Costly mistakes to avoid in your cover letter

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Learn the dos and don'ts of creating a cover letter that can land you an interview.

By Terri Williams

It's been said that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. And if you submit a bad cover letter, you won't get a chance to make that first impression on employers.

"People who read cover letters and resumes can be very picky - they have that luxury," says Richard J. Atkins, Ed., who is the co-chair of career planning & professional development for the Human Resources Association of New York. "You want the job, and so do hundreds of other people," says Atkins.

And the reality is that the slightest error can earn your job application a free trip through the document shredder. So what can you do to ensure you're not inadvertently disqualifying yourself from potential jobs? Keep reading to learn about six costly mistakes when writing cover letters.

Costly Mistake #1: Using Generic Content

If your cover letter is full of generic content, the hiring manager may assume that if you were too lazy to craft a specialized cover letter, you may be as nonchalant about performing your job.

And, generic cover letters are usually easy to spot, according to Lars Schmidt, senior director of talent acquisition & innovation at National Public Radio in Washington, DC. "They don't address the specifics of that job, so they likely won't stand out to a hiring manager."

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So, how do you go about writing the type of cover letter that gets read?

Well, you should tailor your cover letter to each job, according to Schmidt. "It's okay to have a general template (or several), but be sure to address some of the qualities you possess that tie directly to that job and employer," says Schmidt.

Costly Mistake #2: Being Preoccupied With Your Ultimate Career Goal

Maybe you really want a more prestigious job, or one that pays enough money to keep up with the Joneses. However, if you indicate to the hiring manager that this job is just a temporary stop along the way to a better position, you'll appear ungrateful.

"Most hiring managers want to know what skills, experience, and interest you bring to this particular job," says Schmidt. "If you essentially tell them you view the job as something to just 'pay the bills,' they'll pass and find others who aspire to be in that role."

So, keep your lofty goals to yourself if they don't relate to the job you're applying for.

For example, Leigh Inskeep, who works in Human Resources at Kinder Morgan and writes resumes for Rave.Resumes.com, says that a graphic designer applying for a position that requires HTML experience should write about his proficiency in programming languages, instead of writing about how he can't wait to launch his own graphic design company.

Costly Mistake #3: Displaying Egotism

If you hoard the cover letter by using most of the space to talk about yourself, the hiring manager may see you as a narcissist who will also hog conversations and the company's time.

"Overuse of first-person pronouns, such as 'I,' 'me,' or 'my,' send the message that you're more concerned about yourself than the organization," says Atkins. Instead, he says the cover letter should address the specific wants and needs of the company.

Therefore, instead of "I would like to speak with you," Atkins recommends, "It would be great to speak with you." And instead of "I am available," write, "Would you be available?"This shows respect for the hiring manager, and demonstrates that it's not all about you, he says.

And when you do talk about yourself, it should be in the context of being a useful and productive team member. For example, a software developer must be able to work independently, but also function as part of a team, "so include characteristics like your ability to work well with others, and how you're open to receiving feedback and critiques from others," Inskeep says.

Costly Mistake #4: Not Proofreading Before You Hit "Send"

Submitting a cover letter with typographical and syntax errors may send the message that you are a careless worker who considers slipshod work perfectly acceptable.

"Mistakes on your cover letter can cost you dearly," says Atkins. "Many hiring managers have said that when they get a resume containing errors, it goes immediately in the 'unacceptable' pile."

For example, if a company is hiring a human resources manager, Inskeep says this individual is responsible for making sure that the company's documents can pass legal scrutiny. "If they can't submit an error-free cover letter, how can the company trust the accuracy of their work if there's ever any type of legal or ethics investigation?" asks Inskeep.

Costly Mistake #5: Revealing Too Much

Maybe your former boss didn't appreciate your hard work, but badmouthing past employers in your cover letter will leave hiring managers wondering if you have unresolved issues.

"Listing non-relevant personal details before you've had an opportunity to establish interest will usually work against you," warns Schmidt. "You want to make a connection based on your skills and experience."

And even if you're not sharing bitter experiences, it's still a good idea to make sure that you don't share intimate details.

"It is a very common mistake for candidates to share too much personal information," says Inskeep.

Costly Mistake #6: Overly Displaying Your Artistic Side

Your cover letter is not the place to express your inner child. In other words, leave the cursive type, wild colors, smiley faces, and rainbow backgrounds for another occasion.

"There is a trend lately to try and be provocative in a cover letter to stand out," says Schmidt. He says that sometimes this may work, but it really depends on the audience and culture of the organization, so think carefully about the intended receiver.

As a general rule, your uniqueness should be expressed through your job skills, not through the use of flowery stationery, or emoticons such as smiley faces, frowns, and winks.

"People don't have time for the fluffy stuff, and emoticons look unprofessional and sophomoric," warns Inskeep. "Hiring managers are accustomed to seeing proper English language and punctuation." For example, if a financial analyst applicant sends in a cover letter on pink stationery with emoticons, the hiring manager will think, "if this is how they communicate with our high-powered clients, it will undermine our company's credibility."

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