The cover letter is kind of a paradox. You have to send one with every job application. You have to write a specific letter for each job explaining why you are a great candidate for it, enticing the reader to check out your resume for further detail. It has to be there and it has to be good.

But you can’t assume that any of the information it contains will actually get across to the employer.

Because a good deal of the time, the cover letter is never actually read.

The biggest cover letter mistake

And that’s the biggest mistake in a cover letter: counting on it. Traditionally, many people created one perfected, generic resume that highlighted their career achievements, and they sent it to every job they applied for. They relied on their cover letter to bridge the gap in any career shift from past jobs to the potential new one. The cover letter was also the only part of the application that was tailored specifically to the targeted employer and expressed the candidate’s knowledge and interest in that particular company.

That made sense in the days of snail mail, and maybe even email, when you are directly sending in your application to the hiring manager. People will naturally read a letter first when opening an envelope or an email. But these days, most job postings receive hundreds of applications, and recruiters don’t have time to read hundreds of letters.

Applications are most often pre-screened by applicant tracking systems that determine if they contain the most relevant keywords for the job. If a resume contains the right keywords, it gets past the software filters and can be read by a human. If the recruiter sees the skills and experience that they are looking for, then the resume can be shortlisted for a phone call – otherwise it gets passed over. (This initial scan only takes about 10 seconds or less.)

When you have that little time to make a first impression on a busy employer, you don’t want them to be looking at a generic resume that hasn’t been tailored to demonstrate how your skills and accomplishments can benefit them specifically. They won’t do the math for you, and they still haven’t looked at your cover letter.

The thinking is:

  • If the person does have the required skills, and the resume looks good for the job, why bother reading their cover letter? Let’s get them in for an interview.
  • If they do not have the skills, or the resume looks inappropriate for the role, then what’s the use in reading a letter from the applicant? Let’s move on.

That’s the cover letter paradox.

It needs to explain the experience you have that proves you can do the job at hand, without merely being a repeat of your resume. But your resume must also convey this information, without simply rehashing the cover letter. Because they both might be read, and you don’t want the employer to be reading essentially the same text and information twice. This can make you appear repetitive and uninteresting.

Knowing that it might not be read can make it demotivating to actually write a cover letter, but you still have to do it. The second biggest mistake in a cover letter is not sending one at all. You don’t want to give an employer the impression that you were lazy or cutting corners on your job application. What would that say about your potential work ethic on the job?

If an employer does want to read your cover letter, it should be there and it should be good.

Your cover letter should demonstrate your understanding of what the company does and how you can help them be more successful at it. Just make sure that your resume does too.

See also:

What really happens to your resume after you apply for a job?
The biggest mistake on a resume (and how to create a masterpiece)
The definitive list of resume dos and don’ts
The worst resume ever


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