Female typing up a cover letter on her laptop sitting at her desk with a pencil in her hand.

When you’re at a party mingling with a bunch of different guests, you sometimes only have a few seconds to introduce yourself to a person before you get pulled into another conversation or get distracted by the snack table. If you want to make a strong first impression, you have to make those few seconds count. Your cover letter is the professional version of a quick introduction. If you make a misstep in this important first interaction, it can significantly harm your chances of moving forward as a candidate for a job. We’ll reveal the top 10 cover letter mistakes and offer tips to make sure you avoid them during your job search. 

The importance of creating a cover letter

A cover letter will introduce you to a prospective employer, highlight your qualifications for a specific position, and share your relevant professional accomplishments. 

Together with your resume, your cover letter should communicate why you’re a strong candidate for the job you want. In contrast to your resume, your cover letter allows you to show a bit of your personality. It also allows you to address additional topics that may be pertinent to your candidacy, like explaining employment gaps or conveying details in your personal background that make you uniquely qualified. 

When you should attach a cover letter

You should send a cover letter whenever you’re applying for a job. This holds true whether you’re applying for a job you saw posted online, responding about a position you were referred to, or expressing interest in working for a company without applying to a particular role.

You can also send a cover letter to introduce yourself and spotlight your credentials in other situations, like if you’re applying for an academic program or seeking grant funding. 

10 cover letter mistakes to avoid

1. Failing to customize your letter

This is by far the number one mistake candidates make when writing a cover letter. Too many candidates merely copy and paste their name and other details into a generic template they found online instead of creating a unique and personalized letter for every job they’re applying to. 

What to do instead: Customize your resume for your desired job, drafting a new one for each position you apply to. Fill it with specific details that will differentiate you from other candidates. For example: why do you want this job? What attracted you to the company? What are your most relevant skills? What previous experiences have prepared you for success in this role? Why are you passionate about your career? All of these tidbits will help position you as a stronger candidate for a hiring manager. 

2. Using an inappropriate tone

One of the reasons you should create a different cover letter for every job application is that different companies can have very different cultures. Your cover letter should align with that particular organization’s style and values.

If you’re applying to a creative startup that’s known for innovation but use stuffy, formal language, the hiring manager could view it as a potential mismatch. The opposite is true, as well. If the job you want is with a prestigious traditional firm and you use a tone that’s too informal, you risk coming across as too casual. 

What to do instead: Use your research about the company to inform the tone of your letter. Another thing that will influence the tone is who you’re writing to. A letter to a hiring manager you know on a first-name basis should read differently than one addressed to someone you’ve never met. 

3. Repeating your resume

Though a cover letter and a resume often go hand in hand, don’t mistake them for being comparable documents. A resume is more rigid and formatted like a list, whereas a cover letter should be written as if you’re speaking directly to the hiring manager. 

It’s also a mistake to regurgitate the content that’s already in your resume. Your cover letter should add to the information that’s in your resume versus repeating it. 

What to do instead: Use your cover letter to share details that don’t fit in a resume, like how your personal values coincide with the organization’s mission or how you spearheaded a challenging project that provided excellent background experience. 

4. Failing to quantify achievements

Anyone can say they ‘increased sales’ or ‘provided great customer service.’ Without evidence to support your statements, your claims are just that–claims. A hiring manager cannot determine the stronger candidate if they receive multiple applications that show similar skills. 

What to do instead: Quantify your achievements with supporting anecdotes, statistics, and measurable results. For example, you might say you ‘increased sales by 23%’ or ‘provided great customer service by responding personally to an average of 30 email inquiries weekly.’ This gives credibility to your claims and differentiates you from other similar candidates. 

5. Focusing too much on yourself

Though your cover letter is meant to promote yourself as a candidate, there’s a fine line between showcasing your strengths and bragging. Rather than focusing primarily on you, your letter should center around the value you bring to an employer. 

What to do instead: With every anecdote or piece of information you choose to include in your cover letter, you should also communicate how it made a positive impact on the company, its clients, the community, etc. 

6. Making demands

If you were meeting a new acquaintance for the first time, you wouldn’t start making demands like ‘I want to hang out every weekend’ or ‘You must answer my text messages within five minutes.’ That would be a huge red flag for a prospective friend. So why would you start off by making demands when introducing yourself to a prospective employer? 

Your cover letter is not the appropriate place to state your salary requirements, scheduling preferences, or any other requests about your presumed employment. 

What to do instead: Do your due diligence to ensure you’re applying for jobs that fit your preferences well. For example, if a job posting doesn’t list a salary range, do market research to determine the likely salary for someone with your experience level in this position and location. Save conversations about your requirements for later in the hiring process when you’ve received an offer or are in the final stages of interviewing.  

7. Sharing too much information

Your cover letter is like the teaser on the back cover of a book. It should showcase your biggest selling points and hook the reader into knowing more without spilling the entire story. That means your cover letter shouldn’t go into details that aren’t directly relevant to your strengths as a candidate, like the fact that you’re looking to move across the country after a bad breakup or that you were fired from your last job.

What to do instead: Stick to pertinent professional details that reflect positively on you as a candidate. Additional details may be acceptable in some cases, like if you’re switching careers and need to explain why the positions on your resume are in a different industry or if you have a big employment gap because you took time off to go back to school.  

8. Using the wrong format

Resumes come in many different styles that can be used depending on your situation and objective. Cover letters, on the other hand, are pretty standard across the board. You don’t want to overcomplicate things with a nontraditional format, which can put your letter at risk of being ignored or rejected.  

What to do instead: Stick to a traditional, easily readable cover letter format. The basic components to include are:

  • A header that includes your contact information and the date (this is only necessary if you’re sending a printed cover letter)
  • A salutation with the recipient’s name
  • The body of your letter
  • Your signature  

In most cases, you’ll either want to write your cover letter directly in the body of an email or attach it as a PDF. But be sure to check the job requirements for any specific instructions about how cover letters should be submitted. 

9. Forgetting to include keywords

Keywords are often talked about in resumes, but they’re also useful in cover letters. The right keywords help your application make it past automated applicant tracking systems and get in front of a human hiring manager. 

What to do instead: Incorporate relevant keywords throughout your cover letter. Don’t go overboard–insert them only where they flow naturally within your writing. 

10. Failing to proofread

A cover letter that’s riddled with typos is unprofessional and reflects poorly on you as a candidate. If your application doesn’t get tossed out as a result, at the very least, you risk raising red flags about your attention to detail. 

What to do instead: Have your English major friend or a trusted mentor proofread your cover letter before you send it to catch any misspellings or grammatical errors. 

Awareness of these cover letter mistakes will help you draft an engaging, impressive letter that will entice a recruiter to contact you for a job interview. If you need a little more guidance before you start writing, check out our cover letter guide with a customizable template here. 

Need help updating your resume? We suggest using a professional resume service like BeamJobs!

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Pete Newsome is the founder of zengig, which he created after more than two decades in staffing and recruiting. He’s also President of 4 Corner Resources, the Forbes America's Best Staffing and Recruiting Firm he founded in 2005, and is a member of the American Staffing Association and TechServe Alliance. In addition to his passion for staffing, Pete is now committed to zengig becoming the most comprehensive source of expert advice, tools, and resources for career growth and happiness. When he’s not in the office or spending time with his family of six, you can find Pete sharing his career knowledge and expertise through public speaking, writing, and as the host of the Finding Career Zen & Hire Calling podcasts. Connect with Pete on LinkedIn