10 Cover Letter Mistakes to Avoid in 2021
Cover letters can play an important role in your job application process. Most people hate doing them and they rush through the cover letter. This is particularly true in 2021 as nearly 40% of the US has reported interest in finding a new job. This Great Resignation means that the competition is higher for a lot of jobs. And, writing a cover letter to tell your story about why you want a job can be an effective way to stand out amidst the competition. Below are the 10 worst mistakes to avoid in writing your cover letter.
But, does a cover letter matter?
A cover letter matters less than it used to for most companies. In fact, the cover letter isn't parsed by the applicant tracking system (ATS) for keywords like your resume. Instead, the value of a cover letter is still in telling your story to the people that are reviewing your application.
In some cases, the cover letter will go in a separate place in the ATS never to be opened by the recruiter (unless they really want to). In other cases, the cover letter will be opened first by the talent acquisition person to see if you are qualified for the job. This internal process is a mystery to most applicants.
If you are going to take the time to do a cover letter, it is best to make sure that you expect someone will read it at some point in the hiring process. So, here are the 10 mistakes to avoid in your next cover letter.
#1 - Focusing too much on you
You are writing the cover letter because you are applying to a specific job at a specific company. The cover letter should tell the potential employer why you want this job at this company. The cover letter should not focus on you and what you want. Instead, it should explain why you want the job and why you are a fit.
This can mean that you need to do your research to best address why you are a fit for the position. You can find some great information about the company and its culture on its careers page, a quick advanced Google search, or on professional networking sites like LinkedIn. Make sure that you go that next step to incorporate this information on your cover letter to explain why you are the right person for the job.
#2 - Too generic
A cover letter should never be written in a vacuum. A generic cover letter that is written for use as is will get general results. Most recruiters will recognize that the cover letter is generic when they skim through it. As only about 50% of cover letters are even looked at (or wanted) it does make sense that a lot of people take this strategy because they understand that the cover letter doesn't matter as much in the application process.
As the candidate, you can't know if anyone will actually read the cover letter or not. So, it is best to presume that a person will read it and to take the time to put at least minimal customization in it. Or, to at least make sure that the cover letter you are using makes sense for the job that you are applying to.
Your cover letter is expected to get more customized/specific the higher the title you are pursuing (i.e. Senior Manager, Director, VP, etc.) and the more money you want to make. You cannot continue to use the same strategies in your job search as your career progresses. People expect you to put the time in to tell your story and why it fits their needs at a certain point in your career. So, make sure that you live up to those expectations if you are going to take the time to submit a cover letter as part of your job application.
#3 - Awkward Tone for the Type of Role
A cover letter that starts too formally or too casually can kill your application. The cover letter opener and its overall tone should be consistent with the way that you would speak to a person in the interview. The cover letter is designed to get you the conversation and it needs to be consistent with your communication style.
Avoid killing your chances before the person even gets to the substance of your letter by making sure that your tone is appropriate for the position that you are applying to. In most cases, this means addressing the cover letter to a specific person if you can. If you do have a name, you should address the cover letter to that specific person. In others, you could address the letter more broadly to "Dear Hiring Committee:" or "Dear Hiring Manager-" or "Dear Recruiter:"
#4 - Regurgitating Your Resume
The person skimming your cover letter already has your cover letter and has more than likely read through it. They are reviewing your cover letter because they want to know why? Why are you applying and why are you interested in this job? You miss a huge opportunity in this case if your cover letter merely repeats your resume. Instead, connect those examples from your resume to your skills in order to tell the person skimming the cover letter why you are a good fit.
#5 - Not Following Instructions
Although a cover letter may not matter as much as it once did, there are times when it matters more than ever for some applications. In those cases, the employer will spell out specific questions to answer in the required cover letters. Or, they may view the cover letter as a written interview and want to know specific details about your experience. In other cases, you may find that the employer is requesting applications to be sent to a specific person (in addition to or instead of applying online).
There are lots of reasons and ways that an employer can outline specific requirements for their cover letters or applications. Make sure that you are following these directions explicitly. And, if you are asked to answer a specific question, make sure that your cover letter directly answers those questions fully. In some cases, the employer will not even look at your resume until AFTER they have read these detailed, specific questions.
#6 - Typos
This should go without saying, but there are countless times when people still submit cover letters without turning on their spell check or grammar check. These are distracting errors. Worse, they show that you aren't the skills that you say you are (like detailed, professional, or analytical) because you haven't taken the time to check your own work before hitting submit.
To make sure your cover letter is free of errors, make sure you turn on the spelling and grammar checking tools while building them. Then, read your cover letter out loud to make sure that it actually reads properly. You could also opt to use some of the online tools that go beyond your typical spelling/grammar checks (i.e. Grammarly, Hemingway, etc.). However you proceed, make sure that you are taking the time to check for those costly typos or grammatical errors.
#7 - Telling Your Life Story
A cover letter is a summary of your story so that the person wants to schedule an interview with you. It is not supposed to be your full life story or a thesis about why you are the best candidate for the job. Too much content in your cover letter can be worse than no cover letter at all in many cases.
Keep your cover letter to 1 page. It should be more than a paragraph in most cases, but it should almost never be more than 1 page. The only exception to this rule is a letter of interest - not a cover letter. The big difference is that a letter of interest is to start a conversation when a specific job is not open. But, a cover letter is written when you are applying for a specific job at a specific company. So, there really isn't a reason to go beyond the bounds of a single page.
#8 - Going off Message
The cover letter should be consistent with your professional brand. If your message is that you are detailed and care about people. Then, you need to show people those skills in your cover letter. The message in that cover letter and the examples need to tie back to your core message as a professional. This includes making sure that the cover letter is aesthetically consistent with the resume (i.e. same font, header, size, etc.) Avoid getting rejected by making sure that your cover letter is consistent in content and appearance with your core message as a candidate.
#9 - Getting Too Personal
A cover letter should tell your story about why you want the job that you are applying to and why you are interested in the company. Your story may contain some personal details that explain why you are making this transition and that may be part of your why. Even if these are really personal reasons, you need to reframe them in a way that won't make the person skimming the cover letter uncomfortable, or worse to give them an inappropriate reason to reject you (i.e. surgeries, terminations, etc.). So, keep the cover letter positive and think about how you can tell that story in the best way with a professional focus.
#10 - Getting Creepy
The company you are applying to needs someone that is qualified for the job and that can build their team. They aren't looking for a superfan. This is particularly true in certain industries where everyone applying to the company really just loves what they do (i.e. sports, beer, CBD, entertainment, etc.). In that case, make sure that you focus the letter on how your love of what they do translates directly into your ability to do the job better than anyone else.
Avoiding these 10 mistakes in your next cover letter is important to stand out. Making any one of the above can result in the automatic rejection of your application - even if you have the best resume. So, take your time to make sure that your cover letter conveys the right details to the company that you are applying to.
Need help avoiding these mistakes? Get help from our expert cover letter writers today. Learn More.