3 Mistakes & 3 Tips: Cover Letters

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It’s been an hour, and there’s nothing but a blank screen staring back at you. The job posting closes in another couple hours, and you need to submit a cover letter to go with your resume in order to be considered for the position. But where oh where do you start?

Sound familiar? For most people, it probably does. While there’s a certain comfort level around what a resume is “supposed to” look like, I’ve found that the same often can’t be said about cover letters. For whatever reason, there’s just not as much perceived structure around cover letters, which can be very discomforting, and often results in the production of very generic, boring letters as writers try to play it safe.

As a career advisor, I read a lot of cover letters.  Obscene amounts of cover letters. Good letters, great letters, bad letters, and letters that can only be described as the stuff of nightmares. I’ve seen four-sentence letters, and I’ve seen four-page letters. I’ve read letters that make me laugh (in both the good and the bad ways), and letters that make me want to cry (just in the bad way, I’m afraid).

So, it should come as no surprise that I’ve noticed a few sure-fire ways to make a cover letter really terrible. Here’s my top (bottom) three:

1. Boring and generic. 
Boring cover letters are usually boring right from the very first sentence. What do I mean by boring? You’re bringing nothing new, unique, or distinctive to the application pool. Generic means that your letter could easily be substituted for someone else’s letter, and not much would be lost in translation. Of course, the tone of your whole letter is dictated by what you do in the first paragraph, and I would argue even the first sentence. So, instead of writing “please accept this cover letter and accompanying resume in application for the position of ____,” try writing something that you know no one else is going to write, and that suggests some kind of connection or overlap between you and the position/company. Now you’ve set a tone that sets you apart, instead of blending in with the crowd.

2. Bad spelling and grammar.
It probably seems obvious, but I’m telling you, I see this all the time – and I work exclusively with a more-educated-than-average group: university students and alumni. Spelling and grammar mistakes are very common, and they drive readers crazy. Pour spelling and grammer have a bad effect, okay?

3. No flow. 
You’d probably be surprised if someone with a great writing ability wrote a document that had no sense of flow or narrative to it, but I see this all the time with cover letters. Even clearly proficient writers somehow forget what makes good writing good when it comes to cover letters. It’s as if the fact that the document is a letter means that it doesn’t have to be written with a clear sense of organization or logical structure. People will jump from one point to another, forgetting to include transitional sentences. They’ll write about five or six main ideas, all in one paragraph! Readers like things presented clearly and for everything to fit into one cohesive picture. In other words, good cover letters flow from one thing to the next, and they are clearly organized.

On a general level, those are probably the three main issues I see most commonly with cover letters. So, if you avoid making those mistakes, you’re likely good to go! But how do you avoid those mistakes in the first place?

My advice: think of your cover letter as an essay about why you’re a great fit for the job. Maybe a cover letter is unfamiliar territory, but most students are familiar with the basics of what makes a good essay. Here’s three reasons why thinking in this way will help you to write a better cover letter:

1. Essays are focused on making an argument.
Essays have a clear purpose: make a central argument, then back it up with appropriate evidence. The purpose of your cover letter is to convince an employer that you’ll be their best applicant. Without a clear sense that you’re making that argument, your letter won’t have a central, unifying, and organizing force. In an essay, this argument is made right away, in the introductory paragraph. Same applies to your letter: get to the point!

2. Essays require evidence.
Your argument isn’t much of an argument at all unless it’s backed up by some specific evidence. That’s why essays about literature employ quotations from texts or secondary sources, and why research papers cite empirical studies. For your cover letter, you need specific examples from your own experience to back up whatever points you’re making. Saying you’re good at something is never as effective as showing that you’re good at something. Don’t be afraid to go into detail, either.

3. Essays have a clear structure.
We all know the three main parts of an essay: introduction, body paragraphs, and conclusion. We should also know the main purpose of each of those parts. The introduction catches the reader’s attention and states the central argument. The body paragraphs support that argument using specific evidence grouped into thematically organized paragraphs. Finally, the conclusion summarizes what’s been written and attempts to extend it beyond the scope of the essay (look forward to the interview). Hooray for structure!

So, the next time you’re stuck staring at a blank screen with time ticking away to an application deadline, don’t worry! You know more than you think you do about what a good cover letter looks like.

*Cross-posted in Dave’s Diary at the Career Services Informer.