It's never too early to make a bad impression.
A cover letter or introductory email is often the first thing a potential employer sees when reviewing a job applicant. It's the first opportunity to impress recruiters and hiring managers and, therefore, the first opportunity to disappoint them. Everything from copy mistakes to inappropriate jokes in a cover letter could derail an application.
Here are the top ten worst things to put on a cover letter:
1. Next to Nothing
While writing something that's too long is a common cover letter mistake, what can be even more damaging is a cover letter that's too short.
Bruce Hurwitz, President of Hurwitz Strategic Staffing, Ltd., a New York-based staffing firm recalls a cover letter he received a few months ago for an entry-level IT sales position. It read simply, "Here's my resume. Call me. [Phone number]."
"I cracked up," Hurwitz says. "This person had only just graduated with a Bachelor's degree. It was ridiculous."
A good cover letter should be somewhere between 200 to 250 words, Hurwitz says, and should answer the question of why a recruiter should look at the resume. "The key is to highlight one success," Hurwitz says. "For example, 'I successfully increased sales 500% over two years, resulting in increased, sustained revenue of $25 million.' Once I read that, I look at the resume."
2. Criticism of a Prospective Employer
Thumbtack.com, a San Francisco-based site that connects customers with small business services, asked potential employees to submit in their cover letters feedback about their website. One candidate, a contender for an entry-level position in April, didn't pull any punches.
"The engineering of your site looks lazy and ineffective," the applicant wrote, proceeding to describe the color scheme of the site as "disconcerting to my eyes."
Needless to say, he was not considered for the position, though not before the hiring manager got in some laughs around the water cooler at his expense.
"We forwarded the cover letter to our managers sort of as a joke," says Sander Daniels, co-founder of the site. "It was the most caustic feedback we received. But we responded kindly to him -- we didn't suggest any improvements to him in approaching other employers. We don't see it as our role to counsel failed candidates."
Daniels observed that while many strong candidates turn in well-written cover letters, some have let the demand for engineers get to their heads, as Silicon Valley romances them with six-figure salaries and other job perks.
"Maybe they think they can get away with it -- but in our company, culture is a very important factor." Daniels says. "Even if Facebook's best engineer came to us, we wouldn't hire him if he was a jerk."
3. Personal Stories
While employers are sometimes interested in personal stories, especially if they give some idea about work ethic, it's best to save these stories for the interview, says Lindsay Olson of New York-based Paradigm Staffing, who specializes in recruiting communications and marketing professionals.
"I think my favorite of all time was the salesperson who poetically told me about how he decided to run a marathon, climbed to reach glaciers to have a taste of pure water, ran at heights of 5,000 meters in Peru, and biked down the world's most dangerous road and survived (over 300,000 have not)," says Olson, of a candidate who was applying for a business development position at a recruiting firm in June last year. "All this in his opening paragraph."
If you are asked in an interview about your hobbies and adventures, be prepared with a strong answer, says Olson. "What a [job candidate] likes to do outside of work might show how they are in their job," she says. "As a hiring manager, what you don't like to hear is, 'I just like to sit around at home and read books all day.'"
4. Awkward Language
Rachel Levy, director of marketing at Just Military Loans, a Wilmington, Del.-based personal loan service for military personnel, got a letter last week from a candidate who seemed to be expressing lukewarm interest in an IT analyst position.
"My name is xxx. I am pretty interested in the IT analyst position at Just Military Loans," the letter began.
Levy says she sees many applications, especially for IT jobs, to have grammatical and other language flaws. "What I've noticed is that there are a lot of people applying to these jobs, for whom English is a second language," Levy says. "So the connotations of certain words and phrases may not be clear to them. Which is fine, but they should get someone to help word their intentions correctly."
In this case, Levy thinks the applicant meant "very" instead of "pretty," but she'll never know because that applicant didn't get an interview.
5. Someone Else's Words
Frank Risalvato, a recruiting officer for Inter-Regional Executive Search Inc., is deluged with cover letters from different candidates that all obviously use the same template from the same career coaches.
"Some of these [cover letters] we see are very obviously not written by the individual," says Risalvato. "We get 15 to 20 of these a month, and it sounds disingenuous and insincere, seeing these cover letters from Seattle one week, Chicago another, and it's all the same style."
Some career experts also warn against the tired stand-by opening lines in a cover letter. "Opening a letter with a passive and clichéd statement such as 'Enclosed please find my resume highlighting my experience and skills that would help your company to grow and succeed,'" is a no-no, says Ann Baehr, certified professional resume writer and president of New York-based Best Resumes. "It's best to use something catchy and more specific such as, "If your company could benefit from the expertise of a hard-charging sales producer with a flawless record of success for closing tier-one Fortune 500 prospects in the healthcare technology market and capturing millions of dollars in revenue, please take a moment to review the attached resume."
If you're uncomfortable with that approach, make your cover letter unique to you with insights about the company you're applying to, advises Darrell Gurney, Los Angeles-based founder of career coaching site Careerguy.com and author of Backdoor Job Search: Never Apply For A Job Again!.
"Put in a note saying something like, 'I've been following your company's progress in the last year and in February and I noticed your company was mentioned in the Journal of such and such,'" Gurney says. "That's the amazing thing about the Internet. You can spend 15 minutes online and look like you've been following them for a year."
Gurney reminds applicants to do their full research on the company if they do get called in for an interview after.