It just might be the most important letter you’ll ever write. Your carefully crafted cover letter could lead to lifelong job satisfaction, buy you a house or put your kids through college. And so you wonder if cover letter format is important?
You know your field, you know your skills and you know the people you want to work for. Now all you have to do is write them a one-page letter. Every journey to a dream job begins with a standout resume and a stellar cover letter.
But whether you’re a rocket scientist or a railroad worker, you may experience brain freeze when faced with this blank piece of paper and this seemingly simple task. And it IS a simple task, though it isn’t necessarily easy.
It’s actually one of the ultimate feats of persuasive writing — a one-page letter so irresistible that it lands the writer a new job. It’s the kind of letter that can change your life. So what are the secrets to getting this crucial part of your job application right? What is the appropriate format for a cover letter? How do you start and end a cover letter? What do employers look for in a cover letter?
How to format a cover letter
While the content of your application letter will be completely unique, the elements are standard. The proper cover letter format includes:
- The header
- The greeting
- The body, or middle paragraphs
- The conclusion and call to action
- The signature or sign-off
Now that you understand the components of a cover letter format, here are our top 10 tips to cover letter formatting, writing and design. Below is a complete cover letter format sample follow by our top 10 tips to cover letter formatting, writing and design.
1. Start with a well-designed cover letter header.
Good cover letter layout starts with a header, an electronic version of what used to be called a letterhead. This is the space at the top of the page containing your name, address, phone number and email. (Sometimes the mailing address is omitted, and sometimes people add their contact info for LinkedIn or other platforms.)
The main purpose of the header is to convey your critical contact information so that the potential employer knows how to reach you.
But the secondary purpose of the header is also important: to provide an attractive design element at the top of the page. Everything below the header will be black body text, which hopefully will be interesting to read but unfortunately isn’t very interesting to look at.
The header is critical because it’s the one place on the page where you have any real design options. You can opt for color, creative use of typography and other touches that start your page off with a visual bang. That doesn’t mean it should be garish or loud, but it should be pleasing to the eye.
You can check out Resume.io’s collection of cover letter format examples to get an idea of some good design options for your header.
2. Engage the hiring manager with an appropriate cover letter greeting.
In old-timey days, it used to be OK to write “To Whom It May Concern,” “Dear Sir or Madam,” or even “Gentlemen” in a cover letter greeting. But those days are long gone.
Always try to address your letter to a specific person. If the job posting doesn't mention the hiring manager's name, do some research, and make a call if necessary, to find out who the decision-maker is on the job you want. (But don’t even THINK of misspelling that person’s name, and be sure you know what title they prefer.)
Psychologists have found that people get a little thrill from reading their own names, and it tends to make them to sit up and pay attention. Also, a letter addressed to a specific person is more likely to be answered than a letter sent to an entire department. In some cases you may find that the name of the hiring manager or recruiter is purposefully undisclosed, and if so, you might need to say something more generic like “Dear Hiring Manager” or “Dear (Company Name) Hiring Team.”
3. Write an irresistible cover letter introduction.
In the opening paragraph of your cover letter, you need to make an opening statement that sets up a make-or-break case. Find a way to introduce yourself, identify the job you are seeking, and provide a preview of why you are eminently qualified for this job. Your cover letter introduction should strike the right tone of voice from the outset — friendly, enthusiastic, confident, competent, but never arrogant or conceited. Your introduction should grab the reader’s attention, but for the right reasons.
Above all, your opener should make a positive first impression and give your reader a reason to read on.
Here’s an example of a good cover letter introduction:
After graduating with a BA degree in Hotel Management from Miami University, my first role in the hospitality industry set the tone for my career. I was sent on a year’s placement for Marriott to London during the 2012 Olympics, helping their London hotel network to organize events and promote their services at the various sporting venues.
4. Make your case in the body of the cover letter.
In the body of your cover letter, you must build a persuasive case that you are the right candidate for the job. You might need to boast a little bit, and that’s OK, because if you don’t promote your candidacy for this job, nobody else will.
Talk about your work experience, and be specific about your accomplishments in past jobs. Wherever possible, use facts and figures (numbers, dollar figures, percentages) to quantify your achievements and work history. Also, go where your resume can’t by relating an anecdote about a problem you once faced and how you resolved it.
A commonly asked question is: Are bullet points acceptable in a cover letter? The short answer is yes. The longer answer is: Use them sparingly and think about whether they benefit the visual look and reading flow of your cover letter. What you don’t want is to turn your cover letter into a second resume.
The body of your letter can also mention your education, certifications and relevant skills. And you may choose to discuss your aspirations for the future, specifically as they relate to the position you’re applying for. Be sure to study the job description carefully, and demonstrate that you meet the job requirements. (But obviously, you need to remain truthful, because any falsehoods in a job application will come back to haunt you.)
The tone of your writing is also important. To match the language and the level of formality, check out your prospective employer’s website, social media accounts and any other material you can find.
Here’s an example of the body of a cover letter:
During my teenage and college years, I worked at my parents’ hardware store and have a strong understanding of what goes into a successful retail business. I managed the inventory, sorted the pricing and ran the promotional calendar. I was passionate about the trade, so assisting customers who are always in need of practical advice was a pleasure.
A step into becoming a tradesperson myself was entirely natural, and after fifteen years of building up a local clientele, it is time for my career to come full circle. I have a huge number of contacts in the business and am sure I would attract many customers your way.
I understand the profile of customers that visit your store and am able to help in terms of ensuring suitable stock for project purchases and helping to coordinate the best promotions. Tradespeople love to take advantage of a bargain, so the role of a retail assistant is to point them in the right direction. I increased sales by 20% year-on-year when I worked in retail previously – you have to be proactive, or the customers will go elsewhere.
5. Conclude your cover letter with a call to action.
Your closing paragraph can include a recap, a thank you and anything else important that you haven’t said yet. But your conclusion should also contain a call to action — a suggestion that you would be delighted to come in for an interview, or even just to talk by phone. You might also want to say that you’re always reachable at the contact info provided.
Make it clear from your close that you’re serious about this job and that you are genuinely eager to follow up.
Finish up with an appropriate sign-off phrase, such as “Sincerely,” “Respectfully” or “Best regards.”Then type your name below that, or add your signature if you’re planning on mailing this letter or delivering it in person.
Be sure to proofread your letter carefully, and ideally find a good editor to revise it for you. Typos and other English errors are among the top reasons cover letters and resumes are rejected.
Here’s an example of how you might write the conclusion of your cover letter:
I would welcome the chance to visit and understand more about your operation, your plans for the future and how I might be able to contribute.
6. Make a sensible font your first formatting choice.
Good choices for a cover letter format start with a good font. Use a modern, attractive, easy-to-read cover letter font, nothing too flashy or exotic, nothing that calls attention to itself. You want people to be reading your text, not staring at your odd font choice. Take a moment to read our article on “What are the best fonts for cover letters?”
Choose a font size between 10 and 12 points — any smaller and it’s hard to read, any larger and it starts to look like a Mother Goose book.
Align text left, in a style known as “ragged right” because it leaves space to the right of the last word in each line. Justifying text from margin to margin makes the page look like it’s filled with solid blocks of black text, and it sometimes stretches words horizontally to reach the margin.
7. Keep paragraphs short.
Keep paragraphs short, add a space between them, and do not indent.
It used to be OK to send a business letter with no spaces between paragraphs, provided you indented each paragraph. But these days, unless you’re typesetting a book, you need non-indented paragraphs with a space between them.
And you need to keep the paragraphs fairly short, and make their lengths consistent. If you received a one-page letter containing 400 words that were all in the same paragraph, would you look forward to reading it? The eye needs a break, and the brain does too. That’s why paragraphs were invented.
8. Use 1-inch margins.
Leave room for 1-inch margins on the top, bottom, right and left of your cover letter.
There’s a saying among page designers, both print and digital: “White space is your friend.” Every design, illustration or art element needs to incorporate a certain amount of negative space that contains nothing at all.
Designers will also tell you to avoid “trapped white space,” meaning an inconvenient blank in the center of your design. That’s why white space should be “pushed to the outside” — providing a sort of an invisible frame that allows the central image to dominate.
This is the whole idea behind margins — it’s a white frame that surrounds and highlights your content.
9. Stick to one page.
You might as well consider it a cardinal rule that your cover letter length cannot exceed one page. Yet anyone who’s tried to write one could probably testify that the first draft is usually too long.
You may be tempted to reduce the font size, shrink the margins or get rid of all the white space. But please resist the urge to atone for your verbosity by tweaking the formatting. Trim the fat from your text before resorting to measures that will make the letter denser and harder to read.
10. Use a professionally designed cover letter template.
There’s a simple way to sidestep the potential pitfalls of formatting a cover letter, and that’s to use a professionally designed template.
A cover letter template is a pre-designed framework that already has an eye-catching cover letter header, appropriate typography and an adequate use of white space. All you have to do is replace the existing text with your own, and your letter is done.
For more information, click on this video, "How to Format Your Cover Letter," from the University of Southern California Career Center.
Take a moment to look through Resume.io’s cover letter samples, find a template you like and get busy customizing it to make it your own. You’ll be building on a foundation of success.