Common cover letter mistakes

Application Adviser Emily takes us through some of the common mistakes students make when it comes to cover letters. Remember, you can book a 1-2-1 appointment for feedback on your cover letter, CV or application.

  • Misunderstanding what a cover letter is: A cover letter can be a confusing document and so it’s important to understand its purpose. The most crucial function of a cover letter is to convince the employer of your motivation. When writing it, you have the opportunity to address some topics which won’t feature in your CV at all: why you want to work for the company and why you want that particular job/internship.
  • Prioritising CVs and forgetting about cover letters: Sometimes students I meet in the Careers and Enterprise Centre ask whether cover letters or CVs are more important to recruiters. It is difficult to give a definitive answer because different employers treat applications differently – some might spend time focusing on the cover letter, while others focus primarily on the CV; some might weight both equally. But if you are asked for both documents, you should write your CV and cover letter in such a way that they work together to present an overall impression of you as a well-qualified candidate. Students often fear repetition – they don’t want to bore employers by talking about the same experience on their CV and in their cover letter. While you certainly shouldn’t repeat exact sentences or phrases, you can mention a particular project or period of work experience on both your CV and cover letter. The key difference it is that while both CV and cover letter should be tailored to the job description, explicitly showing how your previous experience has given you the skills required by the position you’re applying for, the CV will be a record of your relevant skills across your education, work experience and voluntary activities. In the cover letter, on the other hand, you can highlight the particular projects or work experiences you most want the employer to notice, and highlight your most impressive accomplishments, your most relevant skills and your key selling points.

  • Vagueness: ‘I want to work for your company because of its fast-paced environment and innovative approach’? You might wonder what’s wrong with saying this? The problem is this statement can be applied to many, many companies – and therefore it doesn’t show why you want to work at this particular one. Instead, do some research and show that you understand what it is which is actually innovative about their approach, for example. You want to show that you understand why this company is different from its competitors. The organisation’s website can help you to understand the way it seeks to present itself (but don’t simply cut and paste from the website into your CV – it’s very easy to spot when a candidate has done this!).
  • Hyperbole and cliché: Keep your language straightforward and professional. Don’t say ‘it would be my deepest honour and privilege to complete this internship and work for your illustrious company’. Instead clearly explain why it appeals to you, showing how it fits well with your previous experience and skills. Don’t claim to be ‘a world-beating candidate with truly impeccable potential and ambitions’. It is more convincing to succinctly explain what your skills and experiences are – ‘I regularly exceeded sales targets when I worked at Laura Ashley and I have further developed my interpersonal skills through taking part in numerous group projects at university.’ This type of sentence is grounded in objective evidence – group projects, part-time job etc. – rather than subjective self-perception, and so it seems more convincing.
  • Formatting problems: Cover letters should be no longer than one page – don’t write more than that. And don’t try to hide how long your cover letter is by using a tiny font or small margins. Regular margins and a size 12 font are ideal. Also, use a professional-looking font (e.g. Times New Roman, Arial, Garamond or Helvetica).
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