As someone who has had the horrible task privilege of screening and hiring countless employees, I’ve seen cover letters and resumes of all different flavors fall across my desk. Some have been spectacular, while most have been tepid at best, and there have also been many that were so appalling that I wanted to set them on fire rather than besmirching the bin with their presence.
When you’re applying to work at a company, your cover letter is the first thing that the HR folks or hiring committee will see, so don’t screw it up. Below are ten egregious errors that potential applicants should avoid, plus a bit of advice on how to amend them.
You would not believe how often people misspell the name of the company they’re applying to work for, and no, it isn’t a minor issue that will be overlooked. If you can’t put forth the effort to spell that correctly—or double-check your work, for that matter—how diligent would you be at the job itself?
That would be the person doing the hiring. They have a name, they have a position in the company, and if they’ve placed an ad for a job opening with our company, there’s a pretty good chance that they’ve included their name along with the contact information. If they haven’t, this is a perfect opportunity for you to take some initiative and show them that you’re actually interested in working for them.
On the rare occasions when a person’s name isn’t listed with the email address, do a quick search for the company’s phone number, and use your texting device for its alternate purpose: calling someone. Ask to speak to someone in HR, if possible, but if it’s a small organization and everyone knows everyone else, ask the receptionist who’s doing the hiring and how to spell that person’s name. It’s a personal touch, but shows that you’re willing to go the extra mile to do something the right way.
Your cover letter should be an introduction about yourself, including a few notes about specialized skills, and have enough of your personality to give them a sense of who you are. This is not an opportunity for you to spew forth your life story wherein you mention the prize you got for best science fair project in the fourth grade, or how poor you are right now and are thus desperate for work with anyone who’ll tolerate your presence.
Consider this letter to be a summation of who you are, and what you can offer. A couple of short paragraphs is more than sufficient to do this, and will do wonders for keeping you in the recruiter’s good books. No-one wants to plod through a page-long intro before every resume.
On a similar note, not saying enough in a cover letter is also the kiss of death. Writing something as simple as “My name is __. Here is my resume.” is just not enough. At all. Aim for around 200 words, and you should be golden.
We’ve already covered the possibility of misspelling the company name, but you should be just as diligent about your spelling and grammar throughout your cover letter, resume, and any follow-up communiques. Your application will be placed in the shredder almost immediately if you misspell the recruiter’s name or the position you’re applying for.
Additionally, pay close attention to your own contact information: if you make a typo in your own email address, you won’t hear back from anyone, will you?
No-one likes a person who suffers from insufferable know-it-all-ism, nor do they want to work with someone who considers themselves superior to anyone else. It’s great to be confident about your abilities, but claiming to be the best in your field won’t win you any points. Writing things like, “I’m the best applicant out there,” or “You won’t find a superstar like me anywhere else,” will earn you nothing but contempt.
It really is important to customize your cover letter to suit every company you apply to. You can put together a general template and then tweak it a bit for every application, but make sure that it’s tailored accordingly.
Let’s say that you have an English degree and are applying to a number of different jobs. If you’re aiming for work as an ESL teacher, make mention of any additional languages you speak, and where you may have traveled. Are you applying for writing work? Make mention of any media you’ve been published in. Don’t repeat what’s in your resume, but take the opportunity to toss in a few gems that will make you stand out from other applicants.
This one might not seem important, but it actually makes a world of difference.
If your cover letter is being emailed, ensure that you’re using a clean sans serif font in plain black for easy readability. Although you want to put forth a bit of your individuality in your cover letter, this isn’t the opportunity for you to break out the twirly script fonts in turquoise or purple.
If you’re sending in a printed cover letter and resume, you have a bit more leeway. This rings especially true if you’re applying for a creative position (graphic designer, copywriter, etc.) as you now have the chance to express your personality with font pairings that you like, and that give a sense of who you are. If you choose Papyrus or Comic Sans, however, you will not make it to the interview room.
Many job postings will have specific instructions for applicants to follow, and failure to do so is grounds for immediate resume incineration. If the listing says that you shouldn’t call to follow up, don’t call. If you’re instructed to attach a cover letter, resume, and relevant links to your work, then do so. The inability to follow basic instructions is not an appealing trait.
You may have thought that a cheeky email address was terribly clever when you were in high school, but it will not do you any favors when you’re applying for a job. It only takes a couple of minutes to create a Gmail account that has some permutation of your first name and last name, and you won’t have your letter pitched out because it came from email@example.com.
Yes, it happens more often than you might imagine: people who send out fifty resumes a day seem to forget to attach files every so often, but that just helps to weed out the less diligent applicants.
Be polite and respectful, end your cover letter by thanking the reviewer for their time, and good luck!
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