When it comes to cover letters, I’ve seen—and tried—it all. I’ve written stiff, formal documents (“Dear Sir or Madame”), overly casual notes (“Hey guys! Cover letters suck, huh?”), and everything in between. One time, I even composed one entirely in rhyme. (Yes, I did. And no, I didn’t get the job.)
They’re are a blessing and a curse. They give you some elbow room to discuss your qualifications, which is a welcome relief from the crunched bullet points of a resume. But because of that freedom (and that intimidating blank page to fill), it’s easy to veer off in the wrong direction and make some common mistakes that can pretty much guarantee you’re not getting a call back.
If you’re in my cover-letter-writing boat, chances are you’ve made some of these blunders before. Read on to learn five of the most common cover letter mistakes—and how you can turn them into successes.
1. You Didn’t Listen to the Advice Everyone Gave You
You’ve heard all the basic dos and don’ts. But somehow, rookie mistakes still make their way into even experienced job seekers’ writing. If, for example, you address the cover letter “Dear Sir” when the hiring manager is a woman, you fill three entire pages with your every achievement since kindergarten, or you forget to proofread and let the opening line read: “I absolutely love you’re company!”—it’ll go straight into the trash can.
You’ve probably heard this advice time and again, but unfortunately, job applicants keep making these classic mistakes, so it bears repeating: Keep your cover letter to a single page, pay attention to details (e.g., address the letter specifically to the hiring manager by name), and most importantly proofread, proofread, proofread. And then, proofread again.
2. You Regurgitated Your Resume
Your cover letter’s meant to complement your resume—not reiterate it. So, it won’t do you much good if you simply take the best bullet points from your resume and repeat them in your cover letter. If your cover letter and resume are replicas of each other, why submit two documents in the first place?
A job application is supposed to be a representation of you as a whole, well-rounded potential employee—so between your various application materials, you should aim to convey a variety of pertinent information. Instead of just repeating yourself (“I was in charge of reviewing invoice disputes”), use your cover letter to describe additional details that you weren’t able to squeeze onto the single page of your resume:
“By resolving invoice disputes, I gained a deep analytical knowledge—but more importantly, I learned how to interact calmly and diplomatically with angry customers.”
A cover letter gives you the freedom to use full sentences—instead of bullet points—so use them to expand upon your resume and tell the story of why you’re the perfect fit for the company.
3. You Used a Canned Version
You may not love the idea of composing a unique cover letter for each job you apply to, but it’s worth it. When a recruiter reads, “Dear Hiring Manager<, I am so excited to apply for the open position at your company, where I hope to utilize my skills to progress in my career,” she immediately recognizes it for what it is—a stock cover letter that you’ve mass-distributed to every place in town. And that’s not going to fly with a company that wants employees who are truly excited about its unique mission and vision.
Write a cover letter that's specific to the job and company you’re applying to, explaining why you’re interested in that particular position. If you take the time to write something thoughtful (“I’m a daily reader of your company’s blog. Your post about personal branding actually inspired me to start my own blog—and that has given me the perfect experience for the open role of Marketing Content Specialist”), you’ll instantly convey that you are genuinely interested in that particular company.
4. You Highlighted Your Weaknesses
If you don’t meet the basic requirements of the job, your resume will clearly indicate that—so you don’t need to begin your letter by stating, “I know I don’t actually have any coding experience or know much about computers, but…” That simply shines light on the fact that you’re not qualified. And once the recruiter realizes that, she probably won’t make it to the part of the letter where you try to convince her that she should hire you anyway.
Focus on explaining how your past experience—regardless of how irrelevant it may seem at first—will translate to this new role. This is the beauty of cover letters: Resumes barely allow enough room for a few bullet points of duties and accomplishments—but cover letters let you more thoroughly explain how those experiences will make you a perfect fit for any position.
For example, perhaps you were a manager of a bakery in the past, but want to apply for a writing position. The experience doesn’t seem to correlate, does it? But, when you highlight the fact that you composed, edited, and published your previous company’s training materials and employee handbook, you suddenly do, in fact, have that required experience.
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5. You Focused on What the Company Can Do for You
When you apply to a job you’re really excited about, it’s natural to want to convey your enthusiasm to the company: “I’ve wanted to work for your company since I was little—this would be my dream job, and it would mean so much to me if you would grant me an interview!”
But when a hiring manager reads what you wrote, she wants to see what a potential employee would do for her company—not what the job would do for you. She wants to hear about the unique skills and expertise you’d bring to the team and how you’ll help the company grow and succeed.
While it’s fine to convey that you’re excited about a position, use a slightly different angle—one that shows how your enthusiasm will directly benefit the company: “I was very excited to find this open position because I’ve been following your company since its startup phase. My thorough understanding of your company’s background and mission means that I can jump in and make contributions to your marketing team right away.”
Now you’ve shown that the relationship will be mutually beneficial: You’ll have a great job with a company you love—and the company will have a valuable, skilled, and enthusiastic new employee (who, coincidentally, is also an amazing cover letter writer).
Cover Letter Tips
Like the resume, the cover letter is a sample of your written work and should be brief (preferably one page), persuasive, well reasoned, and grammatically perfect. Before crafting your cover letters, review the following tips.
A good cover letter
- Tells the employer who you are and what you are seeking;
- Shows that you know about the particular employer and the kind of work the employer does (i.e., civil or criminal work, direct client service, “impact” cases, antitrust litigation);
- Demonstrates your writing skills;
- Demonstrates your commitment to the work of that particular employer;
- Conveys that you have something to contribute to the employer;
- Shows that you and that employer are a good “fit;” and
- Tells the employer how to get in touch with you by email, telephone, and mail.
Hiring attorneys and recruiting administrators use cover letters to
- Eliminate applicants whose letters contain misspellings (especially of the firm name and the name of the contact person) or other errors;
- Eliminate applicants whose letters show a lack of research, knowledge about, or interest in the employer’s work;
- Eliminate applicants who are unable to exhibit the value they will bring to the employer; and
- See if there are geographic ties or other information to explain the applicant’s interest in that city or employer.
Cover Letter Format
Your current address should be aligned with the center of the page or the left margin. Under your address you should include a telephone number where you can most easily be reached (i.e., your cell phone) and email address. The date is included under that contact information.
Determine to whom you should address the cover letter. If you are applying to law firms, address your letter to the recruiting director, unless you have reason to do otherwise—for example, if you have been instructed to address the letter to a particular attorney at the firm. For NALP member firms, use www.nalpdirectory.com to obtain that contact information. For other firms and public interest employers, you can refer to their websites, or contact the office to determine to whom your materials should be directed. The name of the person to whom the letter is addressed, his or her title, the employer’s name, and address follow the date and are aligned with the left margin. If writing to an attorney, include Esq. after the person’s name. The greeting appears two lines below the employer’s address and should be “Dear Mr.,” “Dear Ms.,” or “Dear Judge.” Avoid addressing your letter generally, such as Dear Sir or Madam; instead take the time to find the contact person and address the letter to that individual.
The body of the cover letter ought to be single-spaced with a line between each paragraph. The closing of the letter (“Sincerely” and your signature) should be two lines below the last line of the letter and either in the center of the page or aligned with the left margin, consistent with how you set up the top of your letter.
Cover Letter Body
Although there are many ways to write a cover letter, the following general format has worked well for candidates in the past.
- In the first paragraph of your cover letter, explain why you are sending your application to the employer: “I am an experienced attorney admitted in New York and am seeking a position with the Trusts and Estates practice group at your organization.” Mention your education background very briefly. In addition, if you have been referred by a mutual contact, you should mention that contact in the first paragraph.
- Use the second paragraph to explain your interest in the employer, including your interest in the employer’s geographic location, reputation, specialty area, or public service.
- In the third paragraph, stress why this employer should hire you. Try not to reiterate what is already included on your resume. Elaborate on the qualifications and experience you have that make you an exceptional attorney. As a lateral candidate it is particularly important to show the value you will bring to the organization.
- The final paragraph should thank the employer for taking the time to review your application and inform the employer of how you can be reached to set up an interview. You may wish to state that you will contact the employer in a couple of weeks to follow up and then actually do so. This is especially true with public interest employers who are often understaffed and will appreciate your extra effort.
For additional general cover letter advice, consult CDO's Introduction to Career Development. You are welcome to schedule an appointment with a CDO counselor to review and discuss your cover letter draft.