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5 job application cover-letter disasters

(MoneyWatch) Looking for a job? I may be able help. Having hired a few folks recently, I've noticed a trend in the job applications I've reviewed.

We're talking about cover letters. You know -- the document that makes your very first impression with HR and the hiring manager. I personally glean a lot from the cover letter, and have pulled together some cover letter-related tips for anyone on the job hunt.

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1. Be sure to include one. Many people seem to think that since cover letters are optional, it's okay to omit them. I've even seen some trendy new job-hunting advice recommending that cover letters have fallen out of style, and so you should only submit a resume. No! The cover letter is your opportunity to own the narrative, to tell the hiring manager why you're a great fit for the job and passionate about getting an opportunity to prove yourself. If you don't include a cover letter, the hiring manager needs to scan the resume -- which takes time -- to try to figure out if you have the right skills and experience for the position. That also requires parsing language that might be specific to your last company or industry and translates poorly to the local dialect of the company you're applying to. Bottom line: If you don't take the time to send me (the hiring manager) a cover letter, your resume almost certainly goes directly into the recycling bin.

2. Don't be arrogant. Your cover letter tells me things about your personality that aren't apparent in the resume. Regardless of how skilled or talented you are, I'm going to have to work with you every day after I hire you. It's important that I feel that I can get along with you. Indeed, many companies ensure that peers get a say in hiring decisions to ensure they feel good about the candidate as well. So don't lead your cover letter (as I have recently seen) with arrogant boasts or bulleted quotes from former employers, as if you were listing features on a product sell-sheet. Don't make silly claims like, "I will get a perfect score on any evaluation you give to me." Just be yourself -- unless "you" really is that arrogant guy, in which case you should tone it way down.

3. Don't shotgun applications to every job regardless of your qualifications. This should be common sense, yet I frequently see submissions from people with absolutely no experience whatsoever applying for fairly senior publishing jobs. For instance, someone recently applied for a role as a senior writer at my company and cited experience as a salesclerk and call-center operator in the cover letter. I know there's no real downside to this strategy, in the sense that the worst thing that can happen is that you don't get the job, but remember that it takes time to send these pointless applications. Focus on roles you understand and are qualified for, and be sure to customize your cover letter accordingly. If I'm hiring a writer, your cover letter shouldn't tell me about your experience inventorying ice cream sandwiches.

4. Double check your grammar. Don't rush through your cover letter. Check it for grammar and spelling. Yes, those things matter -- a lot. Likewise, avoid exclamation points. I know not everyone is as sensitive to this as I am, but if I see an exclamation point in a cover letter ("I am very eager to get this job!"), I automatically put the candidate on probation. If I encounter two or more exclamation points in a single cover letter, the individual is highly unlikely to progress to an interview.

5. Double check the job you're applying for. There's absolutely nothing wrong with applying for multiple jobs at once -- even multiple jobs at the same company. But if you do, read your cover letter very carefully and make sure you revise the details so it accurately reflects the role you're applying for. Recently, I've gotten several cover letters that were written for the wrong position. The candidates simply applied for a different job first and forgot to update the cover letter when they sent it to me. Granted, even that's not as bad as attaching a photo of Nicholas Cage.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user marshillonline

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