A cover letter is an opportunity to differentiate yourself from a stack of similar resumes. But more so, it’s a chance for hiring managers to weed out candidates who show poor judgment. Ask any recruiter or hiring manager – a bad cover letter hurts you more than a great cover letter improves your chances.
Below are the nine most common and detrimental mistakes made by candidates when crafting a cover letter.
It’s Too Long
Length is the first thing recruiters and hiring managers mention when it comes to cover letter errors. Decision-makers don’t have the time or patience to read a novel, said Roy Cohen, a finance-focused career coach and author of “The Wall Street Professionals’ Survival Guide.”
One hiring manager at Barclays said that he spends between 15 and 30 seconds reviewing a cover letter, and will completely ignore those that look are too long. Mostly, he spends the time scanning for obvious errors that help him shorten his stack of applicants.
“People skim cover letters, said Hallie Crawford, an Atlanta-based career coach. “Make your cover letter skimmable.”
A good cover letter should be made up of three fairly short paragraphs, according to experts.
It’s Too Generic
A boilerplate cover letter filled with clichéd language – like “hardworking,” “self-starter” and “dedicated” – is another sure way to limit your chances of a call back.
A cover letter shouldn’t talk about you and your background – that’s what a resume is for. Rather, it should focus on why you fit the job in question, with specific examples of how you can provide unique value to the firm in question, said Jesse Marrus, founder of Wall Street career search firm StreetID.
“If you send a boilerplate cover letter that doesn’t focus on the essentials – the role and how your experience applies – you look lazy, and you’re also showing that you’re not clear on what the employer needs,” said Cohen.
Mention the company in the cover letter and include a tidbit of recent news that affects them, showing you pay attention to the market, said Marrus.
You Fail to Recognize Your Audience
Banking is a rather traditional, old school industry. While you want to avoid being generic, it’s also important to mute the creative side of your brain and remain professional and to the point.
A man’s resume that was mocked up to look like an Amazon product page may work in technology, but that type of effort fails on Wall Street, said Cohen. “By being overly creative or funny, you’re adding a dimension that can be confusing to hiring managers.”
Factual or Grammatical Errors
Recruiters and hiring managers are blown away with how many resumes and cover letters contain errors. “Several times a year, I receive cover letters that are addressed to the wrong bank,” said the Barclays source, who asked to remain nameless.
Don’t believe him? Check out this example of a nightmarish cover letter sent to J.P. Morgan, which mentions Morgan Stanley, along with notes about his ability to bench press and do pull-ups.
Have at least one pair of eyes other than your own check your resume for simple errors.
You’re Too Egotistical
Yes, you’re the protagonist in your cover letter, but it shouldn’t be all about you, or make you look like a conceited jerk.
“Typically, it’s guys, and that is a major turn-off to investment banks,” said Heather Katsonga-Woodward, a former banker and author of “To Become an Investment Banker.”
“Banks love themselves and people that stroke their ego by showing they have read their annual report and found out how well they are doing,” she said.
Addressing the Reader Generically
“To Whom it May Concern” and “Dear Sir or Madam” are lazy greetings, experts say.
“In this digital age, a minimal amount of research can tell you who to address your letter to – use this information and what you can gather about the resume reviewer to garner interest,” said Suzanne Havranek, senior recruiter and fulfillment manager at New York recruiting firm Wall Street Services.
You Sent it via Snail Mail
If you mail a cover letter – rather than emailing it – you look like a dinosaur, said Cohen. Banks, especially these days, are all about efficiency.
The reaction to a physical cover letter is: “Hmm, this is odd,” he said. You want to look dynamic, current and efficient, Cohen added. Plus, you want to give them an outlet for immediate follow-up.
Not all agree, however. The hiring manager at Barclays’ investment bank believes a hard copy cover letter is beneficial when networking. He and his colleagues have mailed signed cover letters to smaller companies – newly launch hedge funds or private equity firms – to stay on their radar.
“Do some research, tell them you’re interested in what they’re doing and toss in a business card,” he said.
Your Claims Aren’t Backed Up in Your Resume
“No one cares about unverified skills,” said Katsonga-Woodward. “If you say you’re great at something, you have to identify something on your CV that validates the claim.”
There’s a delicate balance though. While you shouldn’t talk about your valuation skills if there’s nothing pertinent on your resume, you also don’t want your cover letter to be a carbon copy of your CV. Refine the information in your resume and explain how it fits their job, at their company.
You Didn’t Send One
Even if a company doesn’t specifically ask for a cover letter, you should always send one, experts agree.
“It’s an opportunity to highlight your skills and differentiate yourself,” said Crawford. A quick note in the body of an email doesn’t suffice. Always attach a cover letter.