Here are the first three paragraphs from one of the worst cover letters ever:
I always dreamed of motivating a football crowd and bringing home a team victory. One evening late in my freshman year of high school, I had the chance to prove it. As I sat eagerly on the edge of my auditorium chair, I thought about winning. There were 108 young women competing for a spot on the [Central High] School varsity cheerleading squad. Only eight of us would win.
Four months later, I achieved my goal. Standing on the football field, I studied all the anxious faces peering down at me. My adrenaline flowed as I began cheering. Working the audience, I chanted spiritedly. My energy surged as the fans' enthusiasm accelerated. Minutes later, I had the crowd on their feet cheering the Eagles on to victory. In the end, the box score read Eagles 14, Wildcats 10.
As a senior professional, I have spent 17 years motivating the crowd, inspiring wins and leading. My strongest assets include selling prospective clients, producing new company revenue, creating innovative market strategies and exceeding objectives.
The moral of this brilliant mix of pom-poms and capitalism:
"Don't try to be cute," says Scott Simmons, vice president at Crist Associates in Chicago. "Maintain your focus — you're hunting for a job, not reliving your past."
Keep your cover letter short, to the point, and spike strained metaphors linking high school triumphs to success in your career (see: "Uncovering Cover Letters").
But it can get worse. Some applicants e-mail such drivel to multiple recruiters or company personnel officers, with a string of addresses appearing at the top of the note. This is why the delete key was invented.
"During the interview, don't answer questions 'yes' or 'no,'" says Maryanne Rainone, senior vice president and managing director at Heyman Associates in New York. "Doing so says that you're not engaged in an exchange of ideas. Don't become impatient and tell the interviewer: 'It's right there in my résumé.' "
You have to get your cover letter and résumé right to land an interview, and then you have to nail the interview to get a job offer. Many applicants kill their chances long before the interview, but a clever few wait until they sit down with their prospective boss. (See: "How To Work For An Idiot").
"Don't be negative about your current or prior job," says Rainone. "Don't be negative about anyone you've worked with. I once had a client who bashed a prior boss who turned out to be the wife of the person he was interviewing with."
That rates a definite "oops."
Ted Warren, president of Strategic Resources in Bellevue, Wash., reminds applicants that presentation is everything when preparing a cover letter and résumé. Typos and spelling mistakes will sink you as surely as that iceberg got the Titanic. Goofy fonts or too many fonts make your résumé look cluttered and non serious. Warren's advice: Keep it simple (see: "Writing A Killer Resume").
Lee Fierman, account executive at Gables Search Group in Willoughby, Ohio, reminds his clients that keeping it simple means speaking and writing in conversational tones.
"Don't refer to yourself in the third person," he says. "It's pretentious and silly."
Courtney Raymond, president of Courtney Raymond Consultants in Houston, says candidates should never discuss compensation in the first interview.
"I had a client who brought money up immediately at a breakfast meeting," she says. "His prospective boss threw a $20 bill on the table, said, 'That should cover the pancakes' and walked out."
Arthur Drago, chief executive at Strategic Alliance Group in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. urges his clients not to accept a counteroffer from their current employer.
"About 85 percent of people who accept a counteroffer leave their employer in one or two years," he says. "The reason is simple: they stay for money rather than passion. Look for a cultural fit with your employer because a career is more than just a paycheck." (See: "Seven No-Nos When Asking For A Raise.")
Linda Nicolai, partner and director at The Executive Alliance Group in Los Angeles, says many fields, including entertainment, are small, and at upper management levels almost everyone knows everyone else. This makes inflating your accomplishments dicey.
"A lot of people claimed credit for developing the TV show '[Beverly Hills] 90210'," Nicolai says. "There isn't much you can't find out about senior executives and their performance and their reasons for leaving their current job. A person's reputation is well known. Be honest — we can address any issues that may affect their marketability."
If you're willing to move to another city to advance your career, be sure to tell your recruiter if there are certain regions of the country you won't consider. There's no point in lining up an interview in Boston if you'd rather not live in the Northeast.
Don't show up for the interview dressed in your Saturday grubs. Find out how your prospective colleagues at the company dress and kick it up a notch for the interview. (See: "Dressing For The Job" and "How To Ruin Your Career In Ten Easy Steps.")
These basic techniques will work for nonprofits, mom-and-pop operations, startups and major companies such as Intel, Microsoft, Exxon Mobil and Bank of America.
Of course, there are those who do their best to make themselves unmarketable with a whacky cover letter.