A cover letter is a crucial career marketing piece. Unfortunately, many job seekers ignore the cover letter or pass it off as “unimportant”. That is so untrue! The cover letter is very important and should accompany your resume whenever possible. “Resume and cover letter” is like “peanut-butter and jelly” – they go together and complement each other.
Often, job seekers struggle with putting together a great cover letter that will support the resume. A cover letter can seem tough to develop because you don’t want to be repetitive of information in the resume, but at the same time, you need to draw attention to the resume. It can be a bit of a balancing act to get the verbiage correct while making it effective. Here are some common errors that occur in cover letters:
Not Addressed to a Specific Person
“To Whom It May Concern:” is a poor start for a cover letter. Do some research and find out the name of the person to whom the package should be directed. If you absolutely cannot find to whom it should go, aim high. If you send it to the head of the company or head of the department, it will have a better chance of getting to the decision-maker than if you simply send it to the HR department.
It can be difficult to know how to start a cover letter when the resume/cover letter is submitted online and there is no name (and sometimes not even a company name). An alternative to a greeting is to indicate the job posting number or title, and perhaps where the job was posted in a reference line at the beginning of the cover letter; for example: “RE: Marketing Assistant Position – ID# 3456”
Depending on the type of recipient, the cover letter will vary in content and approach. A cover letter to a network contact will be somewhat different in content and tone than a cover letter to a blind job advertisement. A cover letter to a recruiter will have some information normally not included in a cover letter that goes directly to the employer such as information about salary, availability, and relocation. A broadcast cover letter will be set up differently than a cover letter going directly to a specific person. Make sure you are aware of the differences and use the right approach for the audience.
It is much too easy to start every sentence in a cover letter with “I” or “My”, so don’t fall to the temptation. Repetitively saying “I” turns off the reader. Vary your sentence structure and focus on your achievements and results. It makes for better communication all around.
Too Long/Too Short
A cover letter should not run past one page. If you have more than that, you know you are being wordy. Three to four paragraphs is a general rule of thumb. If you will be emailing your cover letter in the body of the email with your resume attached, be briefer than if you were sending it in a more traditional manner or as an attached document. People are accustomed to short, to-the-point email messages so don’t go overboard with detail.
Sometimes people seem to think they can include information in the cover letter that certainly has no place in the resume. A good example would be a reason for leaving an employer. Reason for leaving is irrelevant – focus on the future and how you can make a contribution to a new employer. Health status is another issue that sometimes shows up in a cover letter – “I am in good health, energetic, and ready to get started”. Anything that reveals age, religion, ethnicity, etc. should be withheld from both the cover letter and resume. Employers are very wary of litigation and fair hiring practices. Including information that is not needed/wanted by an employer will hurt, not help.
Your cover letter should have a name header at the top that matches the header on your resume – like a letterhead. Make sure your font size is large enough to be easily read. Keep the alignment of your margins clean and even. The balance from the top of the page to the bottom should be appropriate; avoid large white voids above or below the text by balancing the text visually.
When sending by email, make sure you use a business-like signature without personal mottos and slogans. “Save the endangered snail darter” might be part of your email signature to friends and family but it has no place on an emailed cover letter. Create a signature for job search that contains your contact information such as phone numbers and email address. A branding line might also be appropriate; for example, “Joe Smith, Software Developer”. Always be aware of the presentation you provide to prospective employers and recruiters and make sure it is top-shelf.
About the Author:
Alesia Benedict, Certified Professional Resume Writer (CPRW) and Job and Career Transition Coach (JCTC) is the President of GetInterviews.com, the country’s leading resume writing firm. They provide professionals with customized, branded resumes and career marketing documents. Her and her firm’s credentials include being cited by JIST Publications as one of the “best resume writers in North America,” quoted as a career expert in The Wall Street Journal, and published in a whopping 25+ career books. Established in 1994, the firm has aided more than 75,000 job seekers to date. All resume writers are certified writers. GetInterviews.com offers a free resume critique and their services come with a wonderful guarantee — interviews in 30 days or they’ll rewrite for free!