5 ways to screw up your cover letter (and how to fix it)

Published on: Jul 12, 2017

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Jenny Headshot [square]Jenny Foss is a career strategist, recruiter, and the voice behind the popular career website, JobJenny.com, which offers advice and services for navigating job search and career transition.






For most people, cover letters are hard: We don't want to do them. We don't know what to say. And, unfortunately, many people screw them up—sometimes in fairly benign ways, but other times in ways that squander an opportunity to land the interview.

Here are five incredibly common ways you may be failing to take full advantage of this valuable real estate, and how you can avoid them:

1. You use the same cover letter for every job you apply to.

Managers want to hire people who have genuine interest in their organization, and compelling reasons for applying to that specific job. Your cover letter is a perfect opportunity to showcase this. When you use one generic cover letter, swapping out only company names and contact information, you toss this opportunity out the window. Instead of saying, "Here's who I am, why I want to work for you and what, specifically, I can deliver," you'll say, "I'm wallpapering the universe with my resume and cover letter. Don't mind the corner-cutting, thanks." 

What to do instead: Customize every single cover letter. Consider quality over quantity: The "spray and pray" method might feel productive, but if the person (or resume-scanning software) on the receiving end gets the idea you're just going through the motions, they’ll likely move on to the next candidate. 

2. You tell the reviewer all the things you want out of the deal.

Many cover letters I read spell out in detail what the jobseeker wants in their next role. Don't get me wrong: It's important to have (and pursue) career goals. However, when you're approaching a potential employer, they care about what's in it for them. Once you're a valuable asset, your employer will care about developing your career and keeping you happy, but at the front end of the relationship it is all about them. 

What to do instead: Focus on what you can show up and deliver. Study the job description and any other information you have about the role, then highlight—specifically—how your background lines up with your understanding of their requirements.

3. You get hung up on the "proper" format.

Certainly, you want a cover letter that's polished and easy-to-read. That doesn’t mean you have to stick to a stale textbook format. In fact, a letter that looks formulaic can cause a reviewer's eyes to glaze over before they get to the meat of your message. 

What to do instead: Align the font and basic layout of your cover letter with your resume, but give yourself the freedom to say what you need to say in the style that best suits you. Spell like a champ and nail the grammar; be consistent in what you bold, italicize, or underline; and give the layout some white space so it's a breeze to consider what you've got to offer. Beyond that? Don't get tangled up in the so-called rules.

4. You rehash your resume.

Your resume outlines who you are as a professional and what you've achieved in your career. Your cover letter doesn't need to do this also. Instead, it should tie your skills and experience directly to what the employer is seeking, making it easy for the reviewer to connect the dots between what they need and what you can deliver. 

What to do instead: Show the reviewer how, specifically, your background aligns with what they are seeking. Point out specific examples that demonstrate your strength as a candidate, and show that you can hit the ground running.

5. You show zero personality.

Applying for a job is about selling yourself, and you'll never convince anyone to purchase anything by boring them. Whether you're selling nose hair trimmers, sandwiches, or your professional capabilities, you can (and should!) use your personality and your story to influence a purchase decision. 

What to do instead: You’ll have a much easier time inspiring a purchase decision—that is, inviting you in for an interview—if you sprinkle a bit of personality into your cover letter. This is your first shot at giving your future employer a glimpse at you: Take advantage of it. 

Want more (100 percent free) help putting together your next cover letter? Enroll in JobJenny’s free, self-paced Cover Letter Crash Course, an easy-to-follow video series that walks you step-by-step through the process our team uses when developing cover letters for clients.  

For resume help, consider our Weekend Resume Makeover Course, which takes you through the process of crafting or updating a resume—and save $75 through August 10 by using the promo code SAVE75 at checkout. Check out a preview module, or enroll, right here. 

This article originally appeared in a slightly different form on JobJenny.com’s email newsletter.