You only have one chance to make a first impression. If the first impression you need to make is through a cover letter to a prospective employer, school admissions office, or internship sponsor, make sure it shines a light on your qualifications and displays your enthusiasm for the position or that seat in the class. Unfortunately, too many cover letters I see are dull as dust, containing only generalities or jargon and lacking confidence. These letters hurt your cause.
Here are 5 common mistakes in cover letters. Don’t make them in yours!
1. Sound as if you’re bored.
“I am writing in response to your opening for a marketing manager, listed on Job Site website.” This response is honest and to the point, but it also lacks a sense that you really want this gig. Better: “I am enthusiastically applying for the position of marketing manager for Best Company Ever. My experience as a top saleswoman for the last three years for an organic beauty supply is an ideal match for your needs.” Feel the energy of the second sentence? The reader will, too.
2. Don’t make any effort to get inside knowledge about the company or school, or explain why you want to attend their program/get hired by them. Also omit your most relevant experiences that should make them want to give careful consideration to your resume.
There could be a dozen different reasons why you’ve chosen to apply for this job or to attend this program. For example, if it’s a start-up, you’ll have more opportunity to perform multiple roles and gain a broader view of small businesses. In a larger company, you may have more chances for travel or longstanding career growth. Perhaps the company has innovated a technology, product type, or employee-friendly atmosphere that you strongly admire. Identify these things, as well as your most relevant experience/qualifications that match what they are looking for. Don’t go into too many details; keep it short. For example:
“My friend Bonnie V. told me how much she learned about digital media sales and marketing as a result of her internship with Best Company Ever last summer. My experience with the Streaming Live Network in building their salesforce over the last year will make me an ideal fit for your team.”
“As a future entrepreneur in green technology, I admire Live Green Now’s innovations in environmentally friendly plastics and am eager to learn more about these innovations from the inside. My master’s degree in Environmental Studies and research into new techniques for recycling plastics without water makes me a strong candidate for this position.”
3. Ignore the stated requirements for acceptance or position.
If a company says that knowledge of a particular software knowledge, skillset, or academic record is required for a position, don’t waste your time or theirs by submitting a letter if you don’t have it. If you feel you are still qualified, you had better have a compelling explanation and say so up front. Otherwise move on. Pay attention to what companies and schools say they are looking for. They mean it.
4. Sound needy or wishy-washy about getting a call back for an interview.
A recent cover letter I edited – by someone whose professional experience spanned more than 20 years, numerous awards and 10 patents in his name – ended his letter like this: “If after reviewing my materials you believe that there is a match, please contact me.” This sentence is passive and sounds insecure, as if he doesn’t really expect them to call. And they probably wouldn’t.
I suggested he end the letter like this: “I look forward to the opportunity to meet you to discuss this position and how I can add value to Best Company Ever.” See how the simple change of writing in active voice (“I look forward. . . “) exudes confidence in his ability to demonstrate value.
5. Make them take the extra step of going back to you to get references.
This is one of the mistakes that drives me crazy every time I see it, which is often. Why in the world would you write “References available upon request” instead of providing the actual references in the letter, and/or the resume? List names, titles, phone numbers and emails. If a reference doesn’t have a title, put the person’s relationship to you so the caller will know in what context he or she is providing the recommendation.
Finally, keep the letter short – preferably only a half to three-quarters of a page. This is an appetizer only to get them to want to give your resume careful review, and then call you for the next step. Using active voice, specific facts about your qualifications and the reasons you like the company or school, will demonstrate you are not sending cover letters in a scattershot way, but in a thoughtful, carefully considered manner. And this should help you bring your job search to a swifter and happier conclusion.
By Judy Gruen, MBA admissions consultant since 1996 and author (with Linda Abraham) of MBA Admission for Smarties: The No-Nonsense Guide to Acceptance at Top Business Schools.