Truly terrible cover letters may give employers a laugh before they’re tossed into the recycle bin. They also may make employers shrug in confusion, roll their eyes, or even get angry. But the truth is, truly terrible cover letters are actually very rare. Most candidates don’t need to read an internet article or pay for expensive career counseling services in order to be told not to use swear words in a job application. A far greater problem—and a more realistic obstacle for most job seekers—is a cover letter that’s not terrible, just mediocre.
A dull, predictable, risk-free cover letter that aims for the middle of the pack is far more likely to hold back your search than a letter that’s epically bad. And this tends to hold true regardless of your industry or the level of your target position. If you take a close look at most ineffective cover letters (in other words, all the runners who tied for second place after the front runner landed the job), these are a few of the qualities you’ll find.
1. They start with an overworked first sentence.
Too many job seekers try to pack everything they have to say into the first sentence of their cover letter. They’re trying to be hard-hitting and send an upfront message, but they end up combining too many points into one convoluted mess. Mediocre first sentences sound like this:
Just state the title of the position you’d like to apply for and mention where you found the post. Then take a breath and move on from there.
2. They blast the reader with fluff instead of substance.
In an attempt to use industry jargon and identify themselves as “insiders,” mediocre cover letter writers go too far. They shoehorn industry terms into sentences when they shouldn’t, and they use buzzwords and phrases that aren’t essential to the primary message.
If you really know what you’re talking about, and you really understand the subsector of the industry that you’d like to occupy, this will make itself known as you write. Don’t force anything. Just explain what you’ve accomplished in the past and how these accomplishments will support your target employer if you’re hired.
3. They don’t know when to end.
Mediocre cover letters are like people at a party with poor conversational skills: They don’t know when to close the deal, say goodbye, and stop talking. Say what you need to say in one page or fewer, and watch out for side trips into irrelevant information.
4. They don’t know how to ask for what they want.
Keep your final message smooth, not awkward, and let readers know what you’d like them to do next. Instead of pleas and commands, use graceful words like “invite” and “encourage,” as in “I invite you to look over my credentials,” and “I welcome an opportunity to speak with you in person about the position.”
Think of your cover letter as your agent or ambassador: It can gain entry into places where you can’t—like a hiring manager’s office. And it can reach people who you aren’t able to approach directly. Make sure it speaks clearly, looks professional, and represents you well. Use LiveCareer’s Cover Letter Builder to create a letter that will stand out and make you proud.