Last weekend, I read #GIRLBOSS by Sophia Amoruso, founder of the popular retailer Nasty Gal, which sells clothing, swimwear, shoes, and vintage. #GIRLBOSS is Sophia’s rags-to-riches memoir/manifesto on female entrepreneurship. As a fellow woman in business, I loved the uplifting book (and the author’s easy-to-read writing style), breezing through it in a couple of days. I could particularly relate to her section on cover letters (which she calls “the necessary evil”), as the common mistakes she points out when she receives them are the same things that I have repeatedly noticed when I edit them.

Here are four key issues that she (and I) often find when reading cover letters:

1) The wrong focus.

This may seem counterintuitive, but when you’re writing a cover letter, you should actually avoid talking about yourself as much as you can. Your potential employer already knows that you are interested in their company, because if you weren’t, you wouldn’t be applying. Skip the intro about how their company fits into your career vision, and go straight into how could help the company to grow.

It also never hurts to show that you did your research and have a genuine interest in that particular company. Look up the company online and see what types of publications they’ve been featured in recently and what they’ve accomplished, and integrate that into your response. For instance, “As ___ has been featured as one of the United States’ fastest-growing retailers in ___ magazine, I can see that your company would value my ability to multitask and learn quickly.” You have still highlighted your skills, but the focus is shifted away from you and toward the company.

2) Unclear motives.

I touched on this in the resume guide I created earlier this month. Employers do not want to sit down with your CV and a cup of coffee and ponder about the ways that you could fit into their company; they want to scan your application, get impressed, and make a call. You need to spell out what you can bring to the table. Do not make your cover letter read like the skills you have are unrelated to the position you’re applying for. Connect the dots, so that your reader doesn’t have to. Chances are they won’t bother, and they’ll just move on to the next candidate.

3) Unsolicited advice.

Some people like to show their future employer what they’re missing by pointing out the flaws they can already see with the company. Generally speaking, a cover letter is not the place for this. I have received a couple of good-natured emails from fellow editors who wanted to know if I had extra work, and they picked apart my website to let me know what they were made of. I took it well, and ended up connecting with one of them on LinkedIn. Not everybody does. I love taking risks in business—and usually encourage others to do the same—but in this case it’s better to be safe than sorry.

4) Sloppy spelling mistakes.

As Sophia puts it, “if it looks like you don’t care about your cover letter and rushed through it, then I’m going to assume that you will be just as careless in your work.”

Of course, it can be hard to edit your own work, because you’ll read through the mistakes the way that you intended to write them; “then” can be read as “than” simply because the writer meant to write “than,” knows the difference, but wrote the cover letter when she was too tired to care. Therefore, when she reads over her letter, she sees “than” where it actually says “then,” and ends up sending off a cover letter with a silly mistake.

To avoid having this happen to you, you can ask someone to look at your cover letter for you (cough), or if you don’t have a specific position in mind, you can even take a general draft to an employment centre. Tell them what kind of work you’re looking for, and chances are that they will look over your cover letter and resume for free before having you apply for any recommend positions they have available.

Good luck, and keep writing!

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