Careers advice

Cover letter best practices: the mistakes you need to avoid

These cover letter tips will help you avoid the simple mistakes that so many job applicants make, and get out in front.

What you’ll learn:

  • Why you need to write a cover letter
  • Why you shouldn’t send the same cover letter for multiple applications
  • The cover letter clichés employers hate
  • The write tone to use on your cover letter
  • The right amount of info to put on a cover letter
  • How to format your cover letter correctly

Writing a cover letter is a bit like paddleboarding.

Get it right, and you’ll find yourself cruising calmly into that job interview. Get it wrong, and your application will quickly sink. . 

Knowing how to write a good cover letter isn’t always easy – and there’s a lot of potential for error. To help you swerve the most common pitfalls, and give yourself the best chance of success, check out these tips.

Don't end up like this guy.

Cover letter mistakes you need to avoid

1. Not writing one

In New Zealand, job applications require a cover letter – no ifs, no buts.

Ironically, people make the mistake of not writing a cover letter due to another common misconception – that CVs and cover letters serve the same purpose.

Let’s clear this up once and for all, CVs and cover letters are not the same thing, and you need to write both if you want your application to be taken seriously.

2. Submitting the same one every time

The only thing worse than not writing a cover letter, is submitting the same one every time. Recruiters and hiring managers will spot this a mile off, and won’t be impressed.

One of the key purposes of a cover letter is showing you’re the best candidate for this specific role. Generalisations won’t do this effectively, so make sure to tailor each fully.

3. Not checking for typos

Returning to our paddleboarding analogy, leaving typos in your cover letter is the equivalent of rocking up to the beach in winter with speedos and no wettie – not a good look.

Your cover letter is supposed to convince the reader you’re the person their organisation is crying out for. But who wants to hire someone too careless to proofread their own cover letter?

Fortunately, this one is an easy fix – check, check and check again. And once you’re done checking, get someone else to. The more eyes the better.

4. Getting the tone wrong

The right tone for your cover letter will depend heavily on the industry you work, or hope to, work in. For example, if you’re applying to a role in the legal sector in New Zealand, you should write a more formal cover letter, in keeping with the seriousness of the role you’ll be performing. By contrast, if you’re seeking to work in marketing, you might consider a more colourful, albeit still serious, cover letter that demonstrates your creativity.

If you’re still struggling to nail down an appropriate tone for your cover letter, a good trick can be to check out the business’ website or social media channels. These will give you an idea of how the organisation wants to project itself, and, therefore, help you craft a cover letter that fits well with this ethos.

5. Using clichés

“To whom it may concern,

My name is Max, and I’m the perfect candidate for this position because I’m great at thinking outside the box. I’m a team player and a problem solver, and this is exactly the kind of role I’m looking for”.

You’d be surprised how often cover letters like this actually crop up.

Here’s why it doesn't work:

  • “To whom it may concern”: you need a strong cover letter intro, and personalisation is key. If you can’t find a name to use (and this is the goal), go with, “Dear Hiring Manager”.
  • “My name is Max”: no need to give your name here, they’ll already have this from your CV.
  • The ‘skills’: anyone can claim to be able to think outside the box, work with other people or solve problems – the reader wants proof, and real life examples. Also, describing yourself as “the perfect candidate” comes across as a teensy bit arrogant. 
  • “This is exactly the kind of role”: you want this role, not this “kind of” role. This language screams generic cover letter – make them feel special. 

Cliches are boring to read, and mean your cover will lack personaiity.

6. Talking about yourself too much

It’s easy to slip into the trap of only talking about yourself in your cover letter. 

While, of course, you need to get across your skills and experience, this shouldn’t just be a list. You need to relate your capabilities to the role's requirements.

Ultimately, the hiring manager is interested in what you can do for their organisation, not simply the different responsibilities you’ve held, or what you’ve learnt.

The trick to getting this right is making sure you’ve got a solid grasp of the job description before you start writing your cover letter. 

A good tactic is to sit down with a pen and paper and draw out key elements from the listing you want to focus on in your cover letter. You can then use your Trade Me Job Profile to work through your education, work history and personal attributes to find evidence to back up your statements.

7. Giving too much info, or repeating your whole CV

Got a lot of relevant skills and experience for the role? Great – this is never a bad thing.

However, even if you’re tying everything you include to the role, don’t provide your life history in your cover letter. 

Why? Your reader doesn’t have the time, or desire, to read it. Recruiters and hiring managers are famously busy individuals, and will only briefly skim to check you meet the core requirements. 

Imagine they get to yours, and see you’ve written the next Lord of the Rings novel. Their hearts will sink, and you’re already fighting an uphill battle. Your CV will provide background info on things like where you went to school and your broader job history. This means you don’t need to repeat this stuff in your cover letter, and can focus instead on two or three specific examples you want to highlight.

Crucially, in NZ, cover letter best practices dictate you should never go over a page – so keep this in mind at all times. 

Employers and recruiters read a lot of cover letters, so keep yours concise.

8. Poor formatting

You need to know how to format your CV. As well as keeping the length of your cover letter to one page, other key formatting issues to consider include:

  • Font size: A front size of 12 is the most usual for NZ cover letters.
  • Font style: Nothing too wacky – stick with something neutral like Arial or Calibri.
  • Page margins: Your cover letter margins should be around 2.5 cm.
  • Images: there’s no need to include any images on your cover letter, save the space for text.
  • Putting information in the header and footer: many employers use ATS (applicant tracking systems) to screen CVs and cover letters before an actual human reads them. These software packages often struggle to read info contained in the header or footer, so writing your contact details in there might mean they get missed.