressed to nobody in particular. Personalizing the greeting increases your chances of getting the reader’s attention. Address the hiring manager or recruiter by his/her name (if you don’t know it, research it). The formal and traditional greeting is a “Dear Mr.” or “Ms.” followed by the person’s last name (surname), e.g., “Dear Mr. Smith.” If you can’t determine the person’s gender, use their full name without a title prefix, e.g., “Dear Alex Smith.” Finally, if you can’t find the person’s name, use a gender-neutral title such as “Dear Hiring Manager” or “Dear Vice President of Marketing.”
3. Generic cover letter – Don’t send the same generic cover letter to every employer. Generic cover letters are very obvious and suggest you don’t know anything about the company or position for which you are applying. Create or follow a template cover letter that you can customize for each employer. Pick out two or three aspects of the job description and describe why you are a good fit. Additionally, talk about the hiring company and why you would like to work there in particular. Specific cover letters convey that you’ve taken the time to research the company and that you’re genuinely interested in joining.
4. Lengthy cover letter – Don’t write a lengthy cover letter because recruiters and hiring managers won’t read it. They will likely skim the letter or avoid it altogether when they notice all that text. As a general rule, a good cover letter length is two to three short paragraphs. Focus on high-impact details that depict how your skills and experience are a good fit for the role and the company.
5. Summary of resume — Earth to all jobseekers: the cover letter is not supposed to be a paragraph summary of your resume. The cover letter should be a compelling “invitation” for the hiring manager or recruiter to learn more about you. Certainly, mention accomplishments that are relevant to the targeted job. But in general, omit the resume details from the cover letter. Focus instead on your skills and experience, and how you will benefit the company.
6. It’s all about you – Don’t talk only about yourself. While it’s important to show off all of your awesome skills and experience, the cover letter should equally be about you and the employer. Remember the points above about customizing with details about the job and the company. Show how you can benefit the company if they hire you.
7. Getting too personal — Don’t include really personal details about your life situation. This is not the place for information about divorce, childhood, being misunderstood, feeling desperate, how your current employer mistreats you, etc. Keep the cover letter upbeat and professional.
8. Missing contact information – Don’t omit your contact information, e.g., phone number and email address, from the cover letter. Resumes and cover letters can easily become separated, so make sure to include your contact information on both documents. You want to be easy to contact should the employer be interested.
9. Grammatical errors – Don’t submit a cover letter with typos or grammatical errors. This will leave a negative impression. Spell-check and proofread your cover letter again and again. Ask two or three additional people to proofread for you.
10. Failure to follow directions – If the employer has asked that you address a certain question in your cover letter or send it in a particular format, make sure you follow these directions. Employers often base their decisions on information they ask you to include and sometimes include application instructions—such as including the cover letter in the body of the email—as a way to test how well candidates can follow directions. If you can’t follow their instructions, it’s an easy way to eliminate you from consideration.
Bonus: Missing hyperlinks – Don’t make references to online work, then omit the hyperlinks. We live in a digital world, y’all! If you refer to your guest post on Mashable or your first-place win at the hackathon, include a referring link in your cover letter. You’ll save the reader from having to Google the information, and it’s an impressive display of proof!
Cover letters are a way to introduce yourself to an employer and show how you are the best candidate, so use it to your advantage! It’s worth it to spend the extra time creating a great cover letter if it helps you land the job!
It may seem like a simple enough matter, but addressing your cover letter to a specific individual can keep both the letter and your resume from ending up in the office recycling bin. Addressing an actual person is more likely to get your resume the attention it deserves, whereas a one-size-fits-all mentality will probably get you nowhere. If you don’t know which department has the vacant position, start by applying to the company’s human resources department.
Name of Interviewer
Address your cover letter to the human resources manager or another HR professional in the department. You may be able to get this information by visiting the company’s website. You can also contact the company directly and request the name of the human resources person conducting the interviews for that particular position. Even if you are called back later for an interview with another department manager, interviewing first with the company’s HR recruiter can get you in the door. Many companies count on their HR professionals to make hiring recommendations.
The salutation follows the employer contact information in the cover letter header. Skip three lines between the company’s contact information and the salutation. Include the name and title of the person to whom you are addressing the letter. Follow with “Human Resources Department” in the next line and then the company’s full address. In the salutation, use "Dear" followed by the appropriate title and the person’s last name. Avoid assuming a person’s gender. If you are uncertain about the addressee’s gender, use both the first and last name after the word "Dear" and omit the title. A cover letter is a form of business letter; therefore, use a colon after the salutation. Check to see that you have spelled the person’s name correctly.
Sending a personalized cover letter is more likely to get the HR manager’s attention. However, if a company doesn’t list a contact person in the job posting and you are unable to get the name of the person hiring for that job, use a general salutation and address the cover letter “Dear Hiring Manager” or “Dear Employer." You may want to include the word “for” and then identify the position for which you are applying. Another option when you don’t have a name is to exclude the salutation and start your cover letter with the first paragraph, although this may convey a lack of initiative. Making the effort to get the name of a contact person shows that you are motivated and resourceful.
Following the Salutation
Once you get past the salutation to writing the cover letter, briefly summarize your work experience and career accomplishments. Because HR recruiters generally read a cover letter in less than one minute, you can use bulleted points to make your letter easier to read. Otherwise, limit the body of the letter to three or four paragraphs. The content of the letter should provide two or three examples of your professional accomplishments that pertain to the position, listing your most notable achievements first. Tailor any information you provide to match the needs of the company to which you are applying. Use the job posting as a guide.
About the Author
Amber Keefer has more than 25 years of experience working in the fields of human services and health care administration. Writing professionally since 1997, she has written articles covering business and finance, health, fitness, parenting and senior living issues for both print and online publications. Keefer holds a B.A. from Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania and an M.B.A. in health care management from Baker College.
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