This question originally appeared on Quora: What do people frequently get wrong when they write cover letters? Answer by Rebecca Massey, writer.
This is the most common cover letter problem. I have been a manager or on a hiring committee multiple times in my life, and it is unbelievable how many cover letters are incorrectly formatted (either like a personal letter, or just an incorrect approximation of a business letter) and/or have elementary-school-level spelling and grammar errors. Mistakes like these are the fastest way for your application to end up in the circular file. If you want a job, learn the formatting. If you’re not great with spelling and grammar, and you have no intention of improving, then confer with someone who’s better at it. Correct formatting, spelling, and grammar are minimum necessary qualifications. Get it done.
You don’t need to recite places, dates, and titles. Your resume already does that. What you need to do is explain how the work you’ve done and the experience you have will make you great at the job you’re trying to get. Your resume is a list—your cover letter is a story.
A lot of applicants think they sound action-oriented and proactive when they write things like “You need…” or “You want…” in a cover letter. Trouble is: Employers already knows what they need and want. You don’t need to waste space telling it back to them (or, worse, sounding like you’re dictating to them). You also don’t need to waste space reciting common industry knowledge or facts about the company—this doesn’t show that you’ve done your research, it shows that you don’t have anything else to say.
Employers don’t care what you think, feel, like, or want. They’re not paying you to have thoughts, feelings, or personal development goals. They’re paying you to do a job for them. So what they want to hear about is what you have done and can do that will benefit the employer. They don’t want sentences that start with “I feel” or “I think,” or my personal pet peeve, “This job would allow me to…”
“I’m smart.” “I’m detail-oriented.” “I get things done.” “I worked with [name drop].” “I am the best person for the job.” Oh, really? Prove it. Tell what you’ve accomplished in your professional life that shows that you’re smart, detail-oriented, and get things done. Tell what you and [name drop] did together. The employer gets to decide who’s the best person for the job, not the applicant.
It’s just like listening to someone bash a coworker when they’re not in the room: it makes you wonder what they say when you’re not in the room. Also, particularly in small fields or fields that are dominated by a small number of companies, the person reading your resume may have worked for the competition. They may not share your opinion. Hell, the company might be looking at a merger or an exchange with the competition. There are other ways to show enthusiasm for a job—don’t risk this one.
It’s one thing to show that you’re familiar with the language of the field. It’s another to fill your cover letter with so much jargon that it reads like you have nothing else to say. Make sure that the jargon you’re using is in there to explain your qualifications, not just to show off that you know key words and phrases.
This is the biggest cover letter problem. Remember that the purpose of a cover letter is to answer the question: “Why should I hire you for this job?” If there’s anything in your cover letter that’s not helping to answer that question, then it’s not helping you get the job.
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