Common Cover Letter Mistakes to Avoid (And Some Recommended Guidelines)

Professional job applications obviously require a resume, but whether we like it or not, they also require a cover letter. Most people spend hours crafting their resumes and then bang out a quick cover letter that they use for all of the jobs to which they are applying. They list where they've been and what they've done, which, incidentally, is exactly what resumes are for. Those cover letters usually read as follows: "First I did this, then I did that, and while I was here, I did this. Oh, and I went to school here and got this other degree there, and I really want this job because it's what I've been seeking for a while now." When cover letters only reiterate data covered in the resume, they do little to make the candidate's case. On the other hand, a customized cover letter, in which the applicant links her experience and skill set to a specific position is the kind of letter that truly stands out.

For example, this sentence is about the applicant:

    My experiences to date have been intellectually rewarding but at this point in my career, I'm interested in applying my skills to a Foundation and I now seek a new direction in my career path.

Whereas this sentence is about the applicant's knowledge of the position:

    The Foundation's Director of Marketing and Events will need to balance the often competing priorities of urgent event decisions with important action items while regularly integrating the overall marketing strategy.

See how the first sentence is about the applicant and the second about the applicant's understanding of the job? You get an impossibly short amount of time to convince the reader that you belong in the coveted "yes" pile, and you should think about the cover letter as your opportunity to make this conviction. As a job seeker, you can avoid the pitfalls of the "insert job here" cover letter by personalizing and specifying your qualifications.

Here are some common mistakes to avoid and additional cover letter advice:

  • Don't use an "insert job here" cover letter. It's much more work to write individual letters, but there is a significantly higher chance of getting into the "yes" pile with a personalized letter.
  • If you are applying to more than one position, which most job seekers are, be sure to reference the right organization/company in your letter. You would be amazed at how many letters reference the wrong company.
  • Tell the reader what position you're applying for (they may have more than one) and how you learned of the opportunity. They likely spent money on posting the position and they'll appreciate knowing what outreach worked.
  • Put your contact information in the letter the same way you would in a proper business letter. Needless to say (one hopes), if you have an e-mail address that is not appropriate for a job search, get a professional address with just your name in it.
  • Build an argument that you are qualified for the position and use evidence to support that argument. Avoid the temptation to simply list, as if in a vacuum, what you've done in the past. Explicitly connect what you have done to what the organization is seeking. Definitely take this opportunity to highlight what is already in your resume and include additional information about specific accomplishments, but present it in the context of the particular position to which you are applying.

Deb Berman coaches candidates looking for positions in the social sector (both for profit and non-profit), by working closely with them throughout their entire job search. Appointments can be set up for telephone or in-person consultation by e-mailing Deb at: