Top 3 Rookie Job Application Letter Mistakes (and How to Fix Them)

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Whenever I teach career writing to college students, I find it easier to suggest solutions for résumé mistakes than those in job application letters. Who among us writes letters nowadays? I always warn against those generic job letter sites that promise you a quickie form letter, but the temptation is strong.

So, here are my top three mistakes and solutions for job application letters. If you would like to suggest others, please add your comments below.

1. Impersonal tone. Here’s a sample of what I often see in the opening sentences of a letter:

To whom it may concern:

I am interested in the position your firm advertised in today’s Dayton Daily News

Several things are wrong with that opening. Since you have not targeted your reader, your application will not route directly to HR. Also, depending upon the firm, there may be 100 openings and a multitude of listings in today’s newspaper–which one do you want?

But worst of all, the lack of detail screams “FORM LETTER.” Any good salesman knows how to use the customer’s name right from the beginning of a pitch. Why wouldn’t you want to do that in your job application letter?

The solution: get the exact job title (including position number, if applicable) and use the company’s name somewhere in the first paragraph of the letter. Never address a letter “To Whom it May Concern..” Do a little research and get a name, or at least a title (“Dear Human Resources Manager”.)

Bonus points: if you can say something like, “I recently read about Company XYZ’s record first quarter sales in the Wall Street Journal…” you establish yourself as both a savvy professional and an engaged job applicant.

2. Telling without showing. I often characterize the résumé as a fact sheet and the job letter as a marketing sheet: use the letter to add details that don’t fit in the concise format that a résumé imposes. Often, this is the result:

I’m a motivated team player who goes the extra mile in everything I do.  I am well-organized and detail-oriented. I have an excellent work ethic…

True enough, those things fit better in a letter than in a résumé. And aside from the stilted sentence structure, there’s nothing wrong with the sentiment.

However, there are ways to make those points in a much more persuasive way, and that’s by providing some examples to back up your statements:

I’m a motivated team player who goes the extra mile in everything I do.  During a recent software upgrade, I was part of the “Tiger Team,” the group of analysts who were on call 24/7 to troubleshoot and fix issues that came up during testing. Our efforts enabled the company to deploy the upgrade on time and reduce Help Center calls by 60% over our previous upgrades.

Several things about that paragraph are persuasive. The writer “shows” the reader that he/she is a motivated team player by describing a situation that called for outstanding teamwork and commitment. By stating the results (on-time upgrade, reduced support call traffic), the writer also provides facts and statistics–appealing to logos. (It also imitates the famous STAR method, which is used in behavioral interviews.)

The solution: If you write a sentence that makes a broad statement, treat it as a topic sentence and build out a paragraph to support it. Don’t waste space saying that you are a “great communicator” unless you can back it up.

3. Not considering the employer’s point of view. It’s so easy to write a letter that channels the inner thoughts of the ambitious young job-seeker:

This position is tailor-made for me and will allow me to reach my goal of becoming a senior director by the age of 30…

If you were the current senior director, how excited would you be to interview this person?!

Instead, take the view of the employer. What can you do for them?

I would welcome the opportunity to contribute my experience in management and design to support Company XYZ’s innovative architectural projects…

Admittedly, there is a fine line between taking the employer’s point of view and kissing up. But I guarantee that a self-centered point of view will not get you the interview.

Don’t forget readability: I’ve seen lots of letters that consist of one longish and intimidating paragraph. Do make it easy on the employer: break up that long paragraph into multiple short paragraphs, organized around topics such as education and experience.

The solution: Before you send off the letter, read it from the view of the employer. Go back to the job ad and make sure you are writing for THAT job, not the one you want in ten years. Read it again. Then ask a trusted colleague or professor to read the letter. Take the time to make sure you’ve struck a professional and reader-centered tone.

In a future post, I’ll discuss the mistakes we all make in our résumés.




One Comment on “Top 3 Rookie Job Application Letter Mistakes (and How to Fix Them)”

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