If you’re a first-time job-seeker, you probably feel a lot of pressure to find a job quickly. And at this stage, the fastest way to land more interviews is to take your cover letter seriously.
Yes, your resume is also important, but here’s the thing: In a sea of youthful candidates, most of your resumes will look very similar. And as most companies deal with a huge influx of entry-level applications, so hiring managers find that judging candidates based on virtually indistinguishable resumes ends up being inefficient and cumbersome. Instead, they’ll use your cover letter to gauge your potential.
The clincher? Entry-level and internship candidates tend to make the same cover letter blunders, which are fatal to their applications. Here are seven big mistakes entry-level candidates make, and how you can avoid them to come out on top.
Problem #1: It’s Too Long
Everyone learns how to write a 500-word, one-page essay in school. To most of us, it sounds like “the bare minimum.” But for a cover letter, it’s way too much—and will only serve to annoy the hiring manager.
The Fix: Keep it Simple, Direct, Clear, and Short
Aim for 250 words. According to the Orange County Resume Survey, almost 70% of employers either want a half page cover letter (250 words) or “the shorter the better” approach.
If that seems short, just remember: All you really need to include in your cover letter is the job you want to fill, the reason you can do the job, and how you intend to do the job—with a little flair of personality. No need to write out your whole resume. No need to pen your personal manifesto. Keep it short and sweet for the hiring manager who’s reading through dozens of these.
Problem #2: It’s Overly Formal
Too many cover letters have sentences that read like this: “I wish to convey my interest in filling the open position at your fine establishment.”
Is that so, Mr. Shakespeare?
The problem with this stilted and unnatural language is that it’s off-putting to hiring managers: It makes you seem insincere and even robotic, not anything like the friendly, approachable, and awesome-to-work-with person that you are.
The Fix: Use Common Language and Speech Patterns
Skip the frills, and just use clear language—“I’m thrilled to be writing to apply for the [position] at [company].” You can sense that this sentence has a much more genuine and friendly tone than the first example. Here are some other complicated terms and their simpler, more natural synonyms:
- Advantageous — helpful
- Erroneous — wrong
- Leverage or utilize — use
- Attempted — tried
- Subsequently — after or later
There are a couple ways to spot overly formal language in your cover letter. First, try reading it out loud to see if there are areas that feel unnatural coming off the tongue, and rework them to flow better. You can also try using a program like Hemmingway App to help you identify over-complicated language in your writing.
Problem #3: It Sounds Disingenuous
All career advisors will ell you to target your cover letter. Unfortunately, too many people think that this simply means writing something like “I love [insert target company here].”
I’ve got news: That’s simply not good enough to show a hiring manager your enthusiasm for a company.
The Fix: Demonstrate Your Understanding of the Company With Details
Instead, you’ll need to read enough about the company to make a truly personalized comment in your cover letter. First, you should study the content, advertising, branding, business strategies, and culture of the company. Pay especially close attention to the department you’d like to join. Find out what the team is doing and how they’re doing it, and take note of the areas that you know you can contribute to.
Including that specific information in the cover letter shows that you’re interested and already have ideas for how you can help the company. So let’s say that you’re applying for an internship position at a company like The Muse. You might say something like:
I really enjoy reading the productivity section on The Daily Muse—it’s got a great blend of psychological and technical tips, many of which I’ve taken to heart. I’m a sucker for this type of “food for thought” material, so I have my own ideas and resources that would make me a strong contributor in this vertical.
Problem #4: You’re Underselling Yourself
If you have any lines in your cover letter that read like these, you must remove them:
I’m probably not the most qualified candidate…
I’m sure you have many other more qualified candidates who have applied…
Give me a chance to prove myself…
Why would the hiring manager not hire the most qualified candidate? That would be absurd!
The Fix: Make an Argument for Yourself
Even if you feel under-qualified, put on a brave face and tell the hiring manager the attributes that would make you a strong candidate. Respond to the job description, and play up the directly related and transferable skills you have that would allow you to meet the challenge.
For instance, someone applying for an entry-level position as a salesperson might write:
During college, I was responsible for ad sales in our newspaper, The Blue and Gold. I learned how to create, manage, and maintain professional relationships with business owners around our campus. My direct efforts led to a 10% profit margin increase over the year, and I believe that those skills can be directly applied to your open position.
If you’re still unsure, check out career counselor Lily Zhang’s suggestions for drawing out your strengths instead of your weaknesses.
Of course, remember that having too much bombast (“I’m absolutely the best and you better believe it!”) also isn’t good.
Problem #5: It Sounds Selfish
The following is one of the most important rules to remember about writing your cover letter: It isn’t just about you.
In other words, avoid writing about how working at your target company will create a great boost for your resume and career. Hiring managers are fully aware of that. What they need to know is how you’re going to provide a boost for the company.
The Fix: Ask What You Can Do for the Company
Your cover letter should state what you can do for the company. Ask yourself—what is it about your education and experience that would allow you to meet the challenges of the open job position? How can you leverage your expertise for the benefit of the company? What ideas do you have to move the business forward?
It’s perfectly fine to mention that being hired would be mutually beneficial—the hiring manager wouldn’t want you to be a demoralized worker in a role that doesn’t suit your career prospects. Just keep it to a quick sentence and then move on to wooing the reader with what you can do for the company.
Problem #6: It’s Full of Irrelevant Filler
Got a paragraph about your semester abroad, or some other travel experience where you found your “true calling?” You should probably delete it. Do you have sentences like, “I am a hard working, efficient, and loyal person?” Don’t make a series of lists of positive sounding words about yourself. It’s not convincing.
Most importantly, if you’ve included personal information about your religion, marital status, or race, delete it. Even if you think it’s adding personality, it’s actually irrelevant to the job and could cause you to be discriminated against.
The Fix: Focus on Your Relevant Skills and History
Only talk about the experiences that directly relate to your skills and abilities that will help you succeed in the position. So if you learned a relevant skill while you were abroad, like a language? Then it’s perfectly fine to bring it up.
You should also make sure to show the hiring manager proof of your skills rather than simply say that you have them. For any word you choose to describe yourself, make sure to include an example from your work experience to back up your claim.
For example, instead of saying that you’re “hard-working” or “a problem solver,” write something like:
I felt like my own training could have been better, so I took the initiative to create new documents and checklists to make employee training less resource-intensive, which led to shorter training periods and faster content production.
Problem #7: It Has Too Much Information About College Metrics
This may be strange to hear, but here are four things that don’t really factor in your cover letter: the university you attended, your GPA, the classes you took, or your senior thesis.
You should be proud of yourself if you got into an Ivy League school and have a great GPA, but in most cases, they aren’t great metrics for determining whether you’ll be a strong employee.
The Fix: Stick to Activities and Responsibilities
To the greatest extent possible, talk about activities you participated in both inside and outside of college that have some relevance to the job. A student with a 2.9 GPA but with experience as editor of a college newspaper is still very likely to get an interview for a media job.
The reason that activities speak louder than statistics is because they act as proof that you have the soft skills necessary to be a good employee and co-worker. Activities provide experience you can use to show that you are organized, have leadership skills, can work in a team, and can easily get used to a professional environment.
Above all, activities show that you were motivated to succeed beyond simply earning a degree.
By fixing these seven mistakes, your application will stand out from the sea of other entry-level candidates jockeying for the same position. A genuine, refreshing, and smart cover letter is sometimes all it takes to get attention—and kick start your career.
Photo of cover letter courtesy of Shutterstock.
Cover LetterLanguage | Format | Content
» Example 1 «
» Example 2 «
A cover letter should accompany each résumé you send to a prospective employer. Your cover letter is your introduction; it describes who you are, why you are interested in the position, and the value you can add to the organization. Do not duplicate your résumé in your cover letter. Instead, use your cover letter to add a personal touch and highlight the most relevant experience on your résumé, which tends to be more data-driven. The following are some cover letter recommendations:
|Check over the spelling and grammar several times, gaining feedback from Career Center counselors, friends and family members. Misspellings and typos on a cover letter can eliminate the possibility of interviewing with a company.|
| The cover letter should be brief, no longer than one page in length if sent via hard copy mail. |
Emailed applications should contain a cover letter in the body of the email with a résumé attached.
Typically, three or four short, easy-to-read paragraphs are adequate.
Keep your cover letter looking professionally; use a standard font (i.e. Times New Roman, Ariel, etc.), and avoid using bolded or underlined text. In special cases, such as when applying for design positions, students are encouraged to consider a more unique résumé aesthetic as a way to show their work.
| If you have recruiter contact information, address your cover letter to him or her. If you do not have recruiter contact information, apply to a blind advertisement with, "Dear Recruiter:" |
Find out as much about the position and company as possible and tailor each cover letter toward the opportunity for which you are applying. This might involve some research. Illustrate that you have the knowledge and skills necessary to fulfill the position requirements. It will show them that you have done your homework and assure them that you are a good match for the position. It will also avoid the appearance that you have sent them a generic cover letter, which could have been sent to any company for almost any position. If you are responding to an advertisement, make sure that you address all of the position qualifications.
If you have developed a good networking relationship with an individual in the organization, upon their approval, use their name in your cover letter.
Communicate that you can add value to the organization. Associate the company product with your capabilities. Avoid making the common egocentric mistake of describing why the position would be good for you. Organizations are interested in how your skills, abilities, and ideas will benefit their enterprise.
Let the cover letter reflect your individuality, but avoid appearing too familiar, humorous or ironic. Describe what is particularly appealing to you about this company and/or position. If you admire some of their recent work, a current project or their philosophy of operation, let them know.
Close the cover letter by taking the initiative and requesting an interview. List your contact information for follow-up purposes.
Simon T. Brainsample
75 Via Limone
New York, NY 11220
Gully T. Gumby
Fawlty Systems, Inc.
Torquay, NY 00000
Dear Mr. Gumby,
Your advertisement in Job Choices '05 prompted me to contact you about entry-level positions in electrical engineering at Fawlty Systems, LTD. The product engineering program at your company is very appealing. I am particularly interested in your project on digital systems. In May of this year I will receive a Bachelor's degree in Electrical Engineering from The Cooper Union and I hope that we will have an opportunity to discuss employment possibilities before that time.
In addition to the knowledge I've obtained from my education, my experience as an assistant to a plant engineer has provided me with an excellent background in the practical aspects of electrical engineering.
During my years at The Cooper Union, I have taken on many additional responsibilities. As a freshman, I managed the Student Council and played varsity tennis. In my junior year I was employed by the Student Services Office where I received first-hand experience in organization, teamwork and responsibility. I hope that you will seriously consider my enclosed résumé, which provides full details of my qualification.
Thank you for your consideration. I look forward to speaking with you. I may be reached between the hours of 9am and 5pm at 212 355.4343.
Simon T. Brainsample
Simon T. Ellis
1 Astor Place
New York, NY 10003
Mr. Brian Davidson
Senior Vice President
Anchor Systems, Ltd.
345 First Avenue
New York, NY 10004
Dear Mr. Davidson:
I learned about the Electrical Engineering position with Anchor Systems, Ltd on the Cooper Career Connection Web site, and I am interested in further discussing this exciting opportunity. As a graduating electrical engineer undergraduate student at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, my academic background, coupled with my relevant work experience, has given me the tools and ability necessary to add value to the position, and ultimately your organization.
My interest in electrical engineering is long standing and my well-rounded background makes me an excellent candidate for the Electrical Engineering position. I secured an IT Analyst Internship with Credit Suisse First Boston in the summer of my freshman year, and gained exposure to the financial industry, while enhancing their software by developing search subroutine and upload script modules. As a sophomore, I served as Treasurer on the Student Council and played varsity tennis. In my junior year, I attained a position in the Student Services Office where I received first-hand experience in organization, teamwork, and responsibility. I have earned several awards while a student at Cooper Union, including the Bausch and Lomb Award for Excellence in Science, in June 2005 and Dean's List in the Fall of 2004.
Please find my attached résumé, which provides full details of my qualification. Feel free to contact me at (212) 353-4567 or firstname.lastname@example.org for any following up purposes. I appreciate your consideration and look forward to further discussing the Electrical Engineering opportunity with you.Sincerely,
Simon T. Ellis