My 5 worst cover letter mistakes—and how your students can avoid them

Daily Briefing

My 5 worst cover letter mistakes—and how your students can avoid them

When I embarked on my first post-grad job hunt, I churned out tens of applications each week for drastically different positions—but almost all of my cover letters sounded the same. I fell into the trap that many students do: online cover letter templates.

Online templates make cover letters sound robotic, uninteresting—and indistinguishable from every other application in the pile, Steve Drummond and Elissa Nadworny wrote for NPR in 2017. And while cover letters can help applicants stand out, students often neglect to infuse their letters with any personality, Daniel Victor wrote for the New York Times in 2016.

Here are the common cover letter mistakes tripping up your students—and what they should write instead.

Mistake 1: They state the obvious

Clichés and platitudes don’t illustrate anything meaningful about a student’s abilities, writes Victor.  Vague phrases like “I’m a hard worker” disengage readers and aren’t “even worth saying,” advises Kristen Fitzpatrick, the managing director of career and professional development for Harvard University’s business school.

Students should ditch the fluff and focus on telling a compelling story about their experiences from the get-go, recommend Drummond and Nadworny, who regularly read through thousands of applications for NPR’s highly competitive student internships.

Mistake 2: They don’t explain what they bring to the table

Many applicants spend too much time gushing about the organization and opportunities they want to take advantage of, says Fitzpatrick.

While it’s important to express interest in the firm, cover letters should highlight the unique skills students bring to the team, not just what they hope to get out of the experience, writes Victor. Employers want to hire high-potential applicants who will bring outsized value to the firm, not those who just want any job, he adds.

Mistake 3: They don’t do enough research

Don’t let your students address their cover letters “to whom it may concern.” Letters of interest sound more personal—and informed—when they’re addressed to the person who actually reads the applications, argue Drummond and Nadworny.

And students don’t have to solve the organization’s toughest problem to prove they’ve done their homework. But a few sentences about the applicant’s interest in the firm’s recent projects or publications can go a long way, write Drummond and Nadworny.

Mistake 4: They rehash their resume

Students shouldn’t regurgitate the resume in their cover letter. Instead, they should use that space to illustrate why they’d be a good fit for the organization and how they’ll apply their skills in the open position, writes Victor. Cover letters are also a chance for students to pitch their ideas and demonstrate their creativity, he adds.

Mistake 5: They don’t proofread

Typos and grammatical mistakes won’t win over potential employers. Encourage students to visit the campus writing center to get a second pair of eyes on their paper. Friends and parents can also help proofread for typos, jargon, and awkward sentences, write Drummond and Nadworny (Victor, New York Times, 10/21/16; Drummond/Nadworny, NPR, 2/27/17).

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