As a career counselor, I can’t tell you how many tens of thousands of cover letters I’ve read, reviewed, and edited in over 30 years in the field. There’s certainly a lot of good advice out there on how to write a cover letter, but here’s what I think is wrong with most of the actual cover letters I’ve seen:
1) Ineffective salutation. What I typically see are salutations such as, “Dear Sir or Madam,” or “To Whom It May Concern,” or (worst of all) “Dear Hiring Manager.” Do you know of ANY company that has a position called “Hiring Manager”? Sure, there may be a few, but there can’t possibly be that many. In general, if you don’t know the name or title, it’s hard to go wrong if you just say, “Dear Manager.” Obviously, the best thing is to use the person’s name, IF you know it: “Dear Ms. Smith.” Include their job title if appropriate: “Dear Principal Jones.” Or, if they just give a position, address it to that position: “Dear Human Resource Manager.
2) Overly long and detailed paragraphs. Most cover letters I see consist of voluminous, lengthy, and boring paragraphs that I’m sure will dishearten any reader, especially resume readers (who skim-read rather than read in detail). One look at those big, gloppy paragraphs, and your reader will immediately throw out the letter or fall asleep trying to wade through it. So, keep the paragraphs short, so that the letter appears deliciously easy to read.
3) A re-hash of the resume. Most cover letters I’ve seen are primarily a narrative duplication of what is in the resume. Many readers do not even read the cover letter because they know that everything on it will be on the resume anyway. Your cover letter should not be simply another form of your resume. Your cover letter should be a document that “sells” you to a particular employer for a particular position, and should be clearly targeted as such.
4) No match with the specific qualifications of the job. Too many cover letters contain a laundry list of the writer’s entire career. The extraneous information may give a nice, rounded picture of who you are, but does not address what is specifically relevant about you in relation to the position in question. What, specifically, makes you the right person for the job? How does each expectation and requirement for the job match your background, experience, education, knowledge, skills, and talents? That is what the body of the cover letter should address.
5) No bullets. In my opinion, bullets are overused in resumes. A bullet may look attractive and professional, but a bullet is actually a graphic. I don’t want the reader’s eye to go to a graphic; I want the reader’s eye to go to a key word. However, while they are overused in resumes, bullets are rarely used in cover letters. I think that this device would attract a reader’s eye in a letter. Therefore, when you match the specific qualifications for the job with your strengths and experience, use bullets. In a cover letter, I want the reader to look at it and see their own want-ad and how you match it. Sometimes I see cover letters that do this by using a table rather than bullets, with one column having the qualifications required and the other column showing how you match each one. That, too, accomplishes the same goal.
6) Benefits statement too general and at the end of the letter. Typically, near the bottom of most cover letters, there’s a statement that includes phrases such as wanting to meet in an interview so that the applicant can “show how I could contribute to the success of your company” (or something like that). This is what I would call a “benefits statement,” a statement of how the company will benefit from hiring you. This kind of statement seems like an appropriate and positive thing to say, but usually it is put in almost as an afterthought at the end of the letter. Actually, the “benefits statement” is the major reason why the company would want to hire you at all. It needs to be at or near the beginning of the letter, and it needs to be more elaborated or specific. It is, in fact, the reason why the reader would want to read the rest of your letter and then ask you in for an interview. Consider this example: “I believe that my expertise and experience can help your company significantly reduce not only the obvious but also the hidden costs of inventory throughput.” Now, if THAT is at the beginning of the letter, your reader might be considerably more interested in reading the rest of the letter to see what in your background supports that claim.
7) Clumsy and ineffective request for the interview. In my humble opinion, requesting an interview is unnecessary, awkward, and presumptuous. First of all, the readers already know that you want an interview. They also know that if they are interested in you they will want to interview you. And, anyway, there is NO diplomatic way to ask for an interview in a letter. What’s worse is telling them WHERE to contact you. Do you think they can’t find your phone number and email on your letterhead or on your resume? What’s worse than that is telling them WHEN to contact you. What’s even worse than that is to tell them that YOU will contact them – “I’ll call you next Thursday between 3:00 and 5:00 p.m.” When I get a letter like that, I make sure I’m out of the office during those hours. So why ask for the interview at all? Why not end the letter with a request to talk about or “discuss the position” and how you match it, rather than the mechanics of who will call whom? This is more professional, more appropriate, and it keeps the emphasis on the interview’s purpose, not its scheduling.
In my experience, the letters that are the most effective – the ones that result in interviews – are the ones that avoid the above problems.
By Sander I. Marcus, Ph.D., CPRW
Career Development Consultant, Illinois Tech Career Services
3241 S. Federal (Hermann Hall), Suite 113, Chicago, IL 60616