Cover letter writing can be tough. If you’re looking for an excuse not to write one, well, I have bad news—that excuse might save you from writing a cover letter, but it could cost you a job.
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’re probably familiar with my advice that yes, executives do need to write a cover letter as part of your job application. This survey from Robert Half backs me up on that—90% of executives say that cover letters are important to them for making a hiring decision. A well-written cover letter can go a long way in distinguishing you from other candidates and help make you memorable to an executive recruiter or hiring manager. When you’re applying for an executive position, you need to be memorable—there will be plenty of other candidates with an impressive work history competing with you.
So what makes a cover letter well-written as opposed to badly written? What makes an executive cover letter memorable? And what are the most common mistakes people make in their executive cover letters?
Start making your cover letter well-written and memorable by avoiding these three common cover letter mistakes: failing to capture attention immediately, making the cover letter about yourself, and repeating yourself.
Failing to Capture Attention Immediately
As someone applying for an executive-level or C-suite position, you are well aware of how busy people can be. Hiring managers and executive recruiters are no exception. Because of this, you need to capture their attention immediately with the first sentence of your cover letter. If you don’t, why would they keep reading? They might skim a cover letter that starts out boring or irrelevant to their needs, but they certainly won’t give the same attention to a letter that is compelling right from the start. To keep them reading, you need a great cover letter with a great opening line. You might know you’re their ideal candidate, but you need to convince them of that. Don’t lose their interest before you’ve even started convincing them.
Do any of these boring first lines sound familiar?
-I am writing to you today because…
-This letter is in response to…
-Thank you for considering the attached resume…
-The position of <executive> at <company> is a good fit for me because…
-I have <X> years of experience in…
If the answer is yes, then you’re probably losing the attention of your potential employer pretty quickly. None of those sentences tells someone why they should be interested in hiring you.
One of the major things I preach to clients as a professional resume writer is the importance of conveying what value you bring to a specific position or company. What can you do for them? Keep this in mind as you are shaping your cover letter. The first sentence should address a specific value that you can bring to the position you are applying for. One way to do this is by posing a question.
Consider these examples, and compare them with the above boring first lines. Which ones are more likely to keep you reading?
-Would a sales executive who has a decade-long track record of double-digit growth be an asset to your company?
-Creative thinking and strategic planning: my strongest skills, with 30% revenue growth to prove it.
-Does your company need a proven leader to help guide your staff in increasing sales and expanding your market share?
-Dealing with tough clients is my specialty.
Each one of these lines hits on a specific topic that could be a pain point for a company. Determine what a pain point might be at the company you are applying to, then consider your work experience and strengths and how they can be applied to solve that problem for the prospective employer. Voilà—you have the makings of a strong first sentence or two for your cover letter! Now you can delete the boring first line that was making employers yawn instead of sitting up and paying attention.
An effective first line also showcases your communication skills. Think about it—if you’re applying for a job as a sales executive, you should be able to sell yourself in your professional cover letter.
For more on writing a compelling cover letter introduction, check out this article: Your Guide to Writing Executive Cover Letters.
Making the Cover Letter About Yourself
Huh? Aren’t I writing about myself, my professional career, my accomplishments, and my strengths? Isn’t that what a cover letter and a resume are for?
Sure—to a point.
A cover letter should not just be a one-page letter in which you brag about yourself and your achievements. Instead, every single point you make about your skills or your experience needs to be tied directly back to the position or the company you are applying to.
Do not write your cover letter from the angle of “this is why I’m so great.” Instead, start from the angle of “what does this company need from me?” and go from there. Making this simple change in mindset before you set out to write a cover letter can make a big difference in how you write your cover letter, and then in how you are perceived by the person reading your cover letter.
By the time you have reached the executive level in your professional career, you have plenty of experience and accomplishments to talk about. Resist the temptation to use your cover letter to shovel more about yourself and yourself only toward a hiring manager. Everyone else applying for the position likely has their own set of accomplishments. The way to set yourself apart is to speak about why the company needs you.
It can also be tempting to talk about why you want the job—have you long admired the company, agree with their environmental policy, or want to live in the city where they’re located? It’s okay to mention topics like that—as long as you again tie it back to how it’s helpful for the company. A hiring manager isn’t psychic; they won’t necessarily realize that because you admire their environmental policy means that you’ll be likely to use that policy more effectively in your marketing efforts for them—and in fact already have ideas about how to do so. Lay it out there explicitly, and get them as interested in you as you are in their company.
For more insight into avoiding the trap of focusing on yourself in your cover letter, check out this article I recently wrote: One Letter Can Weaken Your Cover Letter.
A good cover letter complements your resume—it doesn’t copy it. It is certainly easier to take what you already have on your resume and turn it into sentences and paragraphs than it is to craft a cover letter that says something new, but it is a major mistake to do so.
Would you want to read the same information twice, just in different formats? And would you want to do that over and over again through a stack of dozens of resumes and cover letters? No, you wouldn’t. And neither do hiring managers and recruiters.
Tell a story with your cover letter. Think chronologically about your career path, and think about the beginning, middle, and end of how you move from facing challenges to finding solutions. Do you have something relevant on your resume that might not be immediately clear about why it’s relevant? Work that information into your career story so that it is clear to a hiring manager. Are you sending a cover letter and resume cold and not in response to a job posting? Tell the story (briefly) of why you’re doing so. Did you earn a master’s degree in something completely unrelated to your field, but still find it useful in your current career? Tell that story. There’s no such thing as a perfect cover letter, but making yours engaging and interesting will certainly be helpful in making you a memorable candidate.
Don’t make your cover letter a list of skills and strengths. It’s not necessary, and it’s boring. Use a narrative voice and bring life to what is on your resume. Use your cover letter to help a hiring manager better understand your professional personality and why they should want to continue on to your resume where they can see the extensive list of dates, titles, and skills that have made up your career experience so far.
Use your cover letter effectively—it may only be one page long, but that’s a page that is an opportunity to impress a prospective employer. Don’t make the mistake of repeating yourself and boring an employer as soon as they see the same information about your skills and abilities on your resume as they already read about in your cover letter.
Have you avoided these three mistakes in your cover letter? Feeling confident and ready to send it? Here’s a bonus tip—don’t attach it to an email. Copy and paste it into the body of your email. It saves a hiring manager a step in opening it, and if they see something interesting in a preview pane or when they first open it, you’ve got their attention already. Be the candidate whose resume a hiring manager can’t wait to read.
Is the prospect of writing your own executive resume and executive cover letter daunting? Or do you, like so many executives, just have too much to do and not enough time to focus on your career documents?
Want more cover letter help? Download my newest guide How NOT to Start Your Cover Letter (Plus 7 Examples of What to Say Instead).
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About the author
Jessica Hernandez, President, CEO & Founder of Great Resumes Fast
Hi, I’m Jessica. I started this company back in 2008 after more than a decade directing hiring practices at Fortune 500 companies.
What started as a side hustle (before that was even a word!) helping friends of friends with their resumes has now grown into a company that serves hundreds of happy clients a year. But the personal touch? I’ve kept that.
You might have seen me featured as a resume expert in publications like Forbes, Fast Company, and Fortune. And in 2020, I was honored to be named as a LinkedIn Top Voice of the year!
I’m so glad you’re here, and I can’t wait to help you find your next perfect-fit position!
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Such nice information.
Thank you so much.
Hi Jessica, You have done a great job. I am a CV writer at Art2write.com in Dubai, I write professional CVs and resumes for job seekers. This article helped me to get clear in my projects. If you want any help regarding cv writing feels free to contact us or read our blog. Thank you so much.☺️ ☺️
Thank you for these common mistakes made in executive cover letters. Dubai is a great place to do a job. I write CVs and resumes for job seekers who are very excited to get a job in Dubai.
Thank you for share these common mistakes made in executive cover letters.