Why Cover Letters Matter – and Mistakes to Avoid

published 10 08 2020

2 minute read time

Do cover letters matter?  In a word: yes!

Particularly when applying to work for a mission-driven nonprofit, a cover letter is not only your opportunity to demonstrate your writing abilities and highlight relevant experience, but also a way to convey your passion for the organization.  In any job, the ability to communicate effectively and persuasively is essential, and a well-written cover letter can be a key indicator of success – so do not overlook its importance when applying for a position.  Here are some common mistakes we see and how to avoid them to ensure your letter puts your candidacy in the best light possible.

Too Generic

If you can cut and paste more than one paragraph from a previous cover letter, start over and think about how your experience and passions align with this particular position, this particular organization, at this particular time in your career.

Too Long

Keep it under two pages, well-spaced and visually easy to read.  Not only will a long letter lose your reader, it shows that you have trouble being concise and getting your point across in a limited amount of time, which is a red flag to any employer.

Too Short

A cover letter is more than an introduction – it is a companion piece to your resume and a chance to share examples that highlight your skills and frame your background.  Avoid bullet points and restating the position qualifications or information that can easily be found in your resume.

Too Clever

It is good to share some sense of who you are, but being pun heavy or trying to use humor so you stand out does not always land well and could be misunderstood or considered inappropriate.

Too Pushy

Avoid namedropping, it can come across as presumptuous and pretentious.

Too Personal

While expressing your enthusiasm for the position is essential, do not overshare details that may not be relevant to the job or could potentially be held against you; keep your cover letter focused on your interest in and qualifications for the position.

Too Impersonal

Avoid “Dear Sir/Madam” or “To Whom It May Concern” as these are outdated and show a lack of care and resourcefulness.  Figure out who this position reports to or the head of the organization.  If you still are not sure who the hiring manager is, “Dear (Position Title) Hiring Team” is acceptable.

Too Sloppy

Even worse than an impersonal greeting is an incorrect one.  Avoid typos, especially the name of the organization and the position.  Always have someone proof your cover letter and resume as it is easy to miss small typos.  Consider these materials as your writing samples.

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