Formatting Tips for Professional Cover Letters
Along with your resume, a cover letter provides an opportunity to impress a potential employer with both your professionalism and how well you would fit in with the company's mission and culture.
How you format your cover letter, both from a content (the information you include) and a presentation (what your cover letter looks like) perspective is important. Even when applying online or via email, your cover letter needs to be properly formatted, readable, and without any mistakes.
Cover letters for job applications follow the format of a formal business letter. They are written in paragraph form and include a formal salutation, closing, and signature. It's important to write a targeted cover letter that shows how you are qualified for the job for which you're applying. Each cover letter you write should be unique and customized.
What Content to Include in Your Cover Letter
1. First Paragraph - Why you are writing
2. Middle Paragraphs - What you have to offer
3. Concluding Paragraph - How you'll follow-up
Paragraph 1: Why You Are Writing
- If you are writing in response to a job posting (review samples), indicate where you learned of the position and the title of the position. More importantly, express your enthusiasm and the likely match between your credentials and the position's qualifications.
- If you are writing a prospecting letter (review samples) in which you inquire about possible job openings - state your specific job objective. Since this type of letter is unsolicited, it is even more important to capture the reader’s attention.
- If you are writing a networking letter (review samples) to approach an individual for information, make your request clear.
In some cases, you may have been referred to a potential employer by a friend or acquaintance. Be sure to mention this mutual contact by name in your first paragraph to encourage your reader to keep reading!
Paragraph 2: What You Have to Offer
In responding to a job advertisement, refer specifically to the qualifications listed and illustrate how your particular abilities and experiences relate to the position for which you are applying.
In a prospecting letter, express your potential to fulfill the employer's needs rather than focusing on what the employer can offer you. You can do this by giving evidence that you have researched the organization thoroughly and that you possess skills used within that organization.
Emphasize your achievements and problem-solving skills. Show how your education and work skills are transferable, and thus relevant, to the position for which you are applying.
Paragraph 3: How You Will Follow Up
Close by reiterating your interest in the job and letting the employer know how they can reach you. Include your phone number and email address. Or bid directly for the job interview or informational interview and indicate that you will follow-up with a telephone call to set up an appointment at a mutually convenient time. If you mention that you will be in touch, be sure to make the call within the time frame indicated.
In some instances, an employer may explicitly prohibit phone calls, or you may be responding to a “blind want-ad” which precludes you from this follow-up.
Unless this is the case, make your best effort to reach the organization. At the very least, you should confirm that your materials were received and that your application is complete.
If you are applying from outside the employer’s geographic area, you may want to indicate if you’ll be in town during a certain time frame (this makes it easier for the employer to agree to meet with you).
In conclusion, you may indicate that your references are available on request. Also, if you have a portfolio or writing samples to support your qualifications, state their availability.
How to Format Your Cover Letter
A cover letter should be three or four paragraphs at most, and shouldn't be longer than one page. If you need to you can adjust the margins (see below) to fit your letter on a single page.
Pick a Simple Font
Cover letter presentation matters as much as what you include. When writing cover letters, it's important to use a basic font that is easy to read. Depending on the hiring process your cover letter may be viewed in an applicant tracking system or other online hiring system. Those systems work best reading simple text rather than fancy formatting.
Using a basic 12 point font will ensure that your cover letter is easy to read. Basic fonts like Arial, Verdana, Calibri, and Times New Roman work well. Your cover letter font should match the font you use in your resume.
Set Your Margins
The standard margins for a business letter are 1". However, if you are having trouble condensing your letter to fit on a single page you can shorten up the top, bottom and side margins to 3/4" or 1/2" or even a little tighter.
Leave Plenty of White Space
Don't forget to leave space below your greeting, between each paragraph, and after your closing.
Carefully Proofread the Letter
Take the time to proof your letter before you send or upload it. It can be easier to double check if you print out a copy or read it out loud.
Review Cover Letter Samples
Next, take a look at cover letter samples, plus review tips for creating cover letters that will have the maximum positive impact on employers.
Related Articles: Cover Letter Format Examples
More About Cover Letters: What to Include in a Cover Letter | How to Write a Cover Letter
No one seems to agree on cover letters. How much time do you need to spend perfecting them? Do hiring managers even read them? Is it better to just send in your resume and call it a day?
Now, I'm not in HR, but I've been approached by applicants who wondered whether their cover letter would actually be read. My answer is one not many of them wanted to hear: "Sometimes." Sometimes it will be read. Other times, you can get away with just sending in your resume -- like when you network your way into applying for a position.
The truth is, you can't really predict on a case-by-case basis -- and you're better safe than sorry. For the most part, having a cover letter will give you an upper hand in ways your resume doesn't. It allows you to show off your writing skills, provide details that you couldn't fit on your resume, demonstrate your passion, and show your willingness to put in as much time and effort as possible.
But if your cover letter is sloppy, you might as well have not applied at all. Grammatical errors could mean your application is thrown in the trash. Using a generic "one-size-fits-all" cover letter -- especially if you forgot to change the name of the company -- will definitely hurt your chances. So if you take the time to write a cover letter, take special care that it reflects you in the best possible light.
Let's take a look at an example.
Sample Cover Letter
Here's an example of a great cover letter. The numbered sections are explained in more detail below.
The level of formality your header has will depend on the company you apply to. If you're applying to a formal business, it's important to use a formal header to open your cover letter, like in the sample above. Put your address, the date, and the company's address. But if you're applying to a company that isn't as formal, you don't need to include yours and the company's addresses. You can still include the date, though.
Using "To Whom It May Concern" is okay, but you may want to take the time to research the name of the recruiter or hiring manager online. If you do your research and aren't confident you found the right name, then you should definitely use the generic greeting -- but if you are sure, then it shows you put in the effort to find their name and it will catch the recruiter's eye.
If you have the recruiter's name, do you greet them by their full name, or by their courtesy title (i.e. Mr., Ms., or Mrs.)? Similar to the header, it depends on the company's level of formality. If you're applying to a corporate business, you may want to consider using "Mr. Snaper" instead of "Jon Snaper." If you're applying to a start-up or a business with a more casual culture, you can use "Jon Snaper," as shown in the example.
3) Paragraph 1: Introduction
Your opening paragraph should, in 1-3 sentences, state why you're excited to apply and what makes you the perfect candidate. Get right to the point, and don't worry about explaining where you found the posting or who you know at the company. This isn't a place to go into detail about why you're a great candidate -- that's for the second paragraph. Here, simply list a few key reasons in one sentence to set up the rest of your letter. Keep in mind that the recruiter may cross-reference your cover letter with your resume, so make sure the two sync up.
4) Paragraph 2: Why You're a Great Fit for the Job
Next, sell yourself and your experience by choosing one or two concrete examples that show why you're a great fit for the position. What did you do at a previous company that gave you relevant experience? Which projects have you worked on that would benefit the new company? How will your prior experience help this company grow? Stay humble in your explanation of credentials while still showing that you would be an asset to the team. Use this paragraph to show you're genuinely excited and interested in the position.
5) Paragraph 3: Why the Company is a Great Fit for You
While it's certainly important you're a good fit for the job, it's also important that the company is a good fit for you. "A cover letter typically describes why you're great for a company -- but how will you benefit from getting hired?" asks Emily MacIntyre, Senior Marketing Recruiter at HubSpot. "We want to know why our company appeals to you, and how it will be a mutually beneficial working relationship."
In the third paragraph, show you're serious about growing and developing your career at this new company. What impresses and excites you about the company? Is there something that you feel strongly about that aligns with the company's goals? For example, the candidate in the sample letter used this space to show his personal commitment to environmental causes aligns with the company's green initiatives.
6) Strong Closing Paragraph
Don't write off the final few sentences of your cover letter -- it's important to finish strong. Be straightforward about your interest and enthusiasm about the new position without coming off too strong. Tell them you're available to talk about the opportunity at any time and include your phone number and email address. At this point, the ball is (rightly) in the recruiter's court to decide how to follow up.
Last but certainly not least, thank them for their time and consideration.
7) Formal Sign-Off
Use a formal sign-off like "Best," "All the best," or "Sincerely," and finish by typing out your full name. You don't need to sign it with a pen.
5 Cover Letter Tips From the Experts
While the sample from the previous section provides a basic framework for writing your cover letter, there are also several tips you can follow to help get your cover letter to stand out from the crowd.
1) Do your research.
In order to craft a truly compelling cover letter, you need to show that you understand what the company does and what their pain points are. And that usually entails doing more than simply reading a job description.
Start by soaking up all the information you can find on the company's website and blog, and then consider drilling down into the LinkedIn and Twitter accounts of executives and employees you could end up working with. That research will help you fine-tune the messaging of your cover letter.
As author and entrepreneur Jodi Glickman told the Harvard Business Review:
Think about the culture of the organization you’re applying to. If it’s a creative agency, like a design shop, you might take more risks but if it’s a more conservative organization, like a bank, you may hold back."
2) Keep it short.
You might have heard that keeping your cover letter to one page is ideal. But according to Forbes tech journalist Seth Porges, you may want to consider keeping it even shorter than a single page.
As Porges once noted (in appropriately concise fashion):
"Less. Is. More. Three paragraphs, tops. Half a page, tops. Skip lengthy exposition and jump right into something juicy."
3) Don't state the obvious.
One trick for helping you keep your cover letter concise: Avoid wasting real estate on information that the hiring manager already knows -- like the position you are applying for.
As Porges wrote for Forbes:
Never ever, ever use the following phrase: 'My name is ___, and I am applying for the position as ____.' They already know this, and you’ll sound inexperienced."
4) Add some personal branding.
Career coach Evelyn Salvador recommends using personal branding elements -- specifically a slogan, a testimonial, and/or a mission statement -- to help make your cover letter more attention-grabbing. As Salvador told Monster.com:
Each of these elements is optional, but it might just be the thing that makes your cover letter stand out from those of other candidates."
Here's a quick run down on what those three elements are, and examples of what they might look like.
- Slogan: A short summary of the value you'd bring to a company/role (e.g., "Using data to solve the problems of tomorrow.")
- Testimonial: An excerpt from a letter of recommendation, thank-you message from a customer, or other short quote that highlights your past performance (e.g., "[Your name] was prompt, professional, and responsive throughout the entire process. I can't wait to work with her again the future!")
- Mission Statement: Similar to a slogan, but focused more on the philosophy behind why you do what you do, and why you want to accomplish what you want to accomplish (e.g., "The key to customer happiness is creating products that people love. My mission is to produce the most lovable products on the planet.")