Every job seeker wants their cover letter to get noticed. But you won’t ever get that all-important job interview if you’re getting noticed for all the wrong reasons. Is your cover letter working for you?
Over the years I’ve read many cover letters that do more harm than good. While writing a great cover letter (see links below) can at times make a big difference, often even an ok one (with the right experience) can get you to move forward in the process.
But a bad cover letter can bring your chances with the company to a screeching halt. Here are some obvious and not-so-obvious reasons your cover letter may need urgent help:
12 cover letter mistakes that can crush your interview chances
I’m not saying this is a comprehensive list of every single thing that can come between you and that interview you want. Sometimes, it’s simply not the right match no matter how hard you work it. But sometimes, overcoming the obstacle is totally in your control!
1. Obvious form letter
I made this mistake when I was first starting out, so don’t feel bad if this is you. But no one wants an employee who is too lazy to take the time to write a creative letter that shows why they actually care about this particular job.
You want to grab their attention — not bore them to death with mediocrity. What they see now reflects on the type of employee they think you’ll be.
2. TMI (too much information)
Some job postings get hundreds of applicants. You want to respect the screener’s time and keep them interested. Even if your writing is phenomenal, they don’t need to wade through paragraph after paragraph just to get to the tasty nuggets that show why you’re the perfect candidate.
3. Make-a-match failure
This is often a big cover letter problem. A screener needs to see the match as soon as possible. But many times job seekers go on and on about skills that may be fabulous — but have little to do with the job opening.
Help them by showing how your skills and experience match what they want. And that goes for your resume too! (See link below for resume help.)
4. The smell of negativity
This one is not always obvious, especially to the job seeker. But when we screen cover letters, we not only look for the skills and experience, but often we get a certain feel from the cover letter and resume. You want that feel to be positive and inviting — leaving them wanting more.
A reader recently told me she added words like these in her cover letter: “Other employers have been wasting my time, but not you!” And then she went on to tell them why they were right for her. She actually thought this was a positive spin. But alarm bells go off on the employer side.
5. Blame game
This is a variation of “the smell of negativity” above. Except this is even more of an outright taboo. Whether in your cover letter or interviews, don’t ever talk down former bosses or companies — even if you are making a point of contrast. This will only work against you, as true as your words may be.
Everything you say or do during the interview process reflects on how you’ll fit into this new company. Often, a person who badmouths people from the past, will do the same in the future. Also, employers may be wary that this person is the real source of the problem, something they carry with them from job to job.
6. Hard sell
Not only is TMI a potential cover letter problem, but too much information about how mind-blowingly awesome you are can be a huge turnoff to an employer. Most of us hate the hard sell when it comes to product marketing, and it certainly is not a wise interview “marketing” technique.
Yes, they need to know you are highly qualified and / or have qualities that will fit well with the job, but it’s all in how you present yourself. Find a few things that show you match what THEY need. And don’t be heavy-handed. They want someone they’ll enjoy working with day-in and day-out.
7. Hard luck sell
I’ve seen really sad cover letters that explain how hard life has been for the person, in effect hoping the employer will have compassion for them and hire them just for that reason. It’s not that we don’t feel bad for the person, but that’s not how an employer thinks when committing their own dollars to an important hiring decision.
Your job in a cover letter is to keep the reader interested and envisioning how you might fit the company’s needs. Even if they are an employer looking to give a break to folks who have had some hard times, they first need to see you get what THEY need. And that should be your focus.
8. Job search story
Employers don’t need to know about your job search — whether it’s hard luck stories or funny stories. Save that for friends and family. Every job candidate could give some version of that. What they need to know is what’s so special about you and why that would work well for them.
The stories you will want to use in interviews or (briefly) in a cover letter, will help show your accomplishments as they relate to the new job’s needs.
9. Life story
Another variation of TMI, some job seekers use cover letter to tell their whole life story — or at least a lot of it. The same is true when you answer the “tell me about yourself” question in job interviews. PLEASE don’t go way back to your grade school honors or the time you won 2nd prize in a high school science fair.
Think about the job description and what things you have done / skills you have that can show the employer the match. If you have something extra directly related to the job and / or what you know about the company, by all means add it. But not in excruciating detail.
10. Making your pitch all about the company
I remember more than once sitting down to interview a prospective candidate who gushed about our company. On and on they went about how wonderful we are, recounting all the things they had read – and worst of all some of them got things wrong, even with readily-available facts!
Look, we want you to know about us. But this is your precious chance to get us to want YOU, not reinforcing how much we love our own company. use the time wisely to help us connect the dots between your talents, knowledge, and experience and what we are hoping to find.
11. Grammar, typos & appearance
There is no reason in this day and age to send a sloppy cover letter — whether that means typos, poor grammar, or just no attention to the way it looks. You have tools to help with all of that. This is their first impression of you. Make it a good one. And that includes no emojis or text speak!
12. Potential red flags
So, after all that, is there anything else that might get in the way of a positive impression? Glad you asked. Here are a few more things to be aware if when you write your cover letter:
- mention of irrelevant things or going off on tangents
- writing tone (overly familiar or overly stiff)
- strange handwriting or signature (if you send snail mail)
- weird enclosures to catch their attention (be safe, leave it out unless you are 100% sure)
- evidence of you being high maintenance (worrying / complaining about how things affect you)
- hints of credit problems or financial difficulties (try to correct any of that NOW)
- including oddities of any sort (again … be safe, leave it out)
So what goes into writing a good cover letter?
Ok. So now we’ve seen countless ways a job seeker can undermine his or her own chances for an interview. Some are fairly obvious — although if they were completely obvious no one would do them. Some are less apparent, especially for folks new to job search and cover letters.
So what can you do to make sure your cover letter actually helps rather than hurts?
Some posts to help: