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Ah, the dreaded cover letter.
That thing that stands defiantly in the way of just sending off your resume lickety-split.
Some would like to equate cover letters with skinny jeans or business cards. But, it turns out that cover letters are anything but passé.
That was one of the key takeaways from a survey we conducted on 200+ hiring managers. So, don’t bother writing one. If you don’t want the job, that is.
And some of the worst cover letter mistakes included:
- Regrettable fonts.
- Embellishing your qualifications.
- Failing to use keywords.
- Being overly boastful.
- Typos and spelling mistakes.
- Inappropriate greetings.
But that’s just a taster. We uncovered all sorts of cover letter sins and got the low down on what recruiters really want in a cover letter.
So if you want to avoid the worst cover letter blunders and boost your chances of success, then read on.
Increase Your Chances with a Cover Letter
We all know what a cover letter is—a written document that is submitted with a job application outlining a candidate’s credentials and interest in the available position.
But, do you know why it’s called a “cover letter?”
That’s because it used to serve as an actual piece of paper that covered the resume.
And the first known instance of the “cover letter” phrase in the context of employment was on September 23, 1956:
“Submit resume with cover letter to Ind’l Relations Dept.” —New York Times classified advertisement, chemist position
Their popularity has waned at times, but cover letters still offer an opportunity to stand out from the crowd.
The human resources professionals we surveyed made it clear that it’s best to send a cover letter.
It’s clear that recruiters want those cover letters, with 81% saying they read them.
And men felt more strongly than women about the inclusion of cover letters and rejecting candidates who didn’t bother to send a cover letter.
If anything, our findings might just indicate cover letters are undergoing something of a renaissance.
Another study conducted back in 2011 found that 53% of hiring managers considered cover letters a must-have.
Fast-forward to 2019 and one analysis revealed that 65% of fast-growing tech start-ups demanded a cover letter.
And our study conducted in 2021? Well, you’ve just seen the numbers for yourself.
So have reports of the death of cover letters been greatly exaggerated?
We’d say yes. While it’s hard to say for certain exactly how popular cover letters are, it’s clear that many hiring managers still see them as an important part of the recruitment process.
So now that you’re convinced that cover letters are still relevant, how do you go about making them look good?
A Sense of Style—Cover Letter Looks Count
The length of your cover letter and the font you use contribute to the style you want to convey.
But this isn’t just for aesthetic reasons. Hiring managers have definite preferences in cover letter formatting, and they make a visual judgment of your job application in seconds.
Get it wrong, and they won’t even bother reading it.
So how do you clear this first hurdle? What did the HR pros prefer when it comes to cover letter style?
Don’t Go to Great Lengths
The results were clear. When it comes to cover letters, keep them short and snappy. 82% of HR pros said a cover letter should be less than one page long.
- 42% preferred a cover letter that’s half a page to one page long.
- 40% preferred a cover letter that’s less than half a page long.
- Only 18% preferred a cover letter that’s more than one page long.
This matches up with the advice we give job seekers and with other research into cover letter length. Recruiters don’t have the time to read your life story.
Bottom line—the safest bet is to keep it between one half to one page.
I Shot the Serif—Preferred Cover Letter Fonts
It might seem trivial, but fonts can make a big difference to the readability and impact of your cover letter.
Get it wrong and you risk irking the recruiter. It’s another one of those little things that can make all the difference when it comes to first impressions.
But first, a quick lesson in typography.
You’ve probably heard of these font categories: serif and sans-serif.
And unless you’re a typographer, you may not know (or care) what a serif is. But since the number one choice of HR professionals is Times New Roman, a serif font, it’s important to understand what the term means.
As for sans serif, that just means fonts without serifs, like the one you’re reading now.
We asked the HR group which fonts were ideal for a resume. These are the top five:
- Times New Roman—70%
There were three serif fonts in the top-five group: Times New Roman, Cambria, and Garamond.
This makes sense. Serif fonts are often used in books, newspapers, and magazines. They give a formal and sophisticated impression. Just right for a cover letter.
And, not surprisingly, in last place was Comic Sans. Only 17% chose this as an ideal font. Though, we were surprised that even this many respondents chose it as being ideal.
So, at the risk of stating the obvious, never use Comic Sans in a cover letter if you want to be taken seriously.
That still leaves two sans serif fonts in the top 5 though, with Calibri and Arial taking the second and third places.
So the question is to serif or not to serif?
Unfortunately, there’s no clear answer. There are pros and cons for both, with proof that each font type has distinct advantages.
For example, a study undertaken at Wichita State University found that:
The Serif fonts scored the highest on traits such as Stable, Practical, Mature, and Formal... Users preferred Serif fonts for Business Documents (71%), Website Text (67%), and Online Magazines (63%).
In contrast, the sans serif fonts triggered a more neutral response. So choosing Times New Roman might help with emphasizing certain personality traits.
It’s not as clear-cut as all that. One design text describes Times New Roman as “bookish and traditional.” Probably not the best choice for an application to a trendy tech start-up.
And when it comes to readability, the jury is out, with no conclusive proof that either serif or sans serif fonts are easier on the eye.
Truth is, all the top five choices made by our respondents are good fonts for a cover letter. Take your pick of which one you prefer, and you’ll be fine. Just avoid the more “creative” and outlandish fonts.
But, there are more serious cover letter gaffes than Comic Sans.
How to get rejected—worst cover letter blunders
When HR professionals read cover letters they’re on the lookout for certain red flags. And the moment they’re spotted they reduce your chances of being hired.
So what are these fatal cover letter errors?
Typos and spelling mistakes
In an age where your word processing application produces an angry squiggly line under misspelled words, it’s just obscenely lazy if you don’t make corrections.
Of course, sometimes the program doesn’t recognize that a word is misspelled.
So if you don’t proofread your cover letter too, you surely aren’t interested in getting hired.
- 76% of the HR respondents said they’d automatically reject a cover letter if it had typos or spelling mistakes.
- 80% of men agreed with the statement, “I would automatically reject a cover letter if it had typos or spelling mistakes” vs. 69% of the women.
And when we asked our HR pros to tell us the worst thing you could do in a cover letter, spelling and grammatical errors were one of the most popular answers.
But making a mess of your spelling isn’t the only cover letter mistake to avoid.
Greetings that grate on the nerves
How a cover letter is addressed is crucial. After all—this is the first thing the person deciding your job fate will look at.
There are two types of salutations our HR respondents weren’t pleased with:
- Informal greetings
- Impersonal greetings without a name.
In our digital world of instant communication and funny interactions, it may be tempting for some to want to give off an air of casual friendliness and start a cover letter with “Hi.” But we’d advise against it.
We asked our respondents how much of a problem it is to use an informal greeting such as “Hi” on a cover letter. Here’s what they told us:
- Not at all a problem—20%
- Minor problem—17%
- Moderate problem—35%
- Serious problem—26%
It’s telling that none of the HR professionals aged 18-24 rated this as a serious problem. They were evenly split at 33% between minor, moderate, and not at all a problem.
Gen Z was unsurprisingly the least formal, but we wouldn’t suggest peppering your cover letter with emojis and including a Snapchat filtered profile photo just yet.
So what if you’re applying for the job, but don’t know the hiring manager’s name?
Based on the responses it seems you should make the effort to find out. It’s not as difficult as it used to be to find a name.
You can check on LinkedIn, check the company’s homepage, or even contact the company directly and ask.
That’s because even though “To Whom It May Concern” is better than “Hi,” the HR folks made it clear that supplying a name is preferable.
How much of a problem was “To Whom It May Concern” or another impersonal greeting to the survey takers?
- Not at all a problem—22%
- Minor problem—29%
- Moderate problem—30%
- Serious problem—17%
As can be seen, an impersonal greeting was a problem in varying degrees for 76% of the human resources representatives.
And it’s not just a matter of preference. Using the hiring manager’s name is a smart move for candidates as well. It’s been proven that when a person reads their own name it activates their brain.
So using the hiring manager’s name is like turning on a switch that instantly gets your cover letter more attention.
Just make sure you keep the content that follows honest, as our next set of findings shows.
Untruthful assertions (A.K.A. Lying)
Let’s face it.
Sometimes you find a dream job, but you don’t exactly fit the bill. It’s tempting to embellish a bit.
But intentionally providing fictitious, exaggerated, or misleading information about your qualifications and experience can be a serious offense if found out.
It’s known as resume or application fraud.
A study published in the Journal of Business and Psychology found that:
…resume fraud predicts reduced job performance and increased workplace deviance beyond deceptive interviewing behavior.
HR professionals know this too. So most of our survey-takers saw it as a danger sign.
- 38% saw lying on a cover letter as a “serious problem”
- 30% as a “moderate problem”
- 19% as a “minor problem”
- 9% as “not a problem at all”
It was surprising that even 9% found it to be “not a problem at all.” And the older the HR person, the more seriously they viewed lying.
75% of people in our oldest cohort aged 56+ saw lying as a serious problem compared to just 33% in the 18–40 age group.
The bottom line is that lying on your cover letter is a bad idea. Get caught during the recruitment process and your application is dead in the water. Get caught later on, and you’ll probably be fired. And you won’t be getting a good reference when you leave.
Too Cliché—You’re Cast Away
We’ve all been guilty of the occasional unimaginative cliché expressions such as, “I believe I’m the perfect candidate for this position” or “I’m a team player.”
But according to our findings, you might want to reconsider using those boilerplate phrases.
So how much did those expressions get under our respondent’s skin?
- 42%—viewed cliché expressions as a “moderate problem.”
- 20%—a serious problem
- 25%—a minor problem
- 11%—not at all a problem
In other words, it’s definitely worth being a bit more creative and original instead of using expressions we’ve heard ad nauseam.
Let’s check out a few other mistakes that can get your cover letter in the “hell no” pile.
Comparing Other Offenses
The examples you’ve just seen weren’t the only cover letter sins highlighted by our HR professionals. Here are a few others that were seen as a moderate or serious problem by the majority of respondents.
If a candidate boasts about themselves without providing specifics on how they’re a good fit for the role:
- 61% rated this as a moderate or serious problem.
Rewording the Resume
When a candidate is uber lazy and copies content from their resume into the cover letter, it’s not a good look.
- 58% rated this as a moderate or serious problem.
One of our respondents specifically cited copying your resume as one of the worst things you can do in your cover letter.
Failing to Provide Requested Information
Sometimes a job ad requests that the job seeker includes specific information. If the candidate doesn’t provide it, it’s clear that they haven’t read the posting carefully enough and can’t follow instructions. This can be a red flag too.
- 62% rated this as a moderate or serious problem.
It’s no secret that it’s important to include keywords used in a job posting so that the person reading it will think, “Oh, wow, that’s exactly what we were looking for!”
And keywords are important for another reason. Most employers now use something called ATS, applicant tracking systems. They’re computer programs that scan your job application and filter out unqualified applicants.
Fail to include the right keywords and your application could be rejected before a recruiter ever sets eyes on it.
When those keywords are lacking, it’s usually a signal to the recruiter or hiring manager that you’re not a good fit.
- 62% rated this as a moderate-serious problem
We also asked our respondents to tell us in their own words what not to do in a cover letter. Check out this list and make sure you avoid doing any of these things.
And, if you’d like to know what to do to get the job, our HR folks had some sage advice.
Here’s a list of cover letter “dos” that you need to take into consideration too. Combine this checklist with the list of “don’ts” and you’ll be all set to write a job-winning cover letter.
To Sum Up
Most HR professionals like to see a cover letter with a job application. And they do actually read them.
So writing a good cover letter isn’t a waste of time. It helps you to stand out as a candidate and gives you more of a chance to prove why you’re the right person for the job.
And even if some HR professionals don’t see cover letters as important it’s not worth the risk of alienating those who do.
So based on the responses of 200 human resources professionals, here are a few key takeaways:
- Include a cover letter with your job application.
- Use a formal greeting with the name of the hiring manager.
- Select a professional font.
- Use keywords.
- Exceed one page in length.
- Make typos or spelling mistakes.
- Lie or boast.
- Rehash your resume.
These findings were obtained by surveying 205 U.S. HR professionals. Respondents were asked questions relating to their views on the use of cover letters in the hiring process. The questions included multiple-choice questions, scale-based questions relating to levels of agreement with a statement, questions that allowed the selection of a number of options from a list of potential answers, and questions that allowed open responses.
The findings we are presenting rely on self-reports from respondents. As experience is subjective, we understand that there are many potential limitations with self-reported data as some participants and their answers might be affected by recency, selective memory, attribution, exaggeration, self-selection, non-response, or voluntary response bias.
Some questions and responses have been rephrased or condensed for clarity and ease of understanding for readers. In some cases, the percentages presented may not add up to 100 percent; depending on the case, this is either due to rounding or due to responses of “neither/neutral/I don’t know” not being presented. Percentages have been rounded to the nearest whole number.
Fair Use Statement
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