[Cover letters don’t get a lot of love. And considering how tough it is to write a good one, it’s kind of understandable that people tend to throw them together at the last minute (or update one they wrote last month), attach it to their resume, and call it good.
But this, my friends, is the biggest cover letter mistake you could make. In fact, this document is the best chance you have to give the hiring manager a glimpse of who you are, what you bring to the table, and why you—above all those other candidates—are the one for the job.
Don’t give up your chance to share your best qualifications in a fresh, unique way. And while you’re at it, don’t make these seven other common cover letter mistakes I see all the time.
1. Starting With Your Name
How do you start a cover letter? Let me set the record straight now and say it’s not with, “My name is John Smith.” Unless you’re already famous, your name just isn’t the most relevant piece of information to start with. Not to mention that your name should be listed on your resume, the sign-off in your cover letter, and in other parts of your application.
Start with a relevant qualification as a way to introduce yourself. If you’re a recent grad with a passion for environmental activism, go with that. Or, maybe you’re a marketing professional with 10+ years of healthcare industry experience—introduce yourself as such, and connect it to the position you are applying to. (Here’s a bit more about kicking off your cover letter with an awesome opener.)
Why not work with a coach and make your life easier?
Just Click Here
2. Rehashing Your Resume
If your cover letter is basically your resume in paragraph form, you’re probably going to need to start over. Your resume likely the first thing a recruiter looks at, so you’re wasting your time (and the recruiter’s) if your cover letter is a harder-to-read version of something he or she has already seen.
Focus on one or two (OK three, max) examples of your work that highlight what you can bring to the position, and try to help your reader picture you doing the work by really diving deep and detailing your impact. You want the hiring manger to be able to imagine plucking you out of the work you’re describing on the page and placing you into his or her team seamlessly.
3. Not Being Flexible With the Format
Remember those three paragraph essays you wrote in middle school? Your cover letter is not the place for you to be recalling those skills. Rather than fitting your message into a particular format, your format should be molded to your message.
Consider what message you’re trying to get across. If you’re going to be spending the majority of the letter describing one particular relevant experience—maybe that three-paragraph format makes sense. However, if you’re thinking about transferable skills or want to explain how your career has taken you from teaching to business development, a more creative approach could be appropriate. I’ve seen cover letters use bullet points, tell stories, or showcase videos to (successfully) get their point across.
4. Going Over a Page
There are always exceptions to the rule, but in general, for resumes and cover letters alike, don’t go over a page. Unless you’re applying for a managerial or executive position, it’s unlikely a recruiter would look beyond your first page of materials anyway.
Keep it concise and, ideally, wrap up around three quarters of the way down the page. Remember that you’re not trying to get everything on one page—you’re trying to entice the hiring manager enough to bring you in for an interview. Think of your cover letter as the highlights reel of your career.
5. Over Explaining
Are you a career changer or doing a long distance job search? No matter how complicated your reasons for applying to a job are, it would be a mistake to spend an entire paragraph explaining why you’re moving to San Francisco from New York.
If your reasons for applying to a position would be made clearer with some added explanation, add them in, but keep them short. Limit yourself to a sentence either in the first paragraph or the last paragraph for a location change, and no more than a paragraph to describe a career change.
6. Focusing Too Much on Training
Maybe you just finished your master’s degree or finally got the hang of coding. Great! But even if your most relevant qualification is related to your education or training, you don’t want to spend the majority of your time on coursework. At the end of the day, what hiring managers care about most is your work experience—what you can walk through the door and deliver on Day 1.
Certainly mention your educational qualifications if they are relevant, but focus the bulk of your cover letter on experiences. Even if your most relevant experience is education, present it more in the form of projects you worked on and job-related skills you gained, rather than actually explaining course content.
7. Sharing Irrelevant Information
Cultural fit is one of those big buzzwords in the recruiting world now, and there’s no question that it’s important to tailor your cover letter to each company to show your compatibility. But it starts getting a little weird when you start writing about your bowling league or active social life. (And don’t try to tell me this doesn’t happen—I’ve seen it.)
A better way to show that you’re a good cultural fit for the job is to focus on values—not activities. Mine company websites for the way they describe their company culture, then use that intel to show how your own values align. (Here’s some more on how to show you get the company culture in a cover letter.)
For the companies that have moved away from a cover letter requirement, an additional opportunity to show off what you have to offer is lost. But, for those that require cover letters or at least make them optional, you should absolutely make the most of them—and, of course, avoid these all-too-common mistakes.
The classic counterpart to a CV, cover letters are standard in almost all job applications. Academic cover letters are typically allowed to be longer than in other sectors, but this latitude comes with its own pitfalls. For one, many cover letters are written as if they were simply a retelling in full sentences of everything on the CV. But this makes no sense. Selectors will have skimmed through your CV already, and they don't want to re-read it in prose form.
Instead, approach your cover letter as a short essay. It needs to present a coherent, evidence-based response to one question above all: why would you be an excellent hire for this position?
1) Start with a clear identity
Consider this sentence: "My research interests include Thomas Mann, German modernist literature, the body, the senses, Freudian psychoanalysis, queer theory and performativity, poststructuralism, and Derridean deconstruction." In my experience, this type of sentence is all too common. Who is this person? What do they really do? If I'm asking myself these questions after more than a few lines of your cover letter, then you've already fallen into the trap of being beige and forgettable.
To get shortlisted, you need to stand out. So, let's start as we mean to go on. Your opening paragraph should answer the following questions: What is your current job and affiliation? What's your research field, and what's your main contribution to it? What makes you most suitable for this post?
2) Evidence, evidence, evidence
It's generally accepted that, in job applications, we need to 'sell' ourselves, but how to do this can be a source of real anxiety. Where's the line between assertiveness, modesty and arrogance? The best way to guard against self-aggrandisement or self-abnegation is to focus on evidence. For example, "I am internationally recognised as an expert in my field" is arrogant, because you are making a bold claim and asking me to trust your account of yourself. By contrast, "I was invited to deliver a keynote talk at [top international conference]" is tangible and verifiable.
If you can produce facts and figures to strengthen your evidence, then your letter will have even more impact, for example "I created three protocols which improved reliability by N%. These protocols are now embedded in my group's experiments and are also being used by ABC". Remember that your readers need you to be distinctive and memorable.
Never cite the job description back at the selectors. If they have asked for excellent communication skills, you're going to need to do better than merely including the sentence "I have excellent communication skills." What is your evidence for this claim?
3) It's not an encyclopaedia
Because everything you say must be supported with evidence, you can't include everything. I find that many people are prone to an encyclopaedic fervour in their cover letters: they slavishly address each line of the job description, mention every single side project which they have on the go, every book chapter and review article they've ever written, and so on. Letters like this just end up being plaintive, excessively tedious, and ineffective.
Instead, show that you can distinguish your key achievements (eg. top publications, grants won, invited talks) from the purely nice-to-have stuff (eg. seminar series organised, review articles, edited collections). Put your highlights and best evidence in the letter – leave the rest to the CV.
4) Think holistically
There's no need to try to make each application document do all the work for you. That leads to repetitiveness. Let them work together holistically. If there's a research proposal, why agonise over a lengthy paraphrase of the proposal in the cover letter? If there's a teaching statement, why write three more teaching paragraphs in your letter as well? Give me a quick snapshot and signpost where the rest of the information can be found, for example: "My next project will achieve X by doing Y. Further details, including funding and publication plans related to the project, are included in my research proposal."
5) Two sides are more than enough
There is no reason why your cover letter should need to go beyond two sides. In fact, I've seen plenty of people get shortlisted for fellowships and lectureships using a cover letter that fitted on to a single side of A4. It can be done – without shrinking the font and reducing the margins, neither of which, I'm sorry to break it to you, is an acceptable ruse. Besides, please have some sympathy for your readers: they have jobs to do and lives to lead; they will appreciate pith.
6) Writing about your research: why, not what
In almost every conceivable kind of academic application, fellowships included, it's very high risk to write about your research in such a way that it can only be understood by an expert in your field. It's far safer to pitch your letter so that it's comprehensible to a broader readership. You need to show a draft of your letter to at least one person who, as a minimum requirement, is outside your immediate group or department. Do they understand your research? Crucially, do they understand its significance? Before the selectors can care about the details of what you do, you have to hook their interest with why you do it.
Bad: "I work on the lived experiences of LGB people in contemporary Britain [why?]. I look particularly at secondary school children [why?], and I use mixed methods to describe their experiences of homophobic bullying [vague]. My PhD is the first full-length study of this topic [so what?]."
Better: "In recent years, significant progress has been made towards equality for lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) people living in Britain. However, young people aged 11-19 who self-identify as LGB are more likely to experience verbal and physical bullying, and they are at significantly greater risk of self-harm and suicide. In my dissertation, I conduct an ethnographic study of a large metropolitan secondary school, in order to identify the factors which lead to homophobic bullying, as well as policies and initiatives which LGB young people find effective in dealing with it."
7) Mind the gap
Be aware that "nobody has studied this topic before" is a very weak justification for a project. Nature may abhor a vacuum, but academia does not. Does it even matter that no previous scholarship exists on this precise topic? Perhaps it never merited all that money and time. What are we unable to do because of this gap? What have we been getting wrong until now? What will we be able to do differently once your project has filled this void?
8) Writing about teaching: avoid list-making
Avoid the temptation of list-making here, too. You don't need to itemise each course you have taught, because I've already read this on your CV, and there's no need to detail every module you would teach at the new department. Similarly, you don't need to quote extensively from student feedback in order to show that you're a great teacher; this smacks of desperation.
A few examples of relevant teaching and the names of some courses you would be prepared to teach will suffice. You should also give me an insight into your philosophy of teaching. What do students get out of your courses? What strategies do you use in your teaching, and why are they effective?
9) Be specific about the department
When explaining why you want to join the department, look out for well-intentioned but empty statements which could apply to pretty much any higher education institution in the world. For example, "I would be delighted to join the department of X, with its world-leading research and teaching, and I see this as the perfect place to develop my career." This won't do.
Deploy your research skills, use the internet judiciously, and identify some specifics. Are there initiatives in the department to which you could contribute, e.g. research clusters, seminar series, outreach events? What about potential collaborators (remembering to say what's in it for them)? What about interdisciplinary links to other departments in the institution?
10) Be yourself
It often feels like slim pickings when you're job hunting, and many people feel compelled to apply for pretty much any role which comes up in their area, even if it's not a great fit. But you still need to make the most of who you are, rather than refashioning yourself into an approximation of what you think the selectors want.
If you have a strong track record in quantitative research and you've spotted a job in a department leaning more towards qualitative methods, you might still decide to apply, but there's no point in trying to sell yourself as what you're not. They'll see through it, and you'll have downplayed your genuine successes for no reason.
Instead, make a case for why your achievements should be of interest to the department, for example by demonstrating how statistics would complement their qualitative work. At the end of the day, the best way to get shortlisted is to highlight bona fide achievements that are distinctive to you.
Steve Joy is careers adviser for research staff in the arts, humanities, and social sciences at the University of Cambridge – follow him on Twitter @EarlyCareerBlog
Do you have any tips to add? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
This content is brought to you by Guardian Professional. Looking for your next university role? Browse Guardian jobs for hundreds of the latest academic, administrative and research posts