The Biggest Mistakes Candidates Make in Cover Letters

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When it comes time to write an introductory cover letter, job seekers often find themselves staring woefully at blank computer screens and wondering how to boil down all their career experiences into a few meaningful sentences.

Countless books and articles have been written on the subject of effective cover letters, but one way I have found to take the sting out of this important part of the job search is to wean yourself off of the use of self-aggrandizing “I” statements.

It’s Not About You

In my coaching practice, I’ve rewritten cover letters for clients in many different professions. My secret is simple, and it’s the obvious one that candidates too often forget: Always consider the reader first. Consider that the reader is a real human being with real time constraints and distractions competing for their time and resources.

Do you really want that person to read a document that is only about you?

Certainly not.

You are there to answer a problem.

You are selling yourself, sure, but you must first consider the employer’s specific needs and how you can help. You don’t want to produce a cheap sales document that only seeks to “prove” why you are the right candidate.

This is the reality: Imagine that you are a recruiter tasked with filling several vacant positions within your company. On your bench are 32 open jobs. You have 60 unread emails in your inbox, your boss is on the phone, your ad response is blowing up, and then a job seeker’s cover letter pops up on your computer screen.

If the cover letter is a mere litany of accomplishments and doesn’t address how the job seeker can contribute to the employers’ mission, how would you feel about this message? Not very moved, that’s for sure.

A Few Rules for Cover Letters

RopeIt pays to be sensitive to your audience. Don’t puke out skill sets on the page. Stop a minute and think: Who is your audience?

It’s probably not the hiring manager. It’s probably a recruiter or an HR person who doesn’t recruit as a full-time job.

What is their demographic? Typically, it is a female employee who reads your information at this stage, based on HR demographics. Usually, it’s someone in a junior or mid-level position.

Do you think this person really knows anything about your skill set? Is she intimately qualified to read resumes and select candidates? Maybe, maybe not.

Bottom line: This is who you are talking to when you apply for a job. There is a real live person on the other end of your computer screen. Give them a break.

What Your Cover Letter Should Look Like

Here is an example of a simple cover letter that breaks through the ego barrier:


Thank you for taking time out of your busy day to read my information. It occurs to me that in this fast-paced job market, you probably get a lot of cover letters crossing your desk. I’d like mine to be specific to your ad so as not to waste your time.

I am applying for the [title] position that I found posted on [job board]. Your ad stated you wanted someone with [core skill set]. My direct relevant experience to your ad can be found under [section/company] on my resume.

My core skill set contains [enter only tangible skills here, not subjective qualities like “leadership” or “problem solving.” Those are not skills].

Thank you for you consideration. Certainly, you’ll get a lot of responses to your ad.

When the time is right for you, please give me a call. [A parting line like this shows you aren’t desperate.]

Best Regards,

Why does this format work ? Because simplicity is golden. This letter says: I heard you. You are looking for these skills. Click on my resume. It’s there.

Cover letters don’t need to be painstaking – as long as you know what you’re doing.

Elizabeth Lions is an executive career coach. You can learn more at

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Elizabeth Lions is the author of two books, "Recession Proof Yourself" and “I Quit! Working for You Isn't Working For Me.” Her third book on leadership will arrive in 2016. Elizabeth is also a well-know radio personality on Plaid For Women, where she hosts a show called “Leadership Lessons From the Lioness.” Elizabeth has a private practice as an executive career coach where she helps executives in transition and with leadership development. A wise adviser, Elizabeth has been quoted in U.S. World News Report, AOL Jobs, Australian Finance, Silicon India, CBS Money Watch, Yahoo, The Ladders, and Dice. Before becoming an accomplished author, professional speaker, and coach, Elizabeth started her career as a headhunter on the West Coast. Elizabeth had the pleasure of working with the leaders of Microsoft, Wells Fargo, eBay, and Intel, to name a few. Today, Elizabeth can be found writing, coaching, and collaborating with the who’s who of corporate America. When she isn't working, Elizabeth can be found traveling across state lines with her husband on their Harley-Davidson motorcycle or in the yoga studio twisting for hours on end. For more information about her philosophies, please visit