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When you’re applying for graduate jobs straight out of university, your resume may look similar to a lot of others. As a result, one of the best ways to differentiate yourself is with a stellar cover letter.
However, many graduates tend to make the same mistakes on their first cover letters. Without years of professional experience, often your communication skills will be more important to a potential employer than anything else, so if you can produce an effective cover letter, it can really make you stand out.
Let’s start with the number one graduate cover letter faux pas:
1. It’s all about you
Yes, your cover letter is an opportunity to sell yourself, but you should always approach it from the standpoint of how you’ll benefit the company.
If the employer won’t be able to relate the skills, personality or experience on your cover letter to how it will benefit the company, then it shouldn’t be on there. The whole point of the cover letter is to personalize your attributes to the specific role that you’re applying for.
Really think about what it is the company wants in a candidate, and make sure that everything is tailored towards how and why you’ll be a good fit. If your cover letter is just a re-hash of your resume, then you may as well not have bothered.
2. Not doing your research
This starts with making sure there’s no element of obvious ‘templating’ going on. Never use “I really want to work for _____.” It screams of a complete lack of customization.
Even if you’re applying to several companies, always keep it original. Doing some basic research on the company will give you the opportunity to discuss some of their work you like, or a process they use that you think is great. The fact that you’ve taken the time to research this will always come across as more genuine than a declaration of love.
3. It’s too long
The natural inclination on length is to keep yourself to no more than a page. However, even this may be too long; this survey from 2011 found that more than 70 percent of employers would prefer a half page document.
While you certainly shouldn’t go over a page, if you find yourself waffling and putting in irrelevant content just to get it up to a page, you’re probably doing more harm than good.
Ideally, you want it to be jam packed with concise, impressive information. Tell them exactly what they need to know to give you the job and no more.
4. It’s too formal
When trying to impress an employer, it can be tempting to write in an overly formal tone. The truth is, calling yourself an ‘erudite, grandiloquent alumnus’ is likely to put everyone off. No matter the sector, a lot of graduate jobs involve some kind of client contact, and your potential employer will want to see that you have clear communication skills.
The key to quality cover letter writing is to be concise, and overly formal language is likely to confuse the message you’re trying to get across to your potential employer. While of course you don’t want to use slang, read your cover letter out loud, and if any of it sounds unnatural, it’s probably not going to work. Think polite, conversational language.
If you need some help on simplifying your cover letter, something like the Hemingway App can be really useful in simplifying language.
5. Using too many negatives
Especially when applying for graduate jobs, a lot of people feel like they’re constantly lacking, particularly in experience or skills. Despite this, you never want to overtly point this out to a potential employer.
It’s never a good idea to start a sentence with “While I may lack….” or “Even though I’m not the best…” The key is to focus on what you do have to offer to the company, without coming across as arrogant about your attributes.
6. All filler, no killer
“I’m a passionate, hard-working, enthusiastic graduate” or “I work well as part of a team, as well as individually” are huge turns offs. Listing positive attributes with no examples is completely unconvincing.
Make sure you back up every claim with examples. Think of a time when you’ve worked in a team successfully, or a time when you’ve had to pull off a 16-hour working day instead.
It is becoming increasingly important to employers that their new recruits fit into the ‘company culture,’ particularly for graduate jobs. This doesn’t mean that your table tennis prowess or active social life is going to cut it.
If you’re keen to show you’re a cultural fit for the company, use their social media and online presence to find their values, and demonstrate how you share them. It’ll show you’ve done your research on the company and that you care about the same things they do.
8. Using the same old format
Don’t be afraid to use bullet points, so long as it’s not more than once. Use subheadings to make it easier for an employer to find the information they want if they’re skim-reading your letter.
If you have any Adobe skills, don’t be afraid to use them here, too. If you’re applying for a creative role, some minimalist design additions to your cover letter could really help you to stand out.
About the Author
Matt Arnerich is the Content Writer over at leading graduate recruitment agency Inspiring Interns. Matt writes about everything to do with graduate employability and how to get ahead in the competitive grad market. For the latest graduate opportunities, check out their graduate jobs London page or, if you’re looking to hire a graduate, take a look at their innovative Video CVs.
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