Cover letters: first impressions count

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Cover letters are vital to any job application, but many people neglect to apply the same standards to them as they do to their cv or application form, particularly when they apply to online jobs. Yet it is the first thing employers will read and first impressions count. Cv expert Mildred Talabi gives some advice on common errors, besides the usual bad grammar, spelling and punctuation.

What’s more important – having a good CV or a good cover letter…? The answer? Both! Cover letters are just as important as CVs because a good cover letter gets your CV through the door and a good CV then goes on to qualify you for an interview.

I fell into CV writing, cover letters and so on by accident while working in the media as the assistant editor of a magazine. Back then I had to recruit people (as well as everything else) and eventually I became so appalled by the standard of applications coming in to us that I decided to set up on my own and help people in this area. That was seven years ago and unfortunately not much has changed today.

Recently I posted a job advert for a freelance writing position and within 48 hours of the post, I received 27 applications. Of the people vying for my attention were communication professionals, ex-journalists, experienced copywriters, even PR professionals, but the majority of the candidates were awful – I could literally count the number of quality applications on just one hand – FIVE!

The other 22 applicants made the following three costly mistakes on their cover letters, common to many jobseekers, which disqualified them from the race:

COSTLY MISTAKE NUMBER 1: Some cover letters are too long

Did I mention I had TWENTY-SEVEN applications to go through? Admittedly, 27 is relatively small in comparison to the fact that the average employer now has to sift through approximately 70 applications for each job advertised (in fact, I spoke to a business owner last year who had to choose one new secretary for their small firm from 400 applicants!).

Employers are busy – the last thing they want is to read a cover letter (or email) which goes on and on, especially where they have a lot to get through. Aim for no more than three-quarters of an A4 page (or approximately 4-5 paragraphs of text) and you should be fine.

COSTLY MISTAKE NUMBER 2: Some cover letters are too short

While too long is an issue that can cost you the job, a cover letter that is too short is also costly because it clearly shows you are not interested in that particular job, or that you haven’t read the job description properly (otherwise you would have a lot more to say, wouldn’t you?).

If an employer has taken the time to outline his or her requirements in a job description, the onus is on you to prove that you have what it takes for the job and your cover letter provides the perfect opportunity to communicate this. Don’t waste this valuable space by writing a simplistic statement such as, “I would like to apply for the above role – please see my attached CV”; rather, address the main points of the job description, pulling on examples from your CV to illustrate your suitability, before referring the employer to the rest of your CV for more details.

COSTLY MISTAKE NUMBER 3: Some cover letters are generic

Of all three costly mistakes the 22 applicants made for this particular role, the worst one of all were those that submitted a cover letter that was…….generic (*sharp intake of breath*)! Generic cover letters are a big headache to employers – in fact, it is almost an insult! If you think about it, if I, as the employer, has spent considerable time carefully thinking about what I am looking for and communicating this clearly in a job advert, the least you can do as a jobseeker can do is show some equal consideration and submit a letter that is at least addressed to me!

Generic cover letters say all kinds of negative things about a jobseeker – it suggests that the person is an opportunist and someone who takes shortcuts in life; it suggests a serial jobseeker applying for any and every role and therefore wouldn’t be in the organisation for very long; but probably most damning of all, it suggests a lazy and un-driven person who can’t be bothered to write 500 or so personalised words to get a job. Which right-thinking employer would want to employ someone like that? Not many!

So next time you apply for a job, think carefully about your cover letter and make sure this sells you as well as your CV because just one of these costly mistake can prolong your job search indefinitely.

*Mildred Talabi is the founder of CV Makeover Expert, an online CV consultancy equipping jobseekers with CVs, cover letters and application forms that land interviews. She speaks, writes and blogs about careers at, and you can find her practical CV writing book, ‘7 Keys to a Winning CV: How to create a CV that gets results’, on Amazon and all good bookshops.

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