1) Call me a grammar snob, but spelling and grammar mistakes are the kiss of death for me. It’s not like you’re hand-writing this stuff on a typewriter! It’s in Word which has automatic spell checks. If you can’t bother to get this right, I’m pretty confident your work is going to have the same level of attention to detail. So understand when to use a comma (extra points to know how this differs in the US vs. the UK! Anyone?), don’t address it as ‘Dear Sir’ (especially annoying to women, and usually 9 out of 10 HR people are women), and use a consistent tense (past/present/etc). The grammar stuff is especially important if you’re an international student, and you want to ensure prospective employers aren’t going to be concerned about your language skills.
2) Don’t use the wrong language to talk about the company. Some places say company, some say organization, some say firm. It’s actually super annoying to read someone continuously write firm, when you’re not a firm, and you can quickly find this out by looking at the website. Even worse, don’t say you are really interested in a job at ABC Bank because you want to be an investment banker, when you’re failing to recognize that this is a commercial bank that does not consider itself an I-bank!
3) Make sure your cover letter addresses three questions. Why do you want this job. Why do you want to work at this company (this is a different question from the first – that many confuse). And why are you a good fit for the position. So if you’re applying to a consulting role at BCG, your cover letter should say why you’re so passionate about consulting, why you want to do this at BCG (i.e. how does it stand out vs. McKinsey, Bain, etc – without mentioning their names) and why you would specifically excel in this role at BCG.
4) Save and name the file/attachment properly! So many people send stuff like ‘kari r cover letter bcg aug 2013 4’ or ‘kari 5524721’. Instead, just do something like ‘Cover Letter to BCG – <full name>’. When people I like send me their resumes and cover letters, I’ll often re-save them before forwarding them on to HR or the hiring manager. It just looks sloppy.
5) While cover letters are absolutely to sell yourself, don’t use stupid and generic ways to describe your skills. Instead of saying you’re a ‘great communicator’, talk about how you particularly enjoy preparing and delivering presentations to large groups or writing and editing communications to most effectively convey a message to your target audience, and give an example of something specific you’ve done. Instead of using the cliche ‘team player’, say that you have strong experience partnering with and bringing together peers from different teams and working towards a common objective, again backing this up with a concrete example whenever possible.
Have you made any of these cover letter blunders? What else do you think people get wrong? Let me know in the comments below.