Cover letters may not always be explicitly requested when you’re applying for an internship or job. Every company handles their hiring process differently, and some value a cover letter a lot more than others.
But regardless of a formal cover letter being required or not, you should always submit your resume (and any other application requirements) with a professional “cover letter” email. So however you look at it, you better know how to write a proper cover letter.
And not just a cover letter that checks all the boxes, but one that communicates who you are. You want a cover letter that showcases your authentic self, in a professional way.
There are a lot of resources out there to help you write a winning cover letter. However, the amount of advice can be overwhelming, and overwhelm often leads to paralysis.
I want to see you take action and write that cover letter, not spend all your time searching for the perfect template. So I’ve decided to teach you in reverse, and highlight what not to do. Because sometimes our best learning comes from mistakes and failures. So why not learn from other people’s failures and save yourself some time…
Cover Letter Fail #1: Straight up copying an online template
Some Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) are actually programmed to detect boilerplate templates, and subsequently eliminate them from the pool of qualified applicants. This means that a bot is the gatekeeper, and a real human may never actually review your application.
Make sure you are creating original content. A cover letter serves as a writing sample, and strong written communication is often a desired skill that employers list on their internship/job descriptions. This is your opportunity to showcase the unique value you can add to an organization. It is hard to do that through someone else’s words.
You also may miss some important instructions if you copy a generic template. For example, maybe the company has set a word limit for their cover letters. Don’t overlook the tips that are there to help you succeed in the application process, because you’re too busy writing the internet’s version of the “perfect cover letter.”
Cover Letter Fail #2: Getting sloppy
This fail can occur as a direct result of fail #1. When you are copying someone else’s words, you may forget to swap out some critical information, like the company you are applying to. But addressing the wrong company, person, or even referring to a position that doesn’t exist, can come as a result of copying your own work too.
It’s OK to use one of your past cover letters as a starting point, but always proofread to make sure you’ve tailored it to the current opportunity. And proofread everything, with your own eyes. Better yet, get a friend to look it over for you as well. Spellcheck doesn’t know context.
No matter what the position, everyone appreciates attention to detail. If your cover letter is riddled with typos, inconsistencies and glaring errors, you can kiss the opportunity goodbye.
Cover Letter Fail #3: Regurgitating your resume like a robot
Keywords are important, and tailoring your resume and cover letter to the job description is essential. However, listing your skills out like a robot is going to get you nowhere. Anyone can write a sentence in their cover letter stating that they have strong time management skills.
Your job is to tell a handful of stories through your cover letter. What examples from your past can you pull from to tell a story that highlights your time management skills? You should be able to tell a story for a few skills (both hard and soft). Give them more than what they can get from just looking over your resume. Make it personal, and demonstrate your value to the employer in an engaging way.
Cover Letter Fail #4: Completing little to no research on the company
Yes, you should be using a cover letter to highlight your strengths and skill set, but you’re missing a big opportunity if you fail to tie this back to the company. If you don’t do proper research on the company (and the specific position you are applying for), how can you make an insightful connection between the company, your experience and the specific value you can provide them?
I also suggest taking this a level further and doing industry research. Your ability to speak to industry knowledge/awareness in a cover letter, demonstrates that you care about the bigger picture. It tells an employer that your commitment to the opportunity goes beyond just adding a new line of experience to your resume.
A final key to doing your research is to understand the tone of the company. While it is important to show some personality (see #3, don’t be a robot), it’s important to keep things professional. Humor in written form is commonly misunderstood, especially if the person doesn’t know you. So, unless you’re applying for a position with Barstool Sports, please refrain from getting witty with your cover letter.
Cover Letter Fail #5: Apologizing for what you’re lacking
Ever meet someone who focuses on the negative? They typically aren’t the first person you’d want to work with, recommend or hire. Yet as humans, it is easy to go negative on ourselves. We can be our own toughest critics. Your job is to keep that negativity out of your cover letter.
Don’t apologize for lack of skill or defend your weaknesses in a cover letter. You may not even realize you’re doing this, but even leading a sentence with “I know I don’t meet all the requirements listed on your job description, but…” can kill your chances. And guess what, most people don’t meet all the requirements on a job description. You get ahead by highlighting your strengths, not drawing attention to your weaknesses.
To be clear, I’m not telling you to lie about your weaknesses. If you should make it through to an interview and you are asked about areas that you lack experience in, be honest. But speak to these as areas for learning and improvement, with the confidence that they already value your strengths and accomplishments enough to have brought you this far along in the process.
Avoiding these five cover letter fails will help you reach success on your journey to landing the internship or job you desire. Just remember to take the time to be thoughtful with each and every cover letter you write, and to do thoughtful well. Add color, fill in the blanks from your resume, share your intangibles, show that you’ve done your research, and connect the dots to mutual connections you may share.