Career advice · writing

How to tell if your cover letter sucks

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I’ve been reading a lot of articles lately about how the cover letter doesn’t matter, and it’s been bothering me a lot.

Maybe in some fields–where you have recruiters working for you or your jobs are simply based on word of mouth–the cover letter doesn’t matter. But for all things communications, and marketing, it does.

Here’s the thing: if you can’t tell your OWN story through a simple 1-page cover letter, how in the WORLD are you going to tell someone else’s?

I’ve been involved in several hiring processes at my current and former jobs. And while some people might toss that cover letter aside in favor of something else, I always look at it pretty critically. Now, I’m admittedly not the greatest cover letter writer myself, but here’s some things I’ve noticed over the years that you absolutely should not do when applying for that dream (or even not so much a dream) job.

  1. Use bad or outdated grammar. This goes beyond basic grammar you learned in middle school. I’m talking about the use of passive voice, verb tense agreement problems, and basically anything that makes you sound like someone who should not be promoting the brand of the company you’re applying for. (And while this is not necessarily grammar related, the “Dear Sir or Madam” greeting just makes you sound totally dated). Bottom line: Be professional, but conversational, and someone I’d like to talk to.
  2. Spell out everything on your resume. You should not be copying and pasting all of your job descriptions in the cover letter between “Greetings” and “Sincerely.”
  3. Fail to tell me how you can actually fulfill the requirements listed in the job description. Just because you have a journalism degree doesn’t mean you can write. Show me how (through past accomplishments or any other relevant anecdotes) how your newswriting skills can give you what it takes to come up with an amazing e-mail subject line in a short amount of time.
  4. Refuse to give me a sense of your personality by telling me an interesting story about an extracurricular activity or volunteer experience. Did you run a homeless shelter for a couple of years or run 10 ultramarathons? Mention it. Most people have lives outside of their work, and I want to hear about it. Cultural fit is everything.
  5. Forget to link to an online portfolio of clips, or forget to update your personal blog or website. For writers and designers–your writing and design skills are obvious from the resume and degrees, right? Wrong. Give me a link to your online presence and make sure the links you’re giving me actually work and are relevant to the job you’re seeking.

Now, there are exceptions to every rule. But for the most part, employers want people who have taken the time to ensure their materials are written well, edited well, and properly reflect what they can bring to the table.

And if you’re sloppy in your cover letter, I’m going to assume you’re sloppy in that e-mail copy you’ll have to write.

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