Cover letter basics

A badly written cover letter can hurt your chances of landing a great job. What common mistakes should you should try to avoid when writing yours?

Cover letter basics

A badly written cover letter can hurt your chances for landing a great job. It pays to pay attention to every detail in your cover letter.

Avoid common blunders

The most common cover letter mistakes are the following:

• Name that job: Recruiters often try to fill more than one job simultaneously. After the salutation, state exactly which job you're applying for.

• Form letters: The point of a cover letter is to make a personal connection with the reader. Tailor your letter specifically to each company you send it to.

• Don't repeat yourself: Don't regurgitate everything that's in your resume—offer deeper insights into what your resume does not say. Provide an in-depth explanation of some of your key achievements at your last job, for instance, and how those accomplishments could help the company. Or tell a story about a tough problem you solved.

• What's in it for me? Don't say you are applying for the job because of the money, the travel opportunities, a better commute or anything else that concerns only you.

• Balance confidence and humility: While you certainly want to appear competent, arrogance can turn a recruiter off: "Throw away all those other resumes—I'm your guy!"  Show enthusiasm and a positive attitude, but don't overdo it.

Style points

There are some other stylistic pointers to keep in mind:

  • Don't open with "To Whom It May Concern"—get a name.
  • Highlight first and foremost your skills and experiences that match those the employer is seeking.
  • Open with a strong lead sentence.
  • Refer to the job ad and its specific language.
  • Compare your letter to a sample cover letter.
  • Offer to follow up with the recruiter—and do it!
  • For electronic letters, attach your resume and make sure any links to professional samples you include work.
  • Proofread your work.

Before you hit 'send'

Proofread and spell-check your letter before emailing it. Now do it again. Ask a friend or family member to read your cover letter for typos and grammatical errors. (Do the same on your resume before you upload it.) If you're stuck on a grammatical point, consult a guide such as the classic Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White or the Chicago Manual of Style.

Finally, send the letter to yourself as a test to check formatting. If you find errors, correct them and read it one more time—it's easy to overlook a mistake, and you don't a want a typo to ruin all your hard work.

A cover letter may be a brief document, but it's an important one. It introduces you to the recruiter and interests him or her in reading another important document—your resume.

[Excerpted from Your Next Move: Success Strategies for Midcareer Professionals by Marc Karasu and Dan Finnigan.]