The Cover Letter: Common Pitfalls and Secret Ingredients

Claire KittleLike Mickey Rourke and Twinkies, some things just deserve a comeback. That’s why I’m going to tackle the topic of cover letters once again!

As you might imagine, I have the great fortune of reading many cover letters each day. Some are fabulous; some make me question humanity.

The good news is that it doesn’t take Billy Shakespeare to craft a good cover letter. By avoiding a few common pitfalls and including some key ingredients, anyone can master it.

Let’s start with the pitfalls. Here are the three most common cover letter mistakes I see:

1. Generic Cover Letters – Buying generic dish soap is one thing. Writing a generic cover letter is another. Here’s a hint from Heloise: Don’t do it. Generic cover letters indicate you haven’t taken the time to carefully investigate the job for which you are applying. They also signal that you’re busy applying for so many roles at the same time that you can’t be bothered to tailor a cover letter for each. Finally, generic letters strongly imply you don’t give a rip about whether or not you get the job. (Which is a good thing, because most of my clients won’t be impressed enough to offer an interview.)

2. Me, Me, Me, Me, Me, Me, Me! – Cover letters are supposed to showcase your skills, abilities, and interest in the job; but you don’t want to be braggadocios and turn the letter into a Me-fest. Knowing where to draw the line can be tricky. Here’s a simple suggestion: include at least one full paragraph about the organization to which you’re applying. Explain why you care about the work it does and why you want to help advance its mission.

3. Grammatical and Spelling Errors – I sound like a broken record here, but I feel compelled to mention it yet again. Grammatical and spelling errors are the most common reason my clients reject candidates. This is a quote I received recently from a client about a candidate: “He looks good, but has a big error in his cover letter…” And that was the end of that.

Now that we have the NO-NOs out of the way, let’s talk about the critical items to include in your cover letter. I think there are five must-haves, preferably in this order:

1. The Job – You probably got the hint with my tongue-lashing above about generic letters. But just in case you took a bathroom break and missed it, make sure you mention the job for which you are applying. Include the specific title (some groups simultaneously hire for multiple roles in the same department) and, if possible, tell the organization how you learned about the opening.

2. Why You’re Interested – Again, I’m sure you got the picture from the pitfalls section; but to be sure, you should explain why you are interested in the role. Don’t forget to detail how you are philosophically aligned with the organization’s mission. Don’t be afraid to be passionate. I promise the person doing the hiring is passionate about the cause, too.

3. Why You’re Qualified – Include a brief summary of why you are qualified for the role. There’s no need to rehash your entire résumé – just hit the high points.

4. Special Requests – If the application instructions asks for specifics such as salary requirements or start-date availability, make sure to include them. Neglecting such requests can really irritate hiring managers, and nobody wants an irritated hiring manager.

5. Clarifications – You should use the cover letter to explain things that do not belong in a résumé or things that appear on your résumé but may need clarification. For instance, you may want to mention why you are on the job market (i.e. your organization is expecting layoffs, the campaign will be ending in November, etc.). You may also want to articulate whether you are willing to relocate, why you had a gap in your job history, etc.

You’re all set. Go forth and produce a great cover letter! And grab a Twinkie while you’re at it.

Claire Kittle Dixon is executive director of Talent Market. Read her other columns here.

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