10 Cover Letter Mistakes to Avoid

by Cathy Vandewater | February 09, 2012

Dear Vault readers,

You may have caught our post on Joe Maddalone and his ill-fated introduction email to Morgan Stanley's CEO.

Well one person definitely missed it: the NYU undergrad who wrote this epic fail of a cover letter to JP Morgan. In a plea for a summer analyst position, the applicant mentioned his GPA as well as bench pressing abilities. The end result was so bad that a BofA/Merrill Lynch director forwarded it to his entire team with a promise to buy for drinks "for the first analyst to concisely summarize everything that is wrong with this." 

We have a few thoughts on that—but first, the letter, in most of its glory (identifying details redacted):

 

"1/23/2012

J.P. Morgan

Dear Sir or Madame:

I am an ambitious undergraduate at NYU [removed]. I am a punctual, personable, and shrewd individual, yet I have a quality which I pride in myself more than any of these.

I am unequivocally the more unflaggingly hard worker I know, and I love self-improvement. I have always felt that my time should be spent wisely, so I continuously challenge myself; I left [removed] because the work was too easy. Once I realized I could achieve a perfect GPA while holding a part-time job at NYU, I decided to redouble my effort by placing out of two classes, taking two honors classes, and holding two part-time jobs. That semester I achieved a 3.93, and in the same time I managed to bench double my bodyweight and do 35 pull ups.

I say these things only because solid evidence is more convincing than unverifiable statements, and I want to demonstrate that I am a hard worker. J.P. Morgan is a firm with a reputation that precedes itself and employees who represent only the best and brightest of those in finance. I know that the employees in this firm will push me to excellence, especially within the Investment Banking division. In fact, one of the supporting reasons I chose Investment Banking over any other division was that I know it is difficult and hope to augment my character by diligently working for the professionals at Morgan Stanley, and have much to offer in return.

I am proficient in several programming languages, and I can pick up a new one very quickly. For instance, I learned a years [sic] worth of Java from NYU in 27 days on my own; this is how I placed out of two classes. I have a fantastic background in [removed] covering a variety of useful topics including [removed]. Even further, I am taking [removed] currently, two [removed] courses [removed] so that I may truly offer the most if I am accepted. I am proficient with Bloomberg terminals, excellent with excel [sic], and can perform basic office functions with terrifying efficiency. I have plenty of experience in the professional world through my internship at [removed]. In fact, my most recent employer has found me so useful that he promoted me to [removed]. This role is usually reserved [removed] but my employer gave the title to me so that he could give me more work.

Please realize that I am not a braggart or conceited, I just want to outline my usefulness. Egos can be a huge liability, and I try not to have one.

Thank you so much for your time, and I look forward to hearing from you.

Best,
[removed]"

 

Dear Bank of America Director—we'd like to present your with our list of 10 Things Wrong with The Cover Letter.

Hope we're a contender for drinks?

0. The Easy Stuff

We'll throw in a quick round up of no brainer/freebie Things Wrong with This Cover Letter, just to keep this challenging. (We're big on self improvement too!)

-Using "sir or madame" instead of a name (elementary, Vaulties, elementary!)

-Saying "I," "myself/self," and/or "me" 35+ times

-Having to actually tell the reader you're not a braggart or conceited (if you're afraid you're making that impression, re-examine what you wrote, immediately.)

Whew, now let's get down to business!

1. Assuming it's others' jobs to "push you to excellence"

That last thing you want to do when trying to get hired is make it sound like a pain in the a$$ to work with you. Even if "self improvement" is your aim (and it's certainly admirable), make no mistake whose job that is: yours.

2. Sounding more interested in collecting accolades than doing the job

You chose a "hard" job so you could add to your character? Great, but again, this is your business—an employer doesn't want to hear that you're punishing yourself by asking for a job hundreds of other would love to do. Tell a hiring manager you're in love with the work and eager to do it, not that you'd view an offer as a trophy.

3. Detailing your accomplishments, but showing no knowledge of the firm's

The writer of this cover letter is great with details, but only when it comes to his number of pull ups. Despite clumsily mentioning the vague "excellence" of the firm, he doesn't appear to have any input on what's going on with Morgan Stanley.

People, there's a press release section on company websites for a reason. Read it, use it.

4. Wasting space on unrelated experience

Unless you can directly tie it in, don't mention a collection of odd skills or jobs. Morgan Stanley doesn't care what you bench press. Bankers need to know if you can code HTML.

You'll just come across as uninformed about the reality of the job you're applying for, and reaching for material to fill space with. After all, if you had the applicable experience, you wouldn't need to waste time talking about your juggling talents, would you?

5. Failing to explain how your skills apply to the job

Spend too much time on your list of accomplishments—and keep mentioning your love of overachieving—and you'll come across as a brownnoser in love with winning things, not a serious, long term candidate for the job.

Nobody wants to serve as a tick on your resume, and Morgan Stanley especially knows that it's sought after by qualified people. Now why are you worth it?

6. Not explaining why you want to work at that particular company

Aside from vague references to a firm's "reputation," you should have something to say about the work the company does and why it interests you.  

Here's a quick test: if you can simply swap company names in a cover letter and send it to Goldman Sachs, you're not being specific enough. Also, if you're actually doing this, know that it's very obvious to the companies.

7. Saying "I" or "me" an excessive number of times

Yeah, we mentioned this before, but it merits a little more explanation.

Here's the thing: especially in a business built on oversized egos like I-Banking, nobody cares about You and Your Many Achievements. So knock it off. Less "I am...," more concrete information that the company needs to know to hire you.

Oh, and excessive references to "I" combined with a "sir or madame" salutation is especially obnoxious. You couldn't be bothered to learn the name of the person you're targeting, but you want him or her to read a five-paragraph treatise on your greatness?

8. Ticking off adjectives

Describing yourself with adjectives--punctual! hard worker!--is a missed opportunity to use real examples of what you bring to the table, lets the hiring manager draw connections between your skills and the pay off for the company. 

Even if you are truly "excellent," anyone can say that, and it's not terribly memorable. Talk about a project you worked on that landed a client--that's speaking a language hiring managers want to hear.

9. Choosing odd adjectives

Speaking of adjectives, we're assuming the writer here just got fatigued of saying how great he was when he switched to "terrifying" to describe his skills.

That definitely scared us, but not in a good way.

10. Lay off the hyperbole

Don't tell a hiring manager you're the best. Tell him why you're excited to work at his company, how you've proven yourself in the past, and how you plan to apply your experience to the company's work.  

He'll decide if you're the best, by inviting you in for an interview. Until then, skip the superlatives.

 

So what do you think—does Vault deserve a round of drinks, or can you find a few faux-pas we missed?

Weigh in below!

Read More:
Does Cold Emailing for Job Actually Work?
How A Tenacious Summer Analyst Applicant Got Laughed At By Goldman, Morgan, And Everyone Else On Wall Street (Business Insider)

--Cathy Vandewater, Vault.com

Filed Under: Interviewing | Job Search | Networking | Resumes & Cover Letters | Workplace Issues


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