Proving you're the right candidate for the job on one side of A4 isn't easy but it's vital that you get your cover letter right. Learn more about how to avoid common cover letter mistakes

While your CV outlines your academic achievements and your employment history, whether you’re invited to interview usually hinges on your cover letter.

While many are aware of common CV mistakes (think poor formatting, spelling errors and lying) cover letter errors are often overlooked.

'Mistakes in your cover letter can create a negative impression,' says Carl Jukes, employability adviser at the University of Birmingham. 'Employers often use cover letters to assess your attention to detail, communication skills, and professionalism. Mistakes can make you appear careless or unqualified for the position. It is essential to thoroughly proofread and edit your cover letter to ensure it is error free.'

To make sure your letter doesn't stand out for the wrong reasons look at what to avoid when writing one.

1. Using a general greeting

'Addressing your cover letter to a named person demonstrates that you have taken the time and effort to research and personalise your application,' explains Carl. So always try and identify a named contact when writing your cover letter. 'It shows that you have a genuine interest in the company and the position. Additionally, it helps create a connection between you and the employer, making your letter more engaging.'

Opening with 'To whom it may concern' or 'Dear Sir/Madam' will likely lead your application to the no pile, especially if recruiters' details are easily found in the job description.

Using a general salutation also suggests that you've used a generic cover letter template without trying to change any of the details (see more on templates below).

You usually address cover letters to HR managers or heads of department if applying directly to organisations, or to specific recruitment consultants if applying through an agency.

If a contact isn't listed in the job description, or if you're applying for a role speculatively, you'll need to do some research. Visit the company website to see if you can find the name of their hiring manager, conduct a Google search to see if you can find their details, are they on LinkedIn? If you've searched online and can't find the information there's nothing wrong with giving the organisation a call to enquire who to address your cover letter to.

Only when you've exhausted all your options when looking for a named contact is it ok to use a general salutation. ''Dear hiring manager' is still better than a generic 'To whom it may concern,'' adds Carl.

Remember that the way you address your letter also affects how you sign off. If you include a named contact, sign off with 'Yours sincerely' and if you are not able to identify a contact, end with 'Yours faithfully’. 

2. Being overly friendly

While a cover letter should give a recruiter an insight into who you are as a person, being overly personal or overly friendly is a big no-no. Avoid writing about your personal life and steer clear of jokes and sarcasm - these don't translate well on paper.

'Remember that a cover letter is a formal business document, and maintaining a professional tone is crucial,' says Carl. 'Being excessively casual or informal may come across as unprofessional and undermine your credibility. It's best to strike a balance by being polite, enthusiastic, and respectful without overstepping professional boundaries.'

Similarly, try not to sound too keen. Enthusiasm for the role is important and your cover letter is the perfect place for you to convey this, but don't go overboard with compliments. Avoid gushing about or begging for the job. Your cover letter needs to sound genuine; employers can spot insincerity a mile away.

Trying too hard to stand out by using methods such as unusual fonts and coloured paper is a huge turn off for recruiters. If you're the right candidate for the job, you'll stand out regardless.

3. Only focusing on what the company can do for you

This cover letter mistake will kill your application before it even gets started. Explaining why you want the job in terms of what you can gain from the organisation is kind of like stating the obvious - employers already know what they have to offer.

Instead, it's essential that you use your cover letter as an opportunity to detail how your knowledge, skills and experience can benefit the company.

Making your cover letter all about you and your goals can give the impression that you're not a team player. In applying for a new job employers understand that you're trying to progress your career, but they also want to know how you'll help their organisation progress.

To do this successfully you'll need to research the company. Use a range of resources to help with this - from looking at the employer's annual report or information about their vision, mission and values, to reviewing their social media posts and connecting with people who work at the organisation on LinkedIn.

Carl points out that you need to 'emphasise how your skills and experiences can benefit the company. Address their pain points or challenges and explain how you can contribute to their success.'

A good tip to find out if you’ve successfully tailored your cover letter is to remove the employer's name once you’ve drafted it and read through to judge whether you could use the same letter when applying for a similar role at another company. If you could, then you need to spend more time tailoring your letter.

4. Underselling yourself

No one likes to sound like they're boasting but you need to make sure you're not underselling your achievements and sometimes this means you must bang your own drum.

Don't be afraid to highlight your accomplishments and unique selling points and don't shy away from confidently stating you can carry out certain competencies well.

'If you downplay your achievements or fail to communicate your value effectively, the employer may assume that you are not a strong candidate,' explains Carl. 'It is essential to highlight your strengths, experiences, and unique contributions to make a compelling case for why you are a good fit for the role.'

That said, there's a fine line between confidence and cockiness so make sure you're on the right side. Ask someone who doesn't know you personally, like a careers adviser, to read through your letter to get a sense of how it comes across.

Unintentionally drawing attention to your weaknesses in your cover letter can also let your application down. Avoid sentences such as 'Although I don't have any experience in (specific competency) I'm willing to learn.' Instead swap this for 'My experience in (this field) has given me X and Y transferrable skills…'.

There's no place for negative or passive sentences in a cover letter. Focus on what you can do not what you can't.

5. Copying and pasting a template

Cover letters have a standard structure you need to follow and using a template can often help, especially if you're struggling with what to include. The problem occurs when you copy and paste a cover letter example and only make minimal changes to the document.

Templates should only be used as a guide so avoid using them word-for-word. The only things you should be taking from online examples are inspiration and ideas.

Employers can easily spot a copy and paste job because they see them all the time. To really make your cover letter stand out you need to put your own spin on it. Recruiters want to hear you voice behind the words.

Although time consuming every cover letter you write needs to be unique, so once you've perfected one cover letter don't fall into the trap of using it for every job you apply for.

Other cover letter don'ts

  • Rewriting your CV - this cover letter mistake will lead your application straight to the bin. View your cover letter as a sidekick to your CV - they need to work together but they shouldn't repeat each other. Use your cover letter to add context and detail to certain skills and experiences mentioned in your CV - always keeping in mind the job description/person specification.
  • Writing your life story - it's easier to waffle in your cover letter than on your CV but don't fall into this trap. You need to keep cover letters concise and to the point. A typical cover letter should only take up one side of A4. To help cut it down consider every sentence and ask yourself 'do employers need to know this?' and 'is it relevant to the job?' Recruiters don't need to know about the bit of advice your English teacher gave you seven years ago or a step-by-step breakdown of how you got to where you are today.
  • Failing to proofread - it might seem obvious, but you'd be surprised how often this cover letter mistake is made. Failing to proofread can lead to spelling mistakes, grammatical errors and formatting slip-ups. This could give employers the impression that you're careless. Don't proofread your letter straight after writing it as it can be hard to spot mistakes. Take a break and come back to it later the same day or the next for a final check before sending.

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