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A Bad Cover Letter Can Blow Your Job Prospects

Our fall recruiting season has started at Palisades Hudson Financial Group, and as the resumes come in, I am struck by how many really excellent candidates take themselves out of the running with a poorly executed cover letter.

Our organization is a highly personal asset management and financial planning firm with wonderful clients and a wonderful staff. From the beginning, we do our best to ensure a good fit between our new hires and the firm. Our careful process pays off; many of our current staff members have been with us for 10 years or more. We hire highly motivated and dedicated individuals with a passion for finance and economics, a drive to continue learning and a strong desire to help individuals and families. When we find talented people who work well with our existing staff, we want to give them opportunities to grow professionally with us for as long as possible.

Given our objectives, our hiring style is different from that of many larger firms, which may bring in groups of 25 or 50 new hires at once to allow for significant attrition. We do not extend an offer until we are reasonably sure we want the applicant as a long-term member of our team.

Consequently, we screen our applicants very seriously. Our interview process is thorough and lengthy, so we can only invite a limited number of candidates to discuss a position face-to-face. Yet for each job we post, we receive a huge number of applications. Many of these applicants have excellent qualifications and relevant experience. So how do we choose who to interview?

Often the difference between the applicant we interview and the applicant we pass over is their cover letters.

A pro-forma cover letter, even with a few details tweaked to fit our company, will usually keep us from moving forward with our hiring process. We know boilerplate when we see it. If applicants really want to work for an organization, they should take a little time to understand what that company is about and let the hiring manager or team know, in a cover letter, what about the firm so intrigues them. If candidates don’t want to take the time to research a particular firm, or if nothing about it genuinely interests them, maybe it is a sign that the organization is not the one for them.

Here are some suggestions to keep in mind when writing a cover letter:

Don’t simply modify the same letter over and over. We recently received an application for a full-time position from a candidate who previously applied for a summer internship. While we are delighted he remained interested, and are happy to reconsider applicants who have had time to gain new skills and experience since they last applied, our hiring team immediately noticed that his cover letter was exactly the same as before, down to the (no longer accurate) statement that he was applying for an internship.

Even at a firm larger than ours, or one where you have never previously applied, using standardized language will make you seem stiff and generic. Worse, it can lead to editing mistakes such as specifying the wrong position (or even the wrong company) - a major red flag for an employer looking to hire someone who pays attention to detail. Instead, take 15 or 20 minutes to write a brief letter from scratch every time you apply to a position. A cover letter should outline why you are interested in the job and why you would excel in the position. These things will change somewhat for each application. Avoid trying to make a generic letter sound specific by forcing in a few details.

Don’t guess what an employer needs. While you should certainly read the posting carefully and look at the employer’s website and online presence, it is possible to become overly confident about the organization’s needs. Guessing what an employer is looking for can make you look presumptuous or naive. It can also lead you to be frustratingly vague: Discussing your “personal impact” or why you are a “dynamic professional” is meaningless filler that does nothing to further your candidacy.

Strike a personable but professional tone. Many bad cover letters are much more formal than necessary. Your tone should be appropriate for work, but your cover letter should also sound like you. Write it the way you would write an email to your boss or professor. Try reading it aloud to see how it sounds. This practice will also help you catch spelling, grammar and punctuation errors. Your letter should be as close to typo-free as you can possibly make it. A cover letter should also be no more than one page, and it should be properly formatted as a letter.

Make the case for why you would be a good fit for the specific job and the specific company. It is easy to tell the difference between a candidate who has taken a few minutes to research the company and one who has not, and this difference matters. You should be very specific when discussing what about the company excites you, as well as what about you may excite the company. Don’t go overboard, but if you think you would excel, be sure to explain why.

To boil it down: Your cover letter should be an honest, clear statement of why you are enthusiastic about the position to which you are applying, and it should augment your resume in presenting a picture of why you would be likely to succeed. If you meet both of these objectives, you will give yourself a considerable head start toward getting an interview, and if all goes well, an offer.

Good luck!

If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out Palisades Hudson’s books, The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth and Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. Both are available in paperback and as e-books.

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