Writing Secrets for Job Hunters: Avoid These Cover Letter Mistakes

Cover Letter Secrets: Avoid These Cover Letter Mistakes

7 min read

If you know me in person, you know that I love to chat about resumes and job searching. I think that because I personally found the art of the job search to be an exercise in frustration and disappointment in the past, I aimed to learn every tip I could.

I’ve read dozens of career books, endless “how to get a job” blog posts, and pestered anyone I knew who recently got hired about their approach.

And guess what? There are secrets to crafting stellar job applications. Not getting interviews? Stop increasing the volume you send out and rethink your content instead.

In fact, on Friday I sent out an application via Indeed to a blogging gig for a healthcare initiative that I’m passionate about, and within 20 minutes I got a response with interest and am working for them now.

Of course applying to online jobs will always partly be a numbers game (I routinely see hundreds of people applying for entry level positions…yikes!), but there are also clever ways to avoid the pack altogether by using effective writing in ways that skip the job bank websites and put you directly in front of HR and hiring managers. (View my post on this strategy here.)

How do I know these writing strategies work?

I’ve seen them work.

When you master certain writing techniques, you’ll move your application to the head of the pack. I’ve edited and rewritten oodles of cover letters, resumes, portfolios, and LinkedIn bios, and have helped clients and friends get interviews and land new jobs by using these strategies.

When I worked with a colleague who was interested in moving on from her IT technician position, she asked me to rewrite her LinkedIn bio. I did, and she was contacted by a headhunter within two weeks and quickly landed a new job in her desired tech field.

Her short, 4-paragraph bio made an employer in one of her ideal fields come to her! While I can’t promise you those exact results, I can promise you that using these tips will put you leaps and bounds closer to your dream job.

Top Cover Letter Mistakes

(Plus How To Fix Them)

Mistake #1: Cramming in everything but the kitchen sink. 

Quick Tip: One item these kitchen sinkers usually fail to include is the name of the hiring manager, usually because it wasn’t listed on the job ad. Including this builds a stronger connection between your application and the company. Take pains to find out this info. If you can’t find it, leave it blank. Never write “To Whom It May Concern,” unless you want your resume to remind people of a conveyer belt.

When it comes to cover letters, keeping your information succinct and focused is crucial. HR and hiring managers are busy people and they don’t want to sift through applications with “creative” uses of space (extra-wide margins, size 8 font. You know who you are…).

Cluttering your cover letter like this reflects an unfocused application and presents a tiring slog for anyone who reads it.

How to fix it:  

  • First thing’s first—resist! Less is more. Always keep a cover letter to one page, and aim to cut your content until only the necessities are left.
  • Use your editing skills to keep your qualifications and experiences relevant to the particular job ad you are applying to. (Won a participation ribbon in a woodworking contest? They don’t need to know about it. Cut it!)
  • While it’s tempting to talk about each detail of all your former positions, it ends up having the opposite of the intended effect on your readers. It doesn’t impress them, it bores them. And hurts your chance of getting the job.
  • You want to rouse your readers with sharp, evocative information about why you’re the right fit for the job. HR sees a lot of bad applications, so a crisp, well-tailor letter is a breath of fresh air.

Mistake #2: Failing to understand the needs of the company.

This is a huge one. Every time I edit cover letters I see that the applicant hasn’t targeted their writing to the specifics of the job ad and have failed to put themselves in the shoes of the hiring manager. At best, the cover letter comes across as a list of skills and experiences vaguely related to the job, and leaves readers with a general sense of blah.

How to fix it

  • Read the list of skills and qualifications in the job ad carefully and anticipate what the job will look like—think of this info as an invaluable portal into the mind of your future boss.
  • Identify 1-3 key items you know are important to the role and that you excel at (use a highlighter if you need to). Write your cover letter around those key items and keep it specific.
  • Use these items to anticipate what problems the company wants you to solve for them once you’re hired.  Use your cover letter to show them how you can contribute effectively and creatively to the company, and (if appropriate for the position) how you can contribute to the company’s bottom line.
  • Research the company on their website and in news articles. If you can tie one of their recent marketing strategies or social initiatives to something you specialize in, this is a great way to show your eagerness and interest in the position.

Mistake #3: Using unconfident language.

Look at the difference between these two sentences:

“I believe my skills are a good fit for this role.”

“My skills are a good fit for this role.”

Using wishy washy terms like “I believe,” are the cover letter equivalent of hemming and hawing. They project a lack of confidence and make your cover letter easy to overlook.

How to fix it:

  • Change instances of “I believe” and “I think” to declarative “I am” statements, followed by powerful adjectives. Look at the change here:

I think continuing education is a worthwhile pursuit.”

“I am devoted to continuing education.”

  • The second line is much more powerful because it replaces the weak “I think” with the stronger “I am.” It also follows with a bold word: “I am devoted…”. It displays confidence and shows that the applicant is someone who doesn’t just hold beliefs, but acts on them.

Mistake #4: Being overly formal and passionless.

Quick Tip: A large part of the hiring process is simply HR and managers wondering whether they’ll like you and be able to work with you. “Can I work in a office with them for 8 hours a day?” is partly what hiring managers are wondering when they read your cover letter.

Professional doesn’t mean boring. Often job seekers will borrow from the same old cover letter sample they found on the internet years ago—one that sounds like the last 50 cover letters HR just read. It’s boring. It’s stuffy. It’s 100% going to get passed over.

The main problem? It’s filled with stilted phrases like “In addition to the above distinguishing factors…” and “I have performed transactions in complete accordance to the policies and procedures of my company.”

In an attempt to sound professional, the writing comes across as robotic and completely out of touch. The worst part is that the qualities being highlighted might be a perfect match for the employer, but they’d never know it because they’ve already passed it over.

How to fix it:

  • Think of the cover letter as your chance to speak authentically about skills you are passionate about that dovetail with the qualifications the company is seeking.
  • Remember that they’re not only looking for someone who can do the job. They want someone who wants to do the job—someone who’s passionate about their work and takes pride in what they do.
  • Communicate interest in your own words. Use friendly, simple language.
  • Use the cover letter to show you’re a positive, easygoing worker by using a friendly, down-to-earth writing style.
  • Plain language and honest enthusiasm are best:

“I’m excited to be applying for this Production Coordinator position…”

“I achieved 95% of my target sales last quarter and was proud when I received the employee of the month award. I’m a people-person by nature and compassion and self-development are at the centre of every goal I set for myself.”

“In addition to being thorough and adaptive, I’m also a sucker for details. I’ve recently been on Company X’s website and see there’s been an extensive site redesign. I particularly love the right sidebar navigation and image slider. It looks great!”

“After checking out Organization X’s website, I see there’s a new outreach initiative for senior care. I’m wondering if part of your marketing strategy will include targeted outreach to spousal caretakers at private day facilities through speeches or events?”

Mistake #5: Failing to include a call to action.

In marketing, the “call to action” is a powerful psychological prompt that moves a passive reader to action.  It can be used to market yourself as a job candidate. Failing to include this simple bit of text could end up costing you the interview.

How to fix it:

  • Include a line at the bottom of your cover letter that entices the hiring manager to take action immediately.
  • This little trick works wonders. Whenever I include this type of approach in my cover letters (and emails in general) I get a much higher rate of response. It shows enthusiasm, confidence, and suggests that you have more to say about yourself. Towards the the bottom of your cover letter, add the following lines:

“I’m very excited about this opportunity and would love a chance to discuss it in more depth with you. I’m available to do so in person, or over the phone. I can be reached at (000) 000-0000 from 9am-11am, Mon-Fri.”


This has been Part One of Writing Secrets for Job Hunters, a three-part series aimed at helping you move your job application to the top of the stack. Check out the other posts in this series. Part Two: The secrets of effective resumes. Part Three: Avoiding the job banks

 

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