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6 Cover Letter Mistakes that can Derail Your Job Search

6 Cover Letter Mistakes that can Derail Your Job Search

Never underestimate the power of including a customized cover letter when submitting your resume for a job.  When I was navigating my career within the corporate workforce, I was told that whenever you submit your resume to apply for a job, you should also submit a cover letter. So I did and that worked well for me – even after I decided to go the self-employed route as a contract copywriter soliciting and bidding for individual projects.

So it surprises me whenever job-seeking clients ask whether or not I consider sending a cover letter necessary when applying for a job. My question is always the same: why wouldn’t you?

Think of a cover letter as the companion to your resume. A cover letter provides an opportunity to expand on specific achievements, projects, skills, work experience, and other credentials that correlate to a specific job. It provides a vehicle for expanding on the details and providing additional context in a way that you can’t in the resume. You can spotlight information and experiences that resonate with a job’s requirements that matter most.  And if you can communicate these accomplishments in a fresh and distinctive way, then all the better!

Unfortunately, many cover letters miss the mark with errors that keep job seekers from standing out and being selected for the interview. In more than 10 years of working with and coaching job seekers in various professions and industries across varying career levels, I’ve identified 6 commonly repeated cover letter mistakes to avoid.

1. Using a General Cover Letter Template

In a competitive job market, cookie-cutter resumes and cover letters won’t get results. I know it’s easier to use the same cover letter with a few tweaks here and there, but that shortcut is selling you short professionally.

Recommendation: Instead, focus on the job’s requirements and customize your letter with examples of how you have demonstrated the knowledge and skills they’re looking for in their next new hire. For example, if one of the job’s requirements is project leadership, share details about a previous project that show your experience in all phases of project planning, scheduling, team management, reporting, budgeting, and timeline management all the way through to the deliverables and project completion.

 2. Making it All About You

A lot of cover letters spend paragraph after paragraph talking about themselves. They talk about the school they attended, their training, what inspired them to get into the “fill-in-the-blank” profession, why they quit or were laid off, what led to a recent or impending relocation, etc.

Recently I worked with a client looking to transition from a STEM teaching career back into an Environmental Science Research career where she had 10+ years of previous experience. She originally made the decision to pivot from Environmental Science into teaching when her father became ill and unable to care for himself and she relocated back to her hometown to become his primary caregiver.  Unfortunately, he passed away and after settling his affairs, she decided to once again pursue opportunities in the Environmental Science space.

When we began working together, she shared a cover letter she’d been sending to potential employers, and the majority of the letter described her caregiving responsibilities and challenges. As someone who was a caregiver for both of my parents, I know how difficult that experience can be. However, as a career professional, I knew that including the details of her caregiving experience would likely be an uncomfortable topic for the reader; and a cover letter is not the ideal place for sharing that type of information.

The problem with this approach is that an employer with 200+ resumes to review cares less about your “why” (at this stage of the hiring process) and is more concerned with your ability to meet the requirements of the advertised job. A vacant job position costs an employer money so getting the right person into position quickly to hit the ground running is critical.

Recommendation: For now, respond to the employer’s needs by providing specific examples of how you’ve performed the specific skills being sought.

3. Sharing Irrelevant Information

This is a continuation of “making it all about you.” Remember that any information that you include in a cover letter that isn’t directly related to the job requirements is likely irrelevant. So writing about a desperate situation that getting the job will help solve; or going on and on about how you know you aren’t qualified for the position, but the employer won’t regret hiring you anyway – this kind of information does NOT need to be included.

Recommendation: Focus on the employer’s need by responding to the job post – it will clearly state what they are looking for in a candidate. Use the posting as your guide. I also recommend spending some time researching the company to learn more about the organizational culture so that you can effectively communicate your qualifications in a way they will find most meaningful.

4. Including Tired, Overused Wording, and Phrasing

Try your best to avoid overused words and phrases such as “to whom it may concern,” “responsible for,” “results-oriented,” “thinking outside-the-box,” “team player,” and so on.

Recommendation: Try communicating these professional attributes in a different way that conveys the same meaning. Instead of saying you’re a “team player,” provide examples of how well you collaborate and work with a team.

5. Restating Your Resume

Keep in mind that the purpose of the cover letter is to accompany your resume so there’s no need to rehash the exact same points. The cover letter is your opportunity to sell yourself so apply a strategic approach.

Recommendation: You can however expand on an achievement highlighted in your resume by providing more details. You can also introduce information that wasn’t mentioned in the resume yet may still be of interest to a potential employer.

6. Not Proofreading for Typos

Make sure to carefully proofread your cover letter and resume before you submit them. I’m well aware that mistakes happen despite the best intentions, but according to CareerBuilder, 70% of employers revealed that a typo would cause them to pass over an otherwise qualified job candidate.

Recommendation: It’s so easy to miss errors when you’ve spent a lot of time working on a document, so take a break (an hour or more) before proofreading so you can view your documents with fresh eyes. I also recommend having someone else proofread for you (two sets of eyes are better than one) to make sure everything is spelled and grammatically correct before submitting. If there’s no one available to proofread for you, read your letter out loud so that you can catch mistakes that might go unnoticed.

Image: Scott Graham

Now be honest… is the resume and cover letter you’ve been submitting for jobs getting you noticed? What about your LinkedIn? Are you receiving invitations to interview? If not, we should talk! Contact me by phone: 1-866-562-0850 or email: for a NO COST, NO OBLIGATION 15-minute consultation. 

Kimberly Ben is a multi-credentialed Professional Resume and LinkedIn Writer and Job Search Coach. She has written hundreds of resumes, cover letters, LinkedIn profiles, and other career communications for multiple career industries and professions. Kimberly’s extensive education, training, and experience have resulted in a clear understanding of current hiring best practices and the most effective job search techniques, branding strategies, and insight on what it takes to gain the competitive edge and impress employers in a challenging job market.

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