Professional Fail (About the Time I Screwed Up a Cover Letter…Twice)

Among my social circle, I’m the friend that gets random texts saying things like “Hey, we’re having a debate at my house about which sentence is grammatically correct, and we need you to settle the score.”  My people know me well.  I’m a total grammar junkie who actually gets excited about things like finding the best way to compose a sentence.  But the truth is, sometimes I get it wrong too.  Not terribly long ago, my sister called me out for using “write” instead of “right” when I wasn’t paying attention.

I’m always gabbing about things like which side of a quotation mark to place the punctuation mark, so I thought it’d be a fun change of pace to share one of my fails with you today because, you know, nobody’s perfect.

So here’s a little story at my own expense:

Fresh out of college in 2009, I applied for an open reporter position with a smallish newspaper in South Carolina.  Between the English degree and my previous experience with a larger newspaper, I was feeling pretty confident.  I attached my resume and cover letter according to instructions, then sat back eagerly awaiting their call.

In some industries, a few days of silence is no cause for alarm.  However, I knew how stressful it was to be understaffed in a newsroom, and I was aware that the editors there intended to move quickly to fill an open position.  When a few days passed and I hadn’t heard a peep, I began to worry.  I obsessively checked the email address to make sure I’d spelled everything correctly (which I had — many glances confirmed!), then realized I had actually misspelled the recipients name in the cover letter.

It wasn’t a huge misspell.  Let’s pretend his last name was Whitfield.  It would be the equivalent of me spelling it “Whittfield.”  Very careless for anyone trying to impress an employer, let alone someone who is trying to impress an employer specifically for their grasp on the writing and self-editing process.  But still, the worst thing was probably that I wouldn’t get the job.  I doubted it was the kind of error he’d dish about to others in the industry to have me permanently blackballed.

The thing was, I really wanted this job.  I had a few friends in this particular area, and I already could see me fitting in there.  I couldn’t stand the thoughts that I’d miss out on the opportunity for a mistake I could easily correct.  I sent another email to the editor that said something like, “Mr. Whitfield, I was horrified to realize I misspelled your name in the cover letter I submitted for the reporter position on Tuesday.  I understand if it’s too late to correct my mistake, but I am very interested in the position and couldn’t stand the thoughts of not making an attempt to fix it.  I have attached an updated cover letter and resume for your viewing.”

His response was immediate and went something like, “Ms. Burns, I appreciate your acknowledging the error.  As you know, there’s not much room for mistakes like this in the job you are apply to, so I can’t ignore it, but I will take your acknowledgment into consideration and get back to you if I’m able to interview you.”

I realized shortly after I read his reply that I’d actually attached two copies of my resume instead of my cover letter and resume.  He never got back to me.  I never attempted to rectify the situation either.  I knew at this point I was wasting my time.

And in case anyone’s attempting to learn from my mistakes, here are my notes about the experience:

– My first mistake was assuming I’d done everything right the first time.  I didn’t bother to review and revise.  Maybe I’d just become so big-headed that I thought I was above making mistakes.  I honestly don’t remember what I was thinking (or not), but it was stupid not to take a few minutes to look for errors, especially something as important (and obvious!) as misspelling a name.

– If the same thing were to happen to me now, I seriously doubt I’d make another immediate attempt at the job.  An argument could easily be made for responding to it the way I did (sans the second error), so I won’t try to convince you that you shouldn’t if you ever find yourself in that situation.  I think there are certainly situations where it would be appropriate, but in my field, having to contact the employer to acknowledge a mistake directly related to the type of work I’d be doing sounds like a bigger disaster than if I’d just let the position cycle through and apply again at the next opening.  I’m usually one for facing issues head-on, but in this instance, I really feel like I drew more attention to my mistake and got myself blackballed from their payroll indefinitely.  (For the record, I never actually applied again to find out, so I’m going with my gut feeling on this one.)

– That was a pretty bad screw-up, and I had no excuse.  I was totally careless to my own detriment.  That said, sometimes we have to remind ourselves it could always be worse.  And so I give you this true story:  A friend of mine was applying to two jobs in two different fields (mental health and child services).  She wrote compelling cover letters for each, explaining in detail the reasons she was a good fit for each job.  She outlined her passion for the respective field in each cover letter.  Then, she sent them on their way…each TO THE OTHER EMPLOYER.

Like me, said friend attempted to rectify the situation by explaining what happened.  Though I’m sure it won’t shock you to learn she didn’t land either job, props to her for having the courage to face those folks.  (Can you imagine sending a detailed cover letter to a mental health counselor about your love for children or vice versa?  I would love to have seen the confusion on their faces as they read those letters!)

I’m sharing this with her permission because enough years have passed that we can laugh about those mistakes now.


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