10 Completely Wrong Ways to Write a Cover Letter

By: Melanie Radzicki McManus

Writing a letter that will grab a hiring manager's attention quickly can be challenging. See pictures of corporate life.

Chew on this, job-hunters: According to a Creighton University survey of 600 hiring managers and human resources personnel, more than 85 percent of U.S. employers feel cover letters are important or very important -- yet they only have time to give them a 15-second glance. That means when you sit down to craft your cover letter, you've got to do two things: Write a strongly worded piece that will quickly grab the hiring manager's attention, and make sure it doesn't include any glaring errors or unprofessional components that will cause him or her to quickly chuck it in the circular file, no matter how compelling its contents. Sounds like quite the challenge. But don't worry -- it's actually easier than you think. When drafting your next cover letter, just don't do any of the following 10 things.


10: Fill It With Mistakes

Who cares if you have a few typos, misspellings and errors in your cover letter? Potential employers, that's who. Not only will hiring managers notice your grammatical missteps, they'll view mistakes as a sign of carelessness and poor writing skills. In fact, many hiring managers immediately toss or delete resumes with error-laden cover letters. It's an easy way to quickly cull a pool of applicants.

Some of the most common typographical errors are misspelling the hiring manager's name or title; applying for one position, but mentioning a different one in your cover letter; and inserting the wrong company name in your letter [source: Work Source].


To avoid these errors, run your cover letter through spell-check to catch plain old misspelled words. Next, proofread it yourself, as spell-check doesn't catch things like writing "sea" instead of "see," and won't call you on misspelled names or incorrect position titles. Finally, have a trusted friend who's a good speller and writer read it one more time.

9: Make It Long and Rambling

Writing a long, rambling cover letter can work against you.
Writing a long, rambling cover letter can work against you.

Employers across the board say cover letters should be short and succinct. Hiring managers have to scan hundreds and sometimes even thousands of resumes and cover letters, so writing one that's more than a page long can easily work against you [source: Ludwick]. The general rule is to keep them around 200 to 250 words. And what you write should be a concise summary of what you can do for the company and why a recruiter should move on and look at your resume [source: Sundar].

Another way to look at it -- limit yourself to four paragraphs: an introduction; brief summary of your applicable skills and achievements; some mention of the company that's hiring to show you've done some research and know a little bit about it; and then a simple sign-off [source: Learn Vest]. And definitely avoid the clichéd opener: "Enclosed please find my resume highlighting my experience and skills ..." [source: Sundar].


8: Be Generic

Once you write a killer cover letter, why change it? Because every company is different, as is every position within a company, and hiring specialists who read hundreds of cover letters can easily tell if yours is generic or carefully crafted for their specific company and their specific position. And guess which one they'll prefer? Furthermore, 44 percent of business execs polled by online job site Career Builder said job applicants typically use their cover letters to show what they've learned about the available job -- meaning 56 percent (more than half) don't. So if you do tailor your cover letter to each company and its advertised position, you'll stand out above more than half of your competition [source: Career Builder].

It's not that difficult to personalize each cover letter. Remember, covers letters shouldn't be longer than a page, so you only have to plug in a few sentences about the company and its position to show you care enough to go the extra mile. This information can often be found on the company Web site or through a quick call.


7: Insert a Lot of Jokes

You may crack yourself up with jokes in your cover letter, but prospective employers don't want to read them.
You may crack yourself up with jokes in your cover letter, but prospective employers don't want to read them.

You might think that throwing some good jokes into your cover letter will make you stand out from the rest. Sure it will. In fact, your letter might be passed around someone's break room so everyone can laugh at how funny you are. There's a whole raft of reasons why joking around in a cover letter isn't a good idea. Basically, if you want to be seriously considered for a job, you need to act like a professional -- which means no jokes. Plus, you have no idea who will be reading your cover letter. What if it's the office crank, who hates jokes? If you make it to the in-person interview stage, it may be possible to turn on your inner comedian to break the ice (assuming you've evaluated your interviewer's personality first), but even then, it's safest to be serious [source: Smart Biz]. Unveil the comedy routine once you're actually on the payroll.


6: Make Demands

If you can afford to lose out on most, if not all, job opportunities, sure, go ahead and make demands -- everything from the salary and benefits to vacation time and how often you'll be allowed to wear jeans. But no one likes demands, and they're totally inappropriate for a cover letter. You should save any discussion of specifics for the interview stage -- if you make it that far -- and even then, make sure you're actually discussing rather than demanding.

Unfortunately, sometimes well-intentioned job-seekers don't realize they're being demanding. One common cover letter mistake is including wording about how you're looking for a unique opportunity where you can be adequately challenged. You may think such language shows you're no slacker, and are eager for difficult tasks, but employers often look at it as if you're expecting them to find you a position and specific projects that fulfill your career goals, and not those of the company [source: Work Source].


5: Write a Yawner

Don't bore hiring managers with clichéd lines and obvious openers.
Don't bore hiring managers with clichéd lines and obvious openers.

By now you know you need to be serious and professional when crafting a cover letter, but it is possible to take this sentiment too far. Taking every standard cover letter line you've ever heard, and folding it into one dry -- but serious! -- letter, is just one way. Maybe hiring specialists won't fault you for taking this approach, but if your cover letter is filled with clichéd lines and is just plain boring, it's not going to score you big points, either. In fact, it'll probably be tossed before being completely read.

Just as you learned in grammar school that it's not good to start a report with an opener like, "My paper is on Abraham Lincoln," don't start off your cover letter with lines like, "As you can see on my enclosed resume," or "I just graduated with a Bachelor's Degree in accounting," or "I'm applying for the job I saw on your Web site." You need to grab the hiring manager's attention, and those kinds of lines aren't going to do it. Compose a powerful opening sentence that summarizes the skills and experience you'd bring to the job so the manager is compelled to want to know more about you [source: Creighton University].


4: Exaggerate Your Skills and Experience

What's the big harm in saying you're proficient in, say, Excel, when you're not? If you're hired, you can quickly run through a bunch of online tutorials before your first day, and everything will be fine. Or so you think. But the truth is, many companies will actually promptly fire someone who misrepresents or exaggerates their skills or background in a cover letter and resume [source: Smart Biz]. Yes, lay out your accomplishments and work history in the most positive light. But never lie or embellish. The hiring manager may quickly discover your exaggerations when she calls your references. Or worse, you may be given a complex Excel project on your first day and have no idea what to do, despite those online tutorials. Even including a seemingly innocuous statement in your cover letter like, "I have strong verbal communication skills" is seen as an empty boast by many employers, unless you back it up with an example that shows you do.


3: Be Quirky/Original

Sometimes standing out in a crowd is a bad thing.
Sometimes standing out in a crowd is a bad thing.

We've all heard these kinds of stories. There was the woman who won a free trip to Florida because instead of mailing in her contest entry like everyone else, she had it hand-delivered by a clown. Or the guy who couldn't get a date with a popular girl until he sent her a hat with a note that said, "I want to throw my hat into the ring. Please go out with me." These stunts are quirky, but they often score big points for originality. So why not try the same thing in a job search? After all, hiring someone to deliver your resume with a "singing telegram" cover letter would definitely ensure it isn't lost in a pile with 300 others.

Please -- don't do it. Yes, that kind of strategy can be funny and original. And maybe it'd work if you were applying for a Broadway audition or for work in a carnival. But in general, it's a bad idea. It screams unprofessionalism, and the majority of employers will be much more impressed with a well-written cover letter and resume. Really.


2: Load It Up With Personal Info

A job certainly isn't all about your professional skills. Maybe that's why some job applicants think it's a good idea to tell hiring managers all about their hobbies and personal lives in cover letters. They believe this lets potential bosses see what regular -- interesting, even! -- people they are. They might even toss in nice photos, too. After all, looks are important.

But those aren't good ideas at all. First, it's considered inappropriate to disclose such personal information as age, marital status, race and religion unless it's directly related to the available position [sources: Smart Biz, Work Source]. For example, if you're seeking employment at a Catholic church, then yes, you can mention you're a practicing Catholic. Otherwise keep quiet. Same thing with personal interests. Don't blab on in your cover letter about how you're a talented runner who wins a lot of races. It's not the appropriate time unless you're applying to lead a running class at a fitness club. Once you get to an actual interview, though, it's a different story, at least when it comes to hobbies. Be prepared with a strong answer if asked about your pastimes, as some hiring managers view an interesting use of free time as a sign you'd be an active employee [source: Sundar].


1: Repeat Everything That's in Your Resume

Just repeating everything in your resume can work against you.
Just repeating everything in your resume can work against you.

Your resume is the star document in the initial screening process, as it contains all of the important information about you. Heaven forbid a hiring manager would overlook something in it, or not read it, which is why many job applicants tend to rehash their resumes' contents within cover letters. But that's one of the worst things you can do. No one wants to read the same information twice, plus that's not the purpose of a cover letter. A cover letter is meant to introduce your resume and sell your qualifications. It's the place to flesh out your most impressive skills and demonstrate how they'll benefit the company, which, in turn, will make the hiring manager eager to read your resume. Unfortunately, repeating a resume's contents in the cover letter is one of the most common cover letter errors. Not only is it annoying to hiring managers, but they often presume you're doing this because you have nothing else to say -- that is, you have no additional skills to offer them [source: Walker].

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Author's Note: 10 Completely Wrong Ways to Write a Cover Letter

I haven't written a cover letter in a long time, so I was eager to see what kinds of errors job-hunters typically make. Surely I'd never made any of those! For the most part, I hadn't (phew!). Still, I learned a few things, like the importance of taking the time to call and find out the hiring manager's name so you can address your letter to a specific person, as opposed to "Dear Sir or Madam" -- which I'd been taught (long ago, apparently!) was perfectly fine. Best of all, though, was discovering some of the outlandish things people have done with their cover letters. My favorite: a job-seeker who enlarged his head shot to 8 ½" x 11", printed it on stationery and then handwrote his cover letter over it.

Related Articles

  • Africa, Siya. "Warning! Cover Letter No-Nos." The Next Great Generation. Oct. 20, 2011. (Feb. 13, 2012) http://www.thenextgreatgeneration.com/2011/10/warning-cover-letter-no-nos/
  • Career Builder. "10 Common Cover Letter Mistakes to Avoid." Aug. 20, 2008. (Feb. 13, 2012) http://www.careerbuilder.com/Article/CB-928-Cover-Letters-Resumes-10-Common-Cover-Letter-Mistakes-to-Avoid/
  • Creighton University. "Seven Cover Letter Mistakes Hiring Managers Say to Avoid." (Feb. 13, 2012) http://www.creighton.edu/careercenter/students/resumescoverletters/coverlettermistakestoavoid/index.php
  • Experience Works. "Cover Letter Mistakes." (Feb. 13, 2012) http://www.experienceworks.org/site/DocServer/Cover_Letter_Mistakes.pdf?docID=142
  • Forbes. "The Worst Cover Letter In The World And How To Avoid Its Mistakes." Feb. 9, 2012. (Feb. 13, 2012) http://www.forbes.com/sites/jmaureenhenderson/2012/02/09/the-worst-cover-letter-in-the-world-and-how-to-avoid-its-mistakes/
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  • Liebman, Jessica. "Here Are 12 Of The Worst Cover Letters We've Ever Received." Business Insider. Oct. 14, 2011. (Feb. 13, 2012) http://www.businessinsider.com/worst-cover-letters-2011-10
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