The Worst Cover Letter I’ve Seen – and How to Fix it.

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I have been trying to hire a team of 10 in the next 5 months which means that I have seen a fair amount of resumes and cover letters. There is one that stood out from the rest. It made me laugh, then sad for a bit, and then laugh again. I will highlight what was wrong with this persons approach and then identify why it was wrong, and what I was actually looking for.

This person actually applied twice (I will call her Kim). Once in 2010, and again in 2011. The position in 2010 was for a web developer, and in 2011 it was for a system admin (two completely different jobs). The resume was exactly the same and the cover letter as also exactly the same. That was problem number 1.

Customize your cover letter for the job
When an employer looks at hundreds of generic cover letters from potential hires saying “my experience makes me an ideal candidate for this position” we just stop believing these words. Why? because I have read 100 of them, and the last 99 did not make an ideal candidate for this position, so why should you? Tell me something unique an interesting that you did. For example, did you work on an open source project on your spare time? Everyone has SOMETHING unique and different about them, figure out what yours is and highlight this in the cover letter.

The spray and pray approach NEVER works. Kim thought that if she threw enough stuff against the wall something will stick. It doesn’t. Rather than applying for 100 jobs a week and hope something works, apply to 5 with some thought. It will take the same amount of time and you will get better results.

Don’t Tell Me about your Problems.
Kim thought it was important to mention in her cover letter that she lived far away from the office, just had a baby, her husband won’t drop her off to our office and wants to work from home for half the pay. There are so many things wrong with this, it is hard to think of where to begin. Kim might be new to the country, and not aware of the customs here in Canada, but never, ever give conditions for employment in the cover letter. I do not even know you, and you are already asking for privileges and telling me that you can not do the job at full capacity? The cover letter is meant to give me confidence that I can trust you and believe that you can do a great job.

Everyone has a unique situation (i.e. Kim is a new parent and has some limitations) but she could have a different approach. This is how I would tackle the cover letter (also, she should only apply for the job she actually had skills for, which was the web developer, not system admin)

“Hello, I saw your recent posting for the position of web developer and thought I could add some value to your team. I really enjoy developing on the web, so much so that I thought that the HTML5 W3 standards were insufficient for device recognition. I joined the group and added my thoughts to this discussion with the hopes that in the future we can run an app-free web!

I am great at managing my time, and can work very well on my own and remotely with a team. I would like to demonstrate this to you and chat more about this opportunity if you like. ”

This is why I would reply to the above cover letter:

  1. The letter has a direct example of a skill related to the position which you do on your spare time. You have my attention because you clearly like this stuff
  2. The letter mentions that you are great at working on your own and can work remotely. What this does is manages my expectations later when you ask if you can work from home on certain days. You can bring this up in the phone interview and ensure that you communicate very well (a big requirement for working from home).

Kim was an extreme case, I did not see too many like this, but there were some that had some elements of Kims style (no customization). I hope this example helps you with your job search!