Common Mistakes Made When Writing a Cover Letter | Top Universities

Common Mistakes Made When Writing a Cover Letter

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Laura Tucker

Updated May 31, 2021



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They say it’s never too early to make a bad impression, and this is entirely the case when it comes to cover letters. Even the smallest error may cause employers to put your application at the bottom of the pile or even throw it out completely. And so, with competition for graduate jobs as high as it’s ever been, here’s how to avoid the mistakes that everyone and their mum has made at least once when writing a cover letter.

1. Being overly formal

“Dear Sir/Madam…”

Depending on the types of graduate jobs you’re going for, this can be a make or break scenario. For example, if you’re writing a cover letter for a job at a top city firm, then formality will be very important. But, in comparison, if the hiring company is a trendy creative agency, it might be more conducive to take a more informal approach to show you would fit in with the organizational culture.

Either way, when applying for any role within any industry, your tone of address should be fully considered. With a small amount of research into the company and its values, you’ll be able to not only write in a style that fits the organization, but you’ll also be able to address the recruiter by his or her name, avoiding the awkward “sir/madam” approach.

2. Being too informal

On the opposing side of the court is the peril of being too informal. Being too jokey, too personal or too casual may send the message that you’re not serious about the job and therefore probably not the right person to fill the role. Sure, a conversational tone will often be well received, but if you do choose this tack, make sure that you stay professional (no anecdotes of a heavy night previous), don’t go off on too many tangents (no anecdotes about your cat), and don’t be tempted to force the niceness – a friendly tone is always better when it comes naturally.

In addition, a conversational tone is no excuse for sloppy writing. Whichever road you take, your cover letter should be extremely well-written and error-free. See point number five!

3. Using a stock cover letter

Using a stock cover letter is quick and efficient and can allow you to apply to multiple graduate jobs very quickly. Be that as it may, you’ll be better off chucking it in the bin. As short as you are on time and money, using a stock cover letter to apply for graduate jobs shows laziness as well as a suggestion that you’re not really bothered about that particular position. More often than not, employers can spot these stock cover letters a mile off.

As a compromise, you might want to make a list (bullet points or short paragraphs) of all the reasons why you are great, what skills you’ve learned recently and what you’re particularly good at in your current role. Then, when applying for a specific job, look at this list and include the points that are most relevant to the job in your cover letter. That way, not only are you going to remember everything worth mentioning about yourself, but you’re also going to sound fresh and invested in every application.

4. Saying too much

Unless it’s entirely relevant to the job you’re applying for, leave it out. Recruiters are short on time, and generally just want a quick snapshot of who you are. Yes, it can be good to mention a hobby or interests outside of work, but this is not what is going to get you the job, so keep the emphasis on your relevant experience; skip the paragraph about your cupcake-baking skills.

On the other side of the coin, cover letters that are too short (less than two paragraphs) will often look too sparse. As a general rule, aim to fill roughly three-quarters of an A4 page when writing a cover letter.

5. Forgetting to proofread

If you’re the sort of person who writes cover letters directly into an email, ready to be sent off to the next unsuspecting employer, then you might want to start taking a different approach.

Although it’s likely your email system will already have an in-built spell checker, the chances are that it isn’t quite as rigorous as an actual word processor program. This may cause you to miss a number of spelling or grammatical mistakes or even cause you to use spell check in the wrong language (US English instead of UK English, for example).

Even when you’ve used a word processor, written your text up and meticulously checked for errors in grammar, spelling and punctuation, you should check again. Twice more.

6. Bragging

Nobody likes braggers, and that includes hiring managers. The difficulty with writing a cover letter, however, is that in order to sell yourself and show off your skills, you’re going to have to talk yourself up quite a lot.

The secret in treading the line between confidence and egotism is to phrase yourself matter-of-factly when mentioning skills. If you have working HTML skills, say ‘I have working HTML skills’ and back that up if you can. Try to avoid claims such as “I’m a master of Microsoft office” or “I have superior leadership skills”. By using unsupported hyperbolic language like “master”, you may sound as if you are exaggerating your skills. How are you a master? Did you train with Microsoft Office monks for a year in Tibet? No? Well then.

7. Focusing too much on yourself

This one is definitely an easy mistake to make, due to the fact it is your cover letter, your job application and your future. But employers really don’t care about how their company fits your needs (before they hire you, at least). What they do care about is what you can bring to their company and how the company will benefit from hiring you. Structure your cover letter from the viewpoint of your prospective employer, and talk about yourself in relation to what you can bring to the company, not the other way around.

8. Clumsy language  

There’s never an excuse for clumsy language, whether you’re applying for journalism jobs, accounting jobs or engineering jobs. It may seem harsh, particularly if English is not your first language, but you’ve got to remember that more and more employers today will rule you out for the slightest of linguistic mishaps, simply due to the mountains of applications they have to wade through.

If English is your second language or writing is not your strongest skill, you may want to get someone (a native speaker) to read through your cover letter before sending it off.

9. Bad layout

You might not be applying for a job that requires design skills, but this doesn’t mean you can entirely neglect the layout of your cover letter. To make your cover letter look visually pleasing, use a standard font, break up your paragraphs into small, readable chunks and use the same font size throughout.

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