How to Avoid Common Cover Letter Mistakes

Knowing what not to do in a cover letter is just as important as knowing what to do. The tips provided here are not necessarily comprehensive. Much of this is common sense, but a review is never a bad thing. You have a lot on your mind when compiling a job search. The following is a list of common errors and reminders when it comes to writing letters.

Misspelling Recipient's Name

This is a common problem that occurs more than it should and can put you out of the running. Those who review cover letters and résumés are often looking for any reason to disqualify a candidate, particularly when they have hundreds of letters to read. When conducting your research, be sure to inquire how to spell the recipient's name. If you are unsure whether the recipient is male or female, inquire as to gender as well. Sometimes you will find that only an initial and last name are provided in a job posting. Unless the advertisement specifically states "no phone calls please," call to find out the first name; even though you will not address the person by first name only, it will speak well for you to include the full name with the address information. You will then address the recipient as Mr. or Ms. last name, followed by a colon as you begin your letter.

Using Sir or Madam

There is no reason to use one of these salutations. Ideally, you will have the name of a person to whom to address your letter. If you do not know, and there is absolutely no way to find out, do not use either sir or madam, because you do not know the gender of the person you are addressing. Acceptable salutations include Dear Hiring Manager, Hiring Executive, or Hiring Committee. You may also opt to leave off the salutation and use the "RE" subject line in its place, thereby avoiding the situation altogether.

Forgetting to Change Company Name or Addressee When Sending Direct Mail Letters

It has happened more than once: A writer uses the "save as" function or copies and pastes wording from an earlier letter to create a new one. Without carefully reviewing the letter, the writer forgets to change the company information or the contact name. Oops! This is one sure way to get your letter tossed into the recycle bin.

When conducting a direct mail campaign, learn to use the mail merge function in your word processing program. This will allow you to write a letter with functions that will let you create your addresses and salutations in a separate document. You can then merge the two, eliminating the risk of sending out a letter with the wrong information. If you are using the "save as" function to create a new letter from an old one, be sure to review the letter thoroughly before sending it out. Do not rely on your eyes reading from the computer screen. Print the letter and review the hard copy.

Including Personal Information

Some information should never be included in a cover letter or in your résumé. Do not discuss your marital status, race, religious preferences, sexual orientation, or anything of the sort. Nor should you mention that you own five cats unless you are applying for a position in animal care. Only include information directly related to the job. Leave your personal life out of it.

Discussing Why You Lost Your Last Job or that You Are Under-Qualified

If you left a job on not-so-good terms or were fired, do not include this in your cover letter! Some people feel the need to explain situations that need no explanation unless it comes up in the interview. Even if you had a bad experience, focus only on the positives in your letter. You do not need to inform a prospective employer that, even though you were fired from your last job, you have now seen the errors of your ways and are ready for more responsibility. Instead, highlight the skills and experiences that will support your candidacy, not put you in a bad light. In the job-hunting process, you are the only person who can sell yourself; avoid actions that will break the sale before your résumé is even read.

Similarly, do not inform the employer of where you are lacking. If you are applying for a position for which you are mostly qualified but lack one or two skills, do not inform the reader that you are not fully qualified. Instead, focus on those areas where you do meet the requirements and sell those in the best way you know how.

Selling an Unrelated History

For those of you seeking a position not related to previous jobs or unrelated to your degree, focus only on those skills and experiences that are transferable to the position being sought. Do not go on and on about your extensive sales records while working in retail when you are seeking a job in physical therapy. Instead, focus on the people skills you developed while working with the public.

Writing in too Casual a Manner

One purpose of your cover letter is to let the reader see that you are in fact human and to allow some of your personality to shine through in the letter. However, this is not the place to be overly casual; this is still a business document. Remember that you are not writing to your best friend; you are writing to your potential boss. Mind your manners and keep it professional.

Writing in Third Person

Third person is when you write about yourself as he or she. "Robert earned his degree at the University of Utah in 2004." This is too formal and awkward of a way to compose your letters and is not recommended.

Using Inappropriate Humor

It can be very tempting to attempt humor in your letter. You may think that this will endear you to your reader or allow your lighthearted personality to become evident. The problem with including humor in your letter is that humor is very difficult to write. You run the risk of being misunderstood, viewed as unprofessional, or as a clueless job hunter who does not know what is appropriate. Including lines such as "plays well with others" or "holds godlike status among peers" will only be viewed as amateurish. Save moderate humor for in-person meetings, and then use it with discretion.

Gearing Letter Toward What You Want

Hopefully the point has been hammered home that you want to gear your correspondence toward what you can offer an employer, not what you hope to gain from a position. In case the point has been missed, here is one more reminder. Do not include a list of things you hope to gain from the position, and definitely avoid the cliché of "seeking an entry-level position with room for advancement" or anything close to this.

Including Salary or Benefit Requests

Salary requirements should rarely be mentioned in a cover letter. Some job postings ask that you include your current salary or salary requirements. You can sidestep this by saying something along the lines of "As for salary, I am sure you offer a competitive wage for this market." You do run the risk of not having your résumé read because you did not give a specific number, but this is rarely the case if you present yourself well. If you feel you must provide a dollar amount, provide a range rather than a specific number. Be sure to research typical salaries for your field and for the local market. Salary information can be found at the following websites: http://www.abbott-langer.com, http://www.bls.gov/bls/wages.htm, and http://salary.monster.com. Ideally, the issue of salary will not be raised until you have been given a job offer. Wait until then to discuss it, and let the employer be the first to initiate the money discussion.

Similarly, do not mention anything about benefits or perks you would like to have included in a job offer. This is not the place. The only time you should include salary requirements in your letters is when you are writing to a recruiter. He or she needs to know what your requirements are to place you appropriately.

Using Garish Paper or Paper that Does Not Match or Compliment the Résumé

All of your correspondence to a company probably will end up in the same file. Use the same header for all of your correspondence for continuity. When you use quality paper that is the same or is complimentary, you show that you are a professional and pay attention to details and how you present yourself. Avoid using bright colors. Of course, there are some exceptions, but a general rule is to err on the conservative side using white, off-white, or light gray. Those in creative fields, such as graphic arts or some design jobs, for example, can be more experimental in their presentations. Everyone should avoid using poor-quality paper.

Using Completely Different Font from that of Résumé/Too Many Fonts/Etc.

It is preferable to use the same font as you do in your résumé to create a uniform look. If you choose to use a different font, use one similar in appearance. For example, if you use a serif font in your résumé, use a serif font for your correspondence. Avoid mixing many fonts. At the most, you may have a different style in your heading than you do for the body of the letter. Other than that, do not add fonts to the mix. It will be distracting to your reader and take away from the message you are trying to present.

You also want to use enhancements sparingly. This includes bold, underlining, ALL CAPS, and italics. When used appropriately, these enhancements can add emphasis to important points. If used too much, your reader is left wondering what is most important. These enhancements can be visually distracting and take away from the message if over used.

Remember, you want your words to convey your meaning instead of relying on gimmicks. It is possible to write an effective letter without using any enhancements. If you find yourself relying on these tools to emphasize your points, consider rewriting the letter. Ask a trusted friend to read the letter for you and provide suggestions. Review the samples provided in this section. You will notice many letters that do not use text enhancements at all.

Using an Inappropriate Style

Pay attention to the style of letter you choose to write. If you are under qualified for a position, do not use the "T" style letter, as this will only have the opposite effect of what you are trying to do by highlighting where you are lacking as opposed to showing how you match the requirements point by point.

A paragraph letter may be more appropriate than a bulleted list in some instances, particularly if you are aiming for a friendlier approach in your letter. Use your discretion, and have someone else read your letter if you are in doubt. Review the samples provided to get a feel for how each style is most effectively used.

Misspellings or Grammatical Errors

Any errors in your letter can automatically put you out of the running. Print your letter before sending it. Proof it, proof it again, and proof it one more time. Review Chapter Nine for an overview of spelling, grammar, and commonly misused words.

Also review the section on writing in the active voice. You want all of your communications to be written this way. The passive voice is much less effective and results in wordiness. Using the active voice therefore serves you in two ways: It makes your writing more effective and keeps your sentences shorter.