1) If the first paragraph of your cover letter is about what YOU want and how this position could benefit YOU and how awesome it would be to YOUR career development, you lose. I don't care. In fact, it's not just that I don't give a crap, it's that my very first impression of you is that you're looking for a life coach/therapist/hobby, not a job.
(If you do this, don't feel too bad. Most people do it. But that doesn't make it a winning tactic.)
INSTEAD: The very first words on that page are a short summary of how your unique combination of skills, experience, contacts, whatever could be put toward solving your employer's most pressing problems. The rest of the letter elaborates (succinctly) on that point. Then you make sure they know how to get in touch with you. Then you sign it. BAM. Done.
2) If you put a reasonably remarkable-looking accomplishment on your resume, YOU WILL GET ASKED ABOUT IT. So if you get the question, "Can you tell us more about how you singlehandedly wrangled 600 baboons into a chorus line to benefit autistic children?", and your answer is, "Well, I um...I worked really well with the team and um...we uh...we collaborated to leverage our resources and um...the kids seemed like they really loved it and uh...I uh...I had a great time doing it and I'm uh really passionate about baboons, so you know, it was uh, it was really a great experience"-- first of all I have already blown my head off from boredom so you're not going to get the job because my coworkers are now swearing vengeance against you in their grief over my demise. And second of all, I now think you're fucking lying about that accomplishment. I think you were responsible for scooping their poo (the baboons, not the autistic children. yes I am going to hell) and you tried to make it sound way more impressive. Even if you really DID do all that stuff exactly as you wrote it.
INSTEAD: You know you're going to be asked about it, so have a 30-second (at most) elevator speech about it prepared, rehearsed, and ready to go. And it has a clear finish. And when you reach that finish, you SHUT THE HELL UP instead of dragging on with a bunch of "uh, so, yeah, so that's about it, and um, yeah, that sums it up, but um...so yeah" and OMG SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP. Here's your answer: "Well, my analysis of our past 5 events showed that our audiences are so enraptured by baboons that people are 75% more likely to make a donation and our revenue was 50% higher than at non-baboon events. It was important to ensure that the ratio of baboons to people was no more than 1 in 10, because being able to say you had poop flung on you directly, it turns out, increases the likelihood that you will make a contribution. I then drew on my contacts and expertise from my days in Animal Control to begin the year-long process of capturing 600 baboons. Ultimately, my model for baboon events was so successful that it was adopted throughout the organization."
3) The answer to the question, "What are some of your greatest professional strengths?" is not "passion" or "I'm really organized" or "I'm very detail-oriented" or "I'm a great communicator". You know why? Because those things DON'T MEAN A DAMN THING.
This is a description of every single candidate I have ever interviewed for any position ever in the history of my life-- they are: Organized, detail-oriented, LOVE working in teams but capable of working independently, great communicators, very diplomatic, but still aggressive enough to get the job done, feel that it's important when dealing with difficult people to never lose your cool and to make them feel like they're being respected and heard, use to-do lists religiously, always make sure they know what the top priority is in their work, very dedicated and willing to go above and beyond to do what needs to be done, loves variety, loves to be busy, takes a lot of pride in their work, very responsible, gets along well with others.
Christ, kill me now. It's like a crappy horoscope, so vague it applies to anyone. It's the job-hunting equivalent of "I really like movies, music, snuggling, and long walks on the beach, and I want someone who can make me laugh." Who fucking doesn't??
Bonus loser points if you have to THINK about what your strengths are. Really??
INSTEAD: Be specific and grow a sack while you're at it. Yes, if you tell them that you're a renegade who isn't afraid to make the right friends and call in favors so you can circumvent the system in order to get things done on time, there's a chance they'll be horrified and not hire you. But guess what? If that's who you are, and that's how they feel about it, you'd be miserable there anyway! (That is not, by the way, a hypothetical. I may not use the word "renegade", but that's something I say in interviews if it comes up-- and it was a skill that I refined while working for BossMan and that I am frequently called upon to use here.) And if that's who you are, then the interviewer actually knows something about you that makes you stand out from other candidates who are all "organized" and "passionate". And THAT is in your favor.
4) If you show up to an interview without 3-4 intelligent questions, at least one of which is a follow-up to something the interviewers mentioned earlier, you just wasted everyone's time. If one of those questions is about salary, time off, flex time, or anything else that benefits YOU and not THEM-- you lose. (Yes, you get to ask those questions-- but later, when it seems likely you will be getting an offer.)
INSTEAD: If you're too lazy to do any research on the company you're applying to, and you are feeling stumped, allow me to offer you some freebies that will work in just about any situation: What do *you* like best about working here? (better for an interview with someone other than HR) What's the company culture like? What are [the company's, the department's, the project team's] goals for the next year? What's the one thing you most need the person in this position to accomplish? [note that for this one, you should get ready to follow up their response with some evidence of how you could do that very thing]
5) If you're going to spin something in your resume, be prepared to spin it in person. If your resume says, "Built and developed partnerships throughout the community" and you get asked about that, do not act like you just lost a game of Chicken and verbally flinch with a, "Well, it was really just five guys who hung around the local bodega a lot, and they wandered in one day, and I talked to them." Why don't you just ask me not to hire you instead, and save us both some time? Likewise, stay on point. If I'm asking you how you managed a multimillion-dollar budget, I am not asking you to describe how you had to fill out form A-3 for each expense, make photocopies, get them signed, and email the AP manager to ensure they were paid in a timely fashion. I'm sorry, I couldn't hear you over the sound of my brain cells committing suicide.
INSTEAD: If the accomplishment really wasn't anything special, and you can not talk convincingly about it like it was, cut it out of your resume. And you know what? If it wasn't incredibly exceptional, but you can still make it sound good, you can still use it! I, as the interviewer, am doing a lot of reading between the lines. So even if I realize you're talking something up, if you're doing it pretty well, I'm going to make a mental note that you have a skill for making things sound good. And that might be *really* valuable in that job. When in doubt, ask yourself: Did this thing I did benefit my former employer? If it did, even in a small way, you can use it as a selling point.
This has been your public service announcement for the day. Thanks for playing, and best of luck in your future.