CPA INSIDER

Avoid these cover letter mistakes

Stand out by being yourself (and quadruple-checking your work).
By Samiha Khanna

Blame it on auto-correct. There can be no other explanation for why career specialist Christi Doporto has, on numerous occasions, received cover letters from job applicants addressing her as "Christ."

"Although I'm a Christian, I'm definitely not Him," said Doporto, who works for Ama La Vida, a career, life, and leadership coaching service. "Lesson is: If you find out the name of the hiring manager, always double-check the spelling of their name."

It might seem easy to avoid a mistake like misspelling the hiring manager's name on your cover letter. But CPA managers and hiring experts say they frequently see such obvious mistakes — and that these errors can weaken an accountant's chances of being hired.

"Attention to detail in the accounting field, regardless of [whether one is in] industry or public practice, is imperative," said Stephanie Pickering, CPA, senior manager at McGee, Hearne & Paiz, LLP, in Cheyenne, Wyoming. "Silly mistakes, like spelling or grammar errors, or larger mistakes like forgetting to change the firm name, send an immediate signal to me that the candidate may not have that attention to detail. I'm more likely to be a little more critical of the rest of the cover letter and résumé as a result." 

Here are some of the cover letter mistakes our sources see most often, as well as ways to avoid them:

  • Sending the same cover letter to every organization you apply to. Although it might be tempting to craft one really polished letter to attach to several different job applications, hiring managers won't be fooled.
  • "Letters that are generic can be a big turnoff for me, especially if the candidate is a potential experienced hire," Pickering said. "It's easy to spot the letters that are drafted from cover letter websites."

    Also, forgetting to change the name of the firm or job title is a dead giveaway that you're copying and pasting your letter from one application to the next — a faux pas nearly every one of our sources mentioned seeing.

  • Making the cover letter all about you, and not the organization you're applying to. If you're applying for your dream job at a company you've always admired, it's OK to mention that fact. But focus on what you can do for the organization — not the other way around. "Remember the company is hiring someone because they have a need or a problem —  you are the solution, so show them that in the letter," Doporto said.
  • Ky Kingsley, vice president, North America, for Robert Half Finance & Accounting, says recruiters are looking for candidates to discuss the specific needs of the company and what they would bring to the job. "Hiring managers who value a cover letter are often looking for keywords that match the job description and the candidate's ability to communicate clearly and connect to the mission of the company or requirements of the position," she said.

  • Sounding forced. As enthusiastic as you might be about applying, it's important to portray yourself genuinely, Pickering, a 2014 graduate of the AICPA Leadership Academy, said. "It's always awkward when the personality we get from the cover letter doesn't match the person who comes to interview."
  • Don't just tell recruiters and managers what you think they want to hear, said Patrick Bowes, director of people solutions at CliftonLarsonAllen. "Be true to the vision you have for yourself and your career," he said. "Don't try to be someone you think a specific organization wants."

  • Being wordy. The cover letter typically accompanies your résumé, so it's not necessary to rehash the same information summarized there. Keep in mind that hiring managers might be reading dozens of letters. Strive for a half-page letter and don't exceed a page or about 250 words, Doporto said.
  • "Wordy cover letters may not get read, and boilerplate templates are only going to get lost among the many other résumés a hiring manager is likely to have received," said Misty Geer, CPA, CGMA, assistant controller at OCI Beaumont LLC in Houston, and a 2013 graduate of the AICPA Leadership Academy. She suggested that, in your cover letter, you "emphasize values or special accomplishments that would grab a hiring manager's attention and to help them remember you."

  • Failing to check your work. There might not be a magic number for how many times you should check your work, but when possible, ask several trusted mentors or friends to review your application to catch any typos or other mistakes.
  • "No one's perfect, but your résumé and cover letter must be error-free," Doporto said. "Have someone review it or use a tool such as Grammarly."

    Seeing spelling mistakes in the era of spell-checking tools is enough for many managers to toss out an application entirely.

    "A cover letter that is not well-edited or reviewed demonstrates a lack of seriousness in the role or a lack of pride in their work," Geer said. "A well-polished cover letter shows someone who is going to be thorough, someone who is able to communicate well, and someone who is able to represent our department professionally."

Samiha Khanna is a freelance writer based in Durham, N.C. To comment on article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, a JofA senior editor, at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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