Here are a few tips on what not to do when drafting a cover letter.
Don’t spell names wrong – I know this is obvious, but please allow me to stress that you may actually NOT know how to spell someone’s name, no matter how basic it sounds. Some people have weird unusual names or spellings, and those people spend large portions of their lives correcting people and slowly spelling their names out loud. Spare them from opening one more piece of correspondence that rubs this pain in their face. As an example, I once had a boss whose last name was Harrist. Yeah. With a “T” – can you imagine? I triple checked that sucker before drafting my cover letter, and while I never brought it up, I’m sure he appreciated the diligence. I also had a news editor whose name was Rik. As it turns out, it was short for Henrik, which is pretty cool, but I am fairly certain he spent 30 percent of his days fiercely deleting press releases from anyone who dared address him as Rick.
Don’t overuse the word “I” – This is a recurring theme in intern applications we receive at Weber Shandwick. In some cases virtually every sentence starts with “I.” This can be hard to work around, because you are supposed to talk about yourself. But focusing on your specific valuable experience and the type of work you want to do can offer more refreshing ways to start a sentence. For example: “While interning at …” At the very least, avoid starting each paragraph with “I.” This becomes very tedious, very quickly.
Don’t talk excessively about what the position/company can do for you – This is another frequent mistake of people just entering the job market. When you’re enthusiastic about a company, it’s easy to go overboard when trying to demonstrate your knowledge about what they do by explaining how it dovetails with your personal goals. But a cover letter should primarily be about what you can do for the company. If you don’t know what you can do for the company – specifically – maybe reconsider your application.
Don’t apply just because you need a job – any job… And if you do, I shouldn’t be able to figure that out too easily – This happens a lot in this economy. Business grads and people who aren’t remotely interested in public relations need some kind of experience when they graduate. Please don’t make that obvious. Hiring managers always prefer people who are genuinely enthusiastic, and can generally tell who isn’t. Don’t dictate in your cover letter that you are interested in business, marketing, public relations, and that “stuff in general.” All managers have received these cover letters. All managers have rejected them. Furthermore, follow up emails asking for other suggestions of “any companies” that do “anything” “in Seattle” only reinforce our gut feeling that you’re trying to use the company as convenient side-step in your otherwise great plans to take on the world
.“I’ve never done PR, but …” Don’t discuss three different restaurants jobs and the six families you babysat for – If you haven’t had a lot of prior experience in the field that you’re applying for, it doesn’t boost your chances to detail your experience mitigating client expectations at Papa Murphy’s. Enough said. If you have a boss in an unrelated field who will praise your work ethic, talents and language skills – great – save it for your references.
Don’t cut and paste something from the Internet, or use generic language – Everyone has a skeleton cover letter (or five) they use to repurpose for different jobs and companies. That’s ok. Sending the exact same thing to every company is not. In order to do that without screwing it up, you have to be so general and bland that you will never to stand out.
Don’t list off prior job duties without highlighting your accomplishments – Most cover letters get into relevant duties in prior positions, which makes sense. But the strongest applicants also point out their successes. It’s the difference between: “I wrote press releases and pitched local media” and: “I wrote press releases and personally secured local placement with three major broadcast stations and two print outlets. This ultimately resulted in long-term media relationships for our client.” This may be more applicable for resumes, but also works for cover letters.
Um, don’t … not send a cover letter – Pardon the double negative, but sending a one sentence email and a resume is not the same as sending a cover letter. People won’t assume you’re stupid for doing this, but inevitably someone else will include a great cover letter with their application, and you’re automatically bumped out of the running. Also, when responding to a request for cover letters and applications, it’s unwise (particularly for intern positions) to write demanding more information before applying. Don’t create more work for someone who could be your boss someday.
And in Conclusion… Have someone copy edit your work; no one gets it right the first time. Sometimes the scariest thing in the world is a blank page. Once you have a draft to work from, everything starts to fall into place.