You may think cover letters are a waste of time, and job application platforms often make them optional. However, skipping this step could be a mistake. According to a survey by the résumé-creation platform ResumeLab, 87% of HR pros prefer that candidates include one, and 70% would reject a candidate who doesn’t.
Since cover letters can be an afterthought and considered second fiddle to a résumé, it’s easy to overlook their importance. Make sure you aren’t committing one of these six mistakes when putting one together.
1. Using an overly formal greeting
About six out of ten HR pros consider informal greetings, like “Hi,” to be a moderate or serious problem. But being too formal isn’t the right choice either, says Hari Kolam, CEO of the talent acquisition platform Findem.
“There’s a delicate balance with being too formal or colloquial in a cover letter, but all too often applicants err on the side of formality, and it actually backfires,” he says. “Remember that there’s an actual person reading this letter and put yourself in their shoes. How would you react to overly formal language if someone was introducing themselves to you? There are very few industries and positions these days where that would be natural.”
While Kolam cautions against using casual openings, such as “Hey,” he says using a greeting like “Dear Sir or Madam” is only going to sound unnatural and outdated. “Avoid overly formal language and long, complicated sentences that may disinterest the reader,” he says. “Aim to make the letter friendly, clear, and professional. A good best practice is to research the company’s brand and tailor the wording in a way that speaks their language.”
2. Sounding generic
There is no such thing as a general cover letter, and not tailoring your letter to a particular company is a mistake, says Liz Pawley, director of professional development and curriculum for the Lindner Career Services Center at the University of Cincinnati College of Business. “Your résumé serves as a short document on your accomplishments and qualifications, and the cover letter is a supplement which should speak to your unique qualifications respective to the specific job posting,” she says.
Take the time and effort to research the company and the position, says Joanna Chavers, director of people and engagement at the staffing and recruiting firm Atrium. “Demonstrate that you have the skills and qualifications they are looking for by providing specific examples from previous positions or life situations,” she advises. “By taking the time and making the effort to create a unique introduction, it demonstrates that you work hard, you are truly interested in the position, and they would be wise to invest in you.”
3. Repeating your résumé
Simply rehashing your résumé isn’t the point of writing a cover letter, and HR pros say this could be a sign that a candidate is lazy. In the ResumeLab survey, 58% rated this as a moderate or serious problem.
“Employers who actually do take time to read cover letters are looking to see what makes you different, since résumés are too formulaic to allow you to do that,” Kolam says. “That doesn’t mean providing a tick list of all of your accomplishments, which can come off as generic and even boastful. Here’s your chance to show your interest in this specific company and this specific job. The goal is to make your personal brand shine through.
“Applicants should use the opening as a hook to explain why they took interest in the company, and to make a connection between their attributes and what the employer is looking for,” Kolam continues. “Get creative with a story or narrative to catch their attention off the bat and help convey your brand in a memorable way.”
Pawley suggests picking two or three qualifications or responsibilities from the job description and describing how you have accomplished them in your past experience.
4. Being too brief or too verbose
According to ResumeLab, 82% of the surveyed experts consider the ideal cover letter length to be up to one page, and half of those said less than half a page is preferred.
“We are all busy, so a long cover letter may be totally ignored by hiring managers,” Chavers says. “Keep your letter short, impactful, focused, and professional.”
5. Not including why you want to work there
Many candidates leave out why they would like to work for a particular company, Chavers says. While the “why” may be because you want or need a job, there are probably other reasons.
“Have you seen an article about the company in a business or trade publication that piqued your interest? Do you support the same or similar organizations and causes? After reading your cover letter [the hiring manager] should appreciate that you are a candidate who genuinely wants to work with them and understand why the role needs an individual like you,” Chavers explains.
Employers can attain a better frame of reference of your motivation for work through your cover letter, Pawley adds. “While being qualified for the job is crucial, enthusiasm goes a long way,” she says.
6. Not proofreading
The worst offense? Submitting a cover letter that has spelling or grammatical errors. The ResumeLab survey found that 76% of the HR respondents said they’d automatically reject a cover letter if it had typos or spelling mistakes.
“Remember that this is a writing sample for employers to consider,” Pawley notes. “Mistakes in a cover letter indicate you’re likely to make more mistakes on the job.”