By Sharon Graham.
Across Canada, job seekers routinely make mistakes with their cover letter. New immigrants and other applicants entering the market for the first time may not know Canadian cover letter conventions. More seasoned professionals may have forgotten the protocol for declaring their candidacy in writing. Others are just too busy, indifferent, or cynical to make the effort.
Recruiters (and employers) use the cover letter to glean information that might not be in the resume. They read the letter when they want to find out more about a candidate. The letter helps them understand why the applicant is interested and what personal characteristics make that person the best fit for a particular role.
Having reviewed thousands of cover letters written by job seekers, resume writers, and employment consultants over the years, I have identified 30 key areas of concern. Here are some typical mistakes applicants make and how you can avoid them:
1- Not including a cover letter with the resume.
Some recruiters will immediately disqualify an applicant if the cover letter is missing. Even if this does not happen, those applicants who have taken the time to include a letter will appear more proactive and interested in the opportunity than someone who has not. Whenever possible, include a cover letter along with the resume.
2- Handwriting a formal cover letter.
Microsoft Word is the most popular software for creating business letters. The text should be formatted like a standard business letter. Follow this illustration from Xerox Canada. If you are unable to use a computer properly, retain a professional to convert your cover letter into Word.
3- Using a form letter or template.
Tailor the letter towards a specific advertised position or job title where you feel you will be a good fit. Figure out the employers underlying needs.
4- Not catering to the needs of the employer.
Only when you know the employer’s needs, can you present an appropriate solution. Before starting to write, research the opportunity well. Make sure you have correct, current information so that you can share your knowledge with the reader. Customize the letter to the specific needs of the job, company, and industry.
5-Omitting a formal letterhead.
Open the letter with an attractive, high-quality letterhead that matches the colour and style of the resume header. When the letterhead design is consistent with the resume, you create a brand identity.
6- Missing a key piece of contact information.
Make sure to include at the very minimum a phone number and professional email address. You’ll also make it easier for recruiters to call or email you.
7- Omitting the date.
In Canada, the typical format for date is alpha numeric. Layout the date in one of these formats: January 15, 2015 or 15 January 2015.
8- Addressing the letter to the wrong person.
Make your best effort to find out who will be reading your letter. Before writing the letter, double check that person’s full name and job title with the company to ensure that you are sending the cover letter to the correct person. Always confirm the spelling of the recipient’s name. Check everything against the person’s LinkedIn profile or listing in the company directory.
9- Burying the target opportunity.
Be clear about the position or opportunity that you want. Do this up front. Use a separate subject line or bold the intended role to make it stand out in some way.
10- Omitting the recipient’s address block.
Include the full name, job title, and complete mailing address of the person to whom you are sending the letter. The format should be similar to what you would put on the front of an envelope if you were mailing it.
11- Opening the letter with a vague salutation.
Whenever possible, try not to open the letter with “To Whom it May Concern” or “Dear Sir.” Personalize the salutation with a name. Lead with a title such as “Dear Mr.” “Dear Ms.” or “Dear Dr.” followed by the last name of the person you are addressing. For a business letter, use a colon at the end of the name. If you can’t find a name, then write to the recipient’s job title “Dear Recruiter:” “Dear Human Resources Manager:” or “Dear Accounting Manager:”. If you are really stuck and cannot determine the job title of the recipient, then use something like “Dear Hiring Manager:”
12- Being too casual.
Use a courteous and friendly professional tone throughout your letter, but avoid being formulaic. Use active language whenever possible and avoid trendy words – clichés and slang. Don’t use text message jargon. Avoid acronyms and abbreviations unless you are certain the reader will understand them. Technical jargon or industry buzzwords should also be left off unless they are appropriate. Use non-discriminatory, inoffensive language. Avoid humour, sarcasm, and anything else that might be taken the wrong way.
13- Not expressing your value.
A letter is an opportunity to sell. A well-written cover letter shows your personality, ambition, and initiative. Your letter should answer the employer’s question “Why should I hire you?” This is your value proposition. So explain, in a specific and individual way, why you are an ideal fit for the opportunity.
14- Making it all about you.
A cover letter is about what you can do for the employer. Focus on the company’s needs, objectives and the results they seek. Avoid appearing self-centered by only using the word “I” when it is absolutely necessary. When you do, instead of leading with it, try to embed it within the sentence.
15- Leading with a boring first paragraph.
Don’t start with typical phrases such as “I’m writing to apply for your advertised position” and “enclosed is my resume.” Instead, use the first paragraph to capture the reader’s interest. Create common ground and compliment the reader. Express briefly what you love about the person, company, industry, or opportunity. If someone that you both know referred you, mention that person by name. Then, talk about why you are good fit for the targeted position.
16- Repeating phrases from the resume.
Don’t rehash what’s in the resume. The cover needs to feature particular offerings the employer needs. Write creatively and focus specifically on why you are the ideal person for the job and company.
17- Pasting sections of the job posting into the letter.
Tie the letter closely to the opportunity by incorporating some, but not all, of the wording within the job description or advertisement. Only select keywords and phrases that fit your abilities so that you represent yourself authentically.
18- Writing a disjointed letter.
Use the body of the letter to draw the reader in and compel the reader to take a deeper look at the resume. Clarify why achievements listed in your resume will be valuable to your new employer. Give tangible proof of your previous accomplishments. Organize your information logically and highlight only a few key words.
19- Language errors.
The Public Works and Government Services Canada Translation Bureau publishes The Canadian Style, an online guide to writing and editing. This in-depth resource explains how to use English in the Canadian context. It also includes a range of business writing techniques to address geographical distinctions and avoid stereotyping in communications.
20- Grammar errors.
Make sure you know and apply the subtle nuances required in Canada. Best Canadian Cover Letters explains that “In Canada, we find that the issue of “Canadian English” versus “American English” comes up regularly. Although Canadian English is not exactly the same as American English, it is not British English either.” Use Best Canadian Cover Letters along with The Canadian Style to ensure that your grammar is perfect.
21- Spelling errors.
Don’t rely on automated spell check in Word. Use a proper Canadian English dictionary to check the spelling of words. Better yet, have an English teacher, business writer, or professional resume writer double check everything.
22- Problems with readability.
Make it easy for the recruiter to understand what you offer and remember you later. Ensure readability and retention with a concise, well-written letter. There is a person reading your document. Respect that person’s time. Keep to the point of your message. Use simple language. Avoid bulky, complicated paragraphs and multiple pages. Ensure that there are no fragments or run-on sentences. Ruthlessly eliminate all unnecessary words.
23- Hyping yourself too much.
Speak to the reader in an authentic voice. Your goal is to express confidence and proficiency, but not arrogance. Don’t use big, fancy words unless you know their meaning and they make sense in the context of the position, company, and industry you are targeting. When explaining your accomplishments, never exaggerate or embellish the facts. On paper, it will seem like you are bragging. Instead, back up your claims with evidence of the outcomes you suggest.
24- Hiding important challenges.
Address barriers and concerns that the employer may be thinking about in the letter – especially if they will be immediately apparent to the reader of the resume or the interviewer. For example, if you have a visible disability, but it will not hamper the work you are required to perform, mention that in the cover letter.
25- Not addressing the competition.
By understanding what other applicants have to offer, you can explain why your offering is different. This does not mean that you need to highlight your competition’s strengths. Rather, explain what differentiates you and explain how you will handle those areas on the job.
26- Not including a call to action.
Thank the reader for taking the time to review the letter and resume and consider you for the position. Then, close the letter in a proactive way. Say that you will follow up on a certain date with a phone call. Then, make sure that you take that action. Don’t make the call to action yours if you do not intend to fulfil it. Politely ask the employer to contact you directly.
27- Formatting your document poorly.
Present a consistent brand by matching the design style of the resume. Ensure the look and colour scheme is consistent with the resume. Don’t be too creative in design. In most cases, business documents such as cover letters should be professional and conservative. Use a font that’s easy to read and don’t make the margins too small. Unless there is a good, specific reason for making an “over the top” presentation, avoid it.
28- Using a poor printer.
If you plan to send a hardcopy of your cover letter, ensure that your printer cartridge is working correctly. The text should not be pale, the print should be legible, and there should not be heavy ink blots.
29- Forgetting to sign the letter.
Sign the letter in handwriting using a blue or black pen. Alternatively, if you are emailing the letter add a signature stamp.
30- Not saying that the resume is enclosed or attached.
Either mention within the letter that the resume is included or add a line at the bottom saying that there are enclosures. If you say that the resume is enclosed or attached, don’t forget to include it.
BONUS TIP – Typos and other blatant mistakes.
Proofread and edit everything carefully. Show that you can communicate effectively by avoiding any careless mistakes. Pass the draft by someone who has a strong command of the English language for a thorough review. Read the final document aloud to ensure that there are no errors.
Before you sit down to write your next cover letter, refer to some of the samples I have selected and included in Best Canadian Cover Letters. If a recruiter sees a glaring mistake, he or she may feel that you perform sloppy work and this could be just enough to eliminate you from the running.
Most Certified Resume Strategists find that their clients rarely write an error-free cover letter on their own. Just by having the letter reviewed and edited by a professional, a candidate’s chances of receiving an interview are significantly enhanced.
Sharon Graham is CANADA’S CAREER STRATEGIST and author of the top-selling BEST CANADIAN RESUMES SERIES. Founder and executive director of CAREER PROFESSIONALS OF CANADA, Sharon is committed to setting the standard for excellence in the industry. A leading authority on resume, interview, employment and career transition, Sharon provides career practitioners with tools and resources to enable them to provide exemplary services to Canadians.
Dear Mr./Mrs./Ms./Dr. (Contact Person):
First paragraph - introduction (2 - 4 sentences)
Establishes the purpose of your letter, attracts attention, and arouses interest.
- State why you are writing by naming the specific position or type of job.
- Tell how you heard about the position/employer and why you are interested in it.
- Insert a brief sentence that gives your degree, major, university, and graduation date.
Second/third paragraph - body (1 - 2 paragraphs, depending on your background)
Generates interest with content by indicating how much employer research you have done and how your skills/background match the employer’s needs.
- Indicate how you can help the employer achieve organisational goals in your specialty. Focus on what you can do for them rather than why you want the position.
- Highlight your most significant accomplishments, abilities, and experiences that are specifically relevant to the employer and job requirements.
- Sell your credentials - your mission is to prove you should be invited to an interview. Make reference to enclosures.
- Do not simply repeat your resume but point out important experiences and key assets - show some of this to demonstrate to the employer your personal qualities which cannot be indicated on a resume.
Fourth paragraph - closing (4 sentences maximum)
States your commitment to action.
- Take the initiative to make clear what happens next - you will be calling to arrange an appointment, and/or ask for additional information.
- State your availability. Let them know if/when you will be in the area.
- Mention that you have an enclosed resume or sample work, if applicable.
- Indicate that you will call to inquire about the possibility of an interview and/or the timing or the selection process.
- Restate contact information so the employer can contact you.
- Thank the employer.
Very truly yours/Sincerely,
Your name, typed