- Cover letters are written introductions by a job candidate expressing their interest in working with a company.
- A well-written cover letter gives recruiters a better idea of who an applicant is as a person.
- Recruiters are more likely to select candidates to interview based on a cover letter if their experience matches the job requirements.
- This article is for job applicants who want to write cover letters that stand out.
When submitting a job application, your resume can only go so far. Resumes tell prospective employers about your experience and education, but they are essentially fact sheets. A cover letter gives applicants the opportunity to share more detailed information on why they'd be a good fit for a certain role at a specific company.
Here's a guide to what a cover letter is, why it is important, and how to write one – with tips from seasoned professionals.
What not to include in a cover letter
A cover letter can demonstrate to a hiring manager why you are the best fit for a position, so it's worth your time and effort to get it just right. However, it can be challenging to craft an effective cover letter that showcases your skills without making you seem self-important or succumbing to cliches.
To help you stay clear of the most treacherous cover letter pitfalls, Business News Daily asked hiring managers and business owners for the absolute worst thing a candidate can include in their cover letter. Here are the five most damaging cover letter mistakes.
Highlighting any lack of skills
It's easy to feel vulnerable when applying for a job, especially if you know that you have limited experience with some of the skills the position requires. However, starting off a cover letter by underselling yourself or drawing attention to the skills or knowledge you are lacking is never the way to go.
"I have seen one too many cover letters with the following phrase: 'Although I do not yet have ...,'" said author and career coach Lavie Margolin. "If you do not have something, why are you emphasizing it?"
Instead, Margolin advised job seekers to focus on existing skills, experiences and talents that will be of interest to the potential employer.
"If you are looking for a job, then you are in the sales business. What you write in your cover letter should most effectively sell the skills, experience, and abilities that you do have, as opposed to emphasizing those things that are lacking. Emphasizing a weakness on your cover letter may be costing you the job."
Lack of attention to detail
Sometimes job seekers get so caught up in finding the best way to express their big ideas that they forget to pay close attention to the fine details. Typos are one of the top mistakes job seekers make when it comes to cover letters, said Joe Weinlick, senior vice president of marketing at Beyond.
Rigorously proofreading your cover letter will give your great content an opportunity to shine. "Spell-check is your friend. Use it, but don't rely on it," Weinlick said. "Print out your cover letter, read it from start to finish, and make sure there aren't any typos before sending it out. Your cover letter is the first impression you make on a hiring manager – make sure it's a good one."
You can reuse parts of your cover letter when applying for similar positions with different companies. However, failing to update the company information for each letter is an unforgivable offense.
"Nothing will get your cover letter thrown in the recycling bin faster than giving the wrong company name," said Chaz Kyser, founder of Careeranista.
According to Kyser, checking for accuracy includes making sure you have the correct company name and address, specifying the position for which you are applying, and including the name of the hiring manager, if available.
While you are proofreading, you may also want to delete any cliches that sound nice, but say very little. Instead of using vague words to describe your work ethic or experience, provide specific examples that demonstrate the qualities that you'd like to highlight.
"Don't use buzzwords," said Bob Kovalsky, vice president of Volt Workforce Solutions. "Including descriptors such as 'detail-oriented,' 'hardworking,' 'team player' and 'proactive' doesn't tell HR managers anything about your experience." [Related: 10 Worthless Words to Delete From Your LinkedIn Profile]
Remaining stuck in the past
Maybe you were let go from your last job, or maybe you are just looking for new opportunities. Regardless of the reason for your job search, don't spend the limited space of your cover letter focusing on your past.
"The worst thing a potential employee can do [in a cover letter] is to explain why they left their current or former position," said Kim Kaupe, co-founder of Bright Ideas Only. "It's like starting out a first date by talking about your ex! I don't want to hear about your past; I want to hear about your now and future, and how you are going to become an asset to my company."
Steering clear of the past is especially important if you had a contentious relationship with an employer. "Saying that you're looking for a new opportunity because your previous employer was unfair or you had an incompetent boss will only make you look bad," said Tracy Russell, talent acquisition coordinator at Intuit. "Oftentimes, if this type of negative information is in the cover letter, recruiters won't even look at the resume."
Talking about money too soon
There is a time and place to discuss salary during the hiring process, but your cover letter isn't it. Lisa Benson, president and CEO of Mary Kraft HR, advises against providing any unsolicited salary information in the cover letter, "unless [you] are specifically asked to do so, particularly if there is a disparity between what is advertised or indicated in the ad [you] are responding to. No prospective employer wants to hire someone who is only about the money."
Making it all about you
Another common mistake that applicants make is using their cover letter to boast about their talents without acknowledging how they will use these skills to benefit a prospective employer.
"The worst thing a candidate can do in their cover letter is make it all about themselves and what they're looking for," said Ian Yates, co-founder of candidate sourcing platform Fitzii. "The best thing to do is focus on why they'll be a great fit, how they'll make a contribution, and what they've done, or will do, to support [the organization]."
"It is a fine line between confident and arrogant," added Sue Hardek, managing partner at Talentfoot Executive Search & Staffing. She noted that any candidate should avoid "overselling him or herself, or being boastful about accomplishments and strengths." Applicants should also steer clear of oversharing personal history, exaggerating or providing false information.
Job seekers who do their homework – researching the company, learning about industry trends, and identifying specific ways they can address challenges faced by the business – have a much better shot at setting the right tone with their cover letters.
What is a cover letter?
A cover letter is a company's first introduction to who you are as a person. Your resume will explain your previous work experience and skills, but your cover letter is an opportunity to show recruiters your personal side. Employers get lots of applications, many of which display similar backgrounds and experience. A cover letter helps narrow down their talent pool.
Some job listings require the candidate to submit a cover letter, while others make the cover letter optional. Applicants should always take the time to write a cover letter to express their interest in the company and flesh out their professional experience. Cover letters are typically written in a three-paragraph format and should be no more than 300 words.
The benefits of a cover letter
Not all job application processes require a cover letter, so you may be tempted to skip this step. However, a cover letter gives you some big advantages.
It personalizes your application.
Even well-composed resumes don't give applicants the opportunity to show off their writing skills. A cover letter can help candidates sell themselves by letting their personalities shine through. Recruiters get a sense of who the candidate is beyond their work experience and education. It also allows them to discuss parts of their background that may not be explicitly stated on a resume, but are relevant to the job they're applying for.
It showcases your interest in the position and/or company.
Many candidates blindly shoot off job applications, believing in quantity over quality. To be as efficient as possible, they'll either send a generic cover letter or fail to send one altogether. A cover letter with specific details about why you would be a great fit for the company you're applying to shows you've done your research and are interested in working for that company specifically. Employers will take notice of candidates who took their time to learn about the company and want to be there, as opposed to just wanting a job.
It demonstrates your hard work.
Taking the time to draft a well-researched cover letter shows employers you're self-motivated and passionate about the position for which you're applying. The skills of researching, writing and submitting clean copy before the deadline demonstrates your ability to work and follow directions.
How to write a good cover letter
Hiring managers may receive hundreds of cover letters and resumes for a single job post. Potential employees only have a few seconds to make a good first impression, and a boring cover letter could land them straight in the "no" pile.
Cover letters allow employers to hear your voice, understand your intentions and learn about your personality. Hiring managers want to know why your skills and personality are the right fit for the company, and a successful cover letter should do this.
Follow these eight tips from hiring experts to write a cover letter that will score you an interview:
1. Be yourself.
You don't want to sound like everyone else. Give hiring managers a sense of your personality and how you might fit into the company.
"One key thing we look for is whether they've incorporated aspects of their personality into examples of how they would succeed in this position," said Margaret Freel, former corporate recruiter at TechSmith Corp.
Mentioning experiences that qualify you for that particular position is one way to personalize your letter, Freel added. "Candidates should be concise and self-aware enough to know how their track record of results makes them unique, and [be] able to relate that back to the position."
2. Do your research and customize it.
Just like your resume, your cover letter should be tailored to each position and company. Instead of a template-style cover letter, use industry-specific language that references points from the job description and company website.
Do your research, find out who the hiring manager is, and address the cover letter to them. While this isn't always possible, addressing the hiring manager specifically sets you apart. If you're unsure who the hiring manager is, use a generic salutation – but only as a last resort.
"Address the cover letter to a specific person within the company, not the general – and much-hated – 'dear sir or madam,'" said Alina Cincan, managing director and co-founder of Inbox Translation. "This shows the candidate has done some research and is truly interested in working with that company, not just any company."
Christa Shapiro, former managing director at the staffing firm Kforce, said one thing that always draws attention to a cover letter is mentioning why you want to be a part of that particular organization. Show a passion for the organization and industry – employers don't want to hire someone who will not care about their work.
Tip: If you can't find the name of the hiring manager, "dear hiring team" is a friendlier introduction than "to whom it may concern."
3. Be creative.
Hiring managers aren't going to finish reading your cover letter if they are bored after the first line. A strong intro should highlight experiences, years of work or something specific from the job posting, suggested Kyser.
"Hiring managers often pay even less attention to cover letters than they do resumes, so having something more than 'I am applying for the position and such and such' in your first paragraph is key," she told Business News Daily. [Related: 11 Resume Myths Busted]
Another way you can make your cover letter pop is to include a brief story that connects you to the company through its mission and/or product. "This exercise will undoubtedly separate you from the majority of other candidates," said Kenneth Johnson, president of East Coast Executives.
4. Mention referrals.
If you were introduced or connected to a hiring manager by a specific employee at the company or a mutual industry contact, include that person's name in your cover letter (with their permission).
"Candidates can include referrals in a cover letter to make them stand out," said Bill Peppler, COO of staffing firm Kavaliro. "They should always gain permission for this before they name-drop, but the cover letter gives a great opportunity to include the name of someone that can vouch for your skills."
5. Address potential resume concerns.
A well-crafted cover letter does more than explain why you're the right person for the job. It also gives you the chance to explain items on your resume that might otherwise be considered red flags.
"Address any issues that may give a hiring manager pause, such as gaps in employment," said Diane Domeyer Kock, senior vice president and managing director at Robert Half.
6. Don't just repeat your resume.
While your cover letter should reference material from your resume, it shouldn't simply be a word-for-word repeat, said Jane Trnka, former executive director of the career resources center for business graduate students at Rollins College. Use the cover letter to expand where necessary and discuss your listed experiences from a different angle.
"Craft the letter to acknowledge the requirements of the role and culture of the organization, while highlighting the skills and experiences that align with the job description," Trnka told Business News Daily.
Tip: A cover letter is a great place to discuss any volunteer efforts or side projects that may not be on your resume but are relevant to the job you're applying for.
7. Proofread and fact-check.
As with any other job application materials, it's imperative to check and double-check your cover letter for any grammatical or factual errors. Even the smallest mistake can make a bad impression on the person reading your letter.
"If there are errors of any kind, it's a huge red flag," said Guryan Tighe, leadership coach and founder of Fourage. "This is your one opportunity to impress [the hiring manager] and show who you are. If there are typos, misspellings, or formatting issues, it's generally an automatic out."
8. Keep it brief.
Hiring managers are busy and usually have a lot of applications to look at. Keeping your cover letter concise and to the point will improve your chances of it being read and makes the hiring manager's job easier – which is always a good thing.
"The best cover letters can [be] concise, friendly and transparent," said Chris Wood, president of Paige Technologies. "The best cover letters get right to the heart of why we are a great fit for them, and why they are the best fit for us."
Sean Peek, Saige Driver and Brittney Morgan contributed to the writing and reporting in this article. Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.