Whats Wrong with Most Cover Letters?

by : Dr. Sander Marcus

As a career counselor, I can’t tell you how many tens of thousands of cover letters I’ve read, reviewed, and edited in over 30 years in the field.

Whats Wrong with Most Cover Letters
There’s certainly a lot of good advice out there on how to write a cover letter, but here’s what I think is wrong with most of the actual cover letters I’ve seen

1. Ineffective salutation.
What I typically see are salutations such as,

  • “Dear Sir or Madam,” or
  • “To Whom It May Concern,” or
  • “Dear Hiring Manager.”

Do you know of any company that has a position called “Hiring Manager”? Maybe there are one or two and they are usually the size of Microsoft, but there can’t possibly be many. If you don’t know the name or title, it’s hard to go wrong if you just say, “Dear Manager.” Obviously, the best thing is to use the person’s name, if you know it: “Dear Ms. Smith.” Include their job title if appropriate: “Dear Principal Jones.” Or, if they just give a position, address it to that position: “Dear Human Resource Manager.”

2. Overly long and detailed paragraphs
Most cover letters I see consist of voluminous, lengthy, and boring paragraphs. The truth is resume readers skim-read rather than read in detail. One look at those big, gloppy paragraphs, and theywill immediately throw out the letter or fall asleep trying to wade through it. So, keep the paragraphs short. Short letters appears deliciously easy to read.

3. A re-hash of the resume
Most cover letters I’ve seen are primarily a narrative duplication of what is on the resume. Many readers do not even read the cover letter because they know that everything on it will be on the resume anyway. Your cover letter;

  • Should not be simply another form of your resume.
  • Should be a document that “sells” you to a particular employer for a particular position, and should be clearly targeted as such.

4. No match with the specific qualifications of the job
Too many cover letters contain a laundry list of the writer’s entire career. The extraneous information may give a nice, rounded picture of who you are, but does not address what is specifically relevant about you in relation to the position in question. What, specifically, makes you the right person for the job? How does each expectation and requirement for the job match your background, experience, education, knowledge, skills, and talents? That is what the body of the cover letter should address.

5. Use Bullets For Cover Letters
A bullet may look attractive and professional, but a bullet is actually a graphic. I don’t want the reader’s eye to go to a graphic; I want the reader’s eye to go to a keyword.

  • Bullets are overused in resumes. However, while they are overused in resumes, bullets are rarely used in cover letters.
  • Bullets would attract a reader’s eye in a letter. Therefore, when you match the specific qualifications for the job with your strengths and experience, use bullets. In a cover letter, I want the reader to look at it and see their own want-ad and how you match it. Sometimes I see cover letters that do this by using a table rather than bullets, with one column having the qualifications required and the other column showing how you match each one. That, too, accomplishes the same goal.

6. Dont put benefits statement at the end of the letter.
Typically, near the bottom of most cover letters, there’s a statement that includes phrases for wanting to meet in an interview. Example, "I would like to show how I could contribute to the success of your company”. This is what I would call a “benefits statement,”. A statement of how the company will benefit from hiring you. 

This kind of statement seems like a nice, appropriate, and positive thing to say, but usually it is put in almost as an afterthought at the end of the letter.

  • The “benefits statement” is the major reason why the company would want to hire you at all. It needs to be at or near the beginning of the letter, and it needs to be more elaborated or specific. It is, in fact, the reason why the reader would want to read the rest of your letter and then ask you in for an interview.
  • Consider this example: “I believe that my expertise and experience can help your company significantly reduce not only the obvious but also the hidden costs of inventory throughput.” Now, if that is at the beginning of the letter, your reader might be considerably more interested in reading the rest of the letter to see what in your background supports that claim.

7. Clumsy and ineffective request for the interview.
In my humble opinion, requesting an interview is unnecessary, awkward, and presumptuous. First, the readers aware that you want an interview. They also know that if they are interested in you they will want to interview you. And, there is NO diplomatic way to ask for an interview in a letter.

  • What’s worse is telling them WHERE to contact you. Do you think they can’t find your phone number and email on your letterhead or on your resume? 
  • What’s even worse is to tell them that you will contact them.  “I’ll call you next Thursday between 3 to 5 p.m.” When I get a letter like that, I make sure I’m out of the office during those hours. So why ask for the interview at all?
  • Instead, end the letter with a request to talk about or discuss the position and how you match it, rather than the mechanics of who will call whom? This is more professional, more appropriate, and it keeps the emphasis on the interview’s purpose, not its scheduling.

In my experience, the letters that are the most effective, the ones that result in interviews are the ones that avoid these cover letter problems.