The Art Of Hiring: 10 Worst Mistakes in a Cover Letter

by Dmitry Kirsanov 29. March 2012 17:25

An offer that you can't resistThis is my first article about the hiring process, even though I’ve been on both sides of the barricades for many years and for a long time thought and even taught people about some aspects of hiring process, as well as accumulated knowledge from them.

As you know, I am training IT specialists, and their reason for training, either explicitly expressed or subtle, is to find a better opportunity which would return the investment into training. In other words – to change the job.

Even though it’s not the beginning nor the end of the hiring process, and even not the most important part of it, the cover letter could either “make or break” the first impression of the HR (human resources) manager of your future employer.

I must confess – I don’t like HR managers en masse, even though they are the necessary evil for a big company, where specialist managers just couldn’t spend all their time at the interview. Some of HR managers are very good, and I wish you’ll meet this type of professional, but most are what I call “the gate keepers”.

Why am I talking about the HR managers and my perception of them as a class, is because I want you to understand, that you should not count on any sort of professional knowledge (IT, or any other) or empathy, and the lack of these skills doesn’t say a thing about the company at a whole.

I have to mention, that since I am the IT trainer and specialist, and this blog is mainly about various aspects of the life of IT specialist, I will talk about the hiring process in the context of information technology.

HR managers in really big IT companies, such as Microsoft, are usually professionals in IT. So they can understand, for example, what WCF stands for and that “web services” in your CV means basically the same.

However, most of HR managers are working in smaller companies. Even better – you may be talking to professional recruiter, from the recruiting agency, who might be less focused and less informed about all the aspects of the position. That’s how it works with recruiting agencies – you send your CV to the agent (HR recruiter), he skims through it, and if he doesn’t see what he is looking for – just adds it to the database, which could be smart enough to send you position description that is more or less linked to the information in your CV, but more often than not – it’s not the case. When you are sending your CV directly to the company, in case of doubt the CV is forwarded to the team leader, who requested new specialist.

Well, the point here is – the mistakes you make in the cover letter could route your CV to the recycle bin instead of the database or the team leader’s desktop.

So, here is what I consider to be the top 10 mistakes people make, which greatly weaken their chances of employment.

Mistake #1 – Exaggerated experience and qualification

Every second software developer uses the word “architect” in his CV, but it’s even more damaging when used in cover letter. If you was the only developer in the project, which is not something that runs on thousands of computers – forget about that word. Also don’t use it, if you are not certified as such. Don’t use titles you don’t have and which are the main theme of your future boss dreams.

Using exaggerated qualification and experience makes the impression that you claim for a salary which far exceeds your capacity. It’s not that you don’t have that capacity, but rather it hardly can be represented by your CV. The problem here is that after finding so bold term as “architect”, the HR manager or even worse – technical specialist, will change the mindset to skeptical or even critical, when proceeding to your CV. If proceeding, that is.

The worst thing you could do is to list something you don’t have or know. If you are only planning to acquire some certification or go through the course – state it clearly, but be prepared for a challenge.

Mistake #2 – Religious statements

Even if you think that you found your way, which is, of course, the Right way, don’t expect your potential employer to take it as an advantage. In fact, the person who will skim your resume may have negative experience with another member of your denomination, which is the fastest way to the recycle bin. So just like with sexual orientation – don’t tell, don’t ask. Don’t even hint.

Mistake #3 – Cultural inconsistencies

In some cultures it’s normal to have salutation like “Dear Sir”. Well, when I see it, I suppose that you are from India, which is great, but when HR manager will read your cover letter during her daily manicure session, reaction could be close to disgust. This is especially true when you come from the “warm” culture, like Indian, or explicitly kind, like Japanese, and you are writing to Nordic HR manager.

The problem of lack of cultural neutrality is that for some unknown reasons it may be taken hostile. For example, some salutations or phrases could only be allowed for close friends, and considered inappropriate in the world where your HR manager lives. But in your culture it might be the norm and a sign of respect.

The same goes for using of colors, armaments and other culture-specific formatting issues.

Mistake #4 – Specifying salary

Yes, you almost always see it in the advertisement, that you are expected to provide the wanted salary. Just don’t. Since your goal is to make it to the interview, don’t add locks to that door. Set it higher than number in the head of HR manager, and you won’t get a response. Set it too low, and you may find you are the lowest paid employee in the company (trust me, knowing that exceptionally undermines the effectiveness of most people) or even worse – the mindset of the interviewer will be set to critical, because she will think that she deals with the person with very low self esteem.

Even if the employer have the maximum sum defined, your performance during the interview could change that. In my own experience, I’ve got about 50% increase in proposed salary after having great 2 hours long interview.

Usually, though, the stated salary just looks exaggerated relatively to the CV. If your CV is not reflecting 100% of your personality, skills and experience, and usually it doesn’t, the stated salary will be calculated by yourself according to the image which only you can see.

Also, my personal principle is that no matter how much you worth, you get as much as your work worth. This means that even if you are the best scientist in the country, applying for janitor’s position could bring you janitor’s salary. So be realistic, but don’t write down the number.

There is also the possibility, that you know someone from the target company and he leaked the planned budget for a position. Don’t be tempted to state that number either!

Mistake #5 – Negative or too positive attitude

Don’t blame anyone. Don’t tell stories about changes in economy, bad management and other natural disasters. You are supposed to present perfect documentary, not the drama.

Sometimes too positive attitude is damaging as well, as it will be regarded as an aggressive sales pitch. When potential system administrator is telling about how he increased the overall return of investment for the IT department… It just doesn’t work.

Mistake #6 – Grammar

Even if you cannot into grammar, use computer software to take care of it. Do not use slang or memes. Misspelling could have dramatic effect, but as I said before – we are looking for documentary, not drama. Or comedy, in this case.

You must understand, that typical HR manager is a lady with “rich inner world”, and chances are – a “grammar nazi” as well. If you are looking for a job in another country, make sure there are no typos or local phraseologisms which could be treated as signs of illiteracy. This is true even if you are from USA and looking for job in UK.

Mistake #7 – Over-qualification

Were you ever rejected the job position because you are too qualified for it? Even if it is paid twice as your previous job? I was.

It is possible, that you are looking for a downshifting job which would give you relaxed environment and more free time, or you just want to relocate and don’t want to aim at big heights for the first year or two. It could also be possible that you are looking for a job in particular company and agree to position which could be considered petty for your skillset.

In that case, listing all your certifications and awards could have dramatic negative effect. HR manager wouldn’t want some junior system administrator to have better profile than current best professionals, as it would create unnecessary conflicts in the team.

The solution is to list only relevant information, sufficient to land a job, but not to exceed it by far. When the truth will be uncovered, taken it will happen without your help, it couldn’t harm. In fact, it could lead to unexpected promotion.

Mistake #8 – Inappropriate photo

Either don’t attach photo, or make sure it is suitable, has no marks of photo-hosting service, you are alone in a frame and is overall positive and true. If you are not photogenic, just don’t attach the photo, as your goal is to get your resume read and to arrange an interview, and sexist (or racist) outburst is not what you are looking for.

The context of your photo could play a role as well. While photo of yours in a real working environment could be positive, it can’t be embedded into the CV or printed. If you are “too sexy” on it, you could either have an unhealthy interest or outburst, depending from the hiring agent’s personality.

My advice is to ask friends or fiancée whether this photo is appropriate, don’t just rely on your taste. Unless you are confident, of course.

Mistake #9 – Generic statements and buzz words

The policy of double standards is such, that companies are using buzz words to sell their services, but are irritated when it’s used “against” them. So, try to avoid phrases from manuals about how to write your CV right – others are using them as well.

This is akin to SEO, or search engine optimization – excerpt that now you are optimizing for a human with attention deficit disorder. Do not write long phrases with double meaning, everything should be clear and laconic.

The worst case scenario is generic cover letter which is equally useless for any recipient.

Mistake #10 – Excluding the cover letter

If your cover letter is not needed, it will not be read. But some HR personnel believe that if there is no cover letter then you don’t pay enough attention and respect. Unfortunately, the common sense is not always the rule of the game, but sending a CV to the company is your agreement to play their game, so try to spend some quality time with writing a cover letter, and modify it according to the job description.


This list is far from being complete, but in case you found one of these mistakes in your cover letter it won’t be useless.



blog comments powered by Disqus