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Written by Debbie BrideDebbie Bride

How long should a cover letter be?

21 min read
How long should a cover letter be?
Artwork by:Alina Kugush
There’s a knack for writing cover letters that are not too long or not too short for their intended purpose. Resume.io is here to walk you through the Goldilocks guidelines for getting “just right” winning results.

How long should a cover letter be? There’s one simple answer — short. Two unequivocal conditions assure that result. Without exception, a cover letter should: 

  1. Always fit on a single page.
  2. Never exceed 400 words.

Both of these mutually inclusive goals are attainable each and every time you write a cover letter . If you do everything else right, your cover letter will automatically be short enough. It will also completely cover everything you need to say. 

And what’s left unsaid should make the reader curious enough to find out more in an interview. That’s the whole idea.

Let’s look at how to create a perfectly sized cover letter that wows the reader, from start to finish. Here’s what we’ll cover:

  • The purpose of a cover letter
  • Why everyone should submit a cover letter even if it’s not requested
  • How to write a cover letter and the structure of each section: header, greeting, introduction, body and conclusion
  • General word bloat-busting tips
  • Cover letter layout and design guidelines

Purpose of a cover letter — what’s the point?

Cover letters are like a written handshake in an era when job-seekers no longer walk into offices with no appointment asking to see the hiring manager. Cover letters enhance the first impression you make on hiring managers and could improve your chances of a job-winning interview. 

Why? Because your resume can only do so much on its own. It’s designed that way. A cover letter compensates for the resume’s limitations. It can start earning you points as the best job candidate before anyone even looks at your resume. It can even make a difference in whether your resume gets read at all.

As a resume companion document, your cover letter serves these key purposes.

  • Provides a personal introduction: You form an immediate, direct connection with the employer by addressing your cover letter recipient by name. Resumes are not addressed to anyone.
  • Reveals the person behind the professional: The free-form writing style makes your cover letter a storytelling device providing personal insights. It adds narrative depth to your relatively impersonal resume, which is a barebones factual synopsis in mostly list format.
  • Bridges your past and future: A successful cover letter paints prospective employers into the picture of your next ideal career move, while resumes are background-oriented.
  • Intrigues the reader: By saying just enough without giving away too much, cover letters motivate curious readers to dig deeper for the details in your resume.

But do you really need one?

Job applicants often wonder if there’s any point writing a cover letter with no guarantee it will be read or influence hiring decisions. Not being required to include one with your resume is typically welcomed as a reason to skip it. 

This is understandable, but not advisable. You have everything to gain — and nothing to lose — by regarding cover letters as essential, not just a smart idea. Studies have shown they can give you a 40% job-winning edge over other qualified applicants who do not submit one. 

Why else?

Myth-busting research has concluded that the cover letter is not “dead.” The opposite is true. Not submitting a cover letter with your resume could actually jeopardize your job-winning chances. Why risk it?

Even with no requirement to include a cover letter with your resume, there is only reason not to do so  — if the application instructions stipulate that it be excluded. 

Statistical insight

According to one survey, 90 percent of hiring professionals consider a hiring manager invaluable when making hiring decisions. Even if cover letters are optional, about three-quarters of recruiters still expect to receive them, prefer to receive them, always read them and show a preference for applicants who include one.

HR professionals find cover letters important and useful to:

  • Explain a job candidate’s motivation to join the company —  63% of respondents
  • Describe career objectives — 50%
  • Explain the reasons for changing careers — 50%
  • Explain employment gaps — 49%
  • Highlight professional achievements — 47%

The do’s of writing a spectacular cover letter

Would you rather spend the next hour organizing your socks drawer than writing a cover letter? We get it. Even for published authors, getting started is typically the hardest part of any writing task.

Simply structured

Take heart in the simplicity of a cover letter’s framework to feel less overwhelmed. Breaking it into separate parts can make the writing process seem less daunting. So should our assurance that there’s a learnable knack for putting all of these components together in a single-page cover letter document:

  • Header
  • Greeting / salutation
  • Introduction
  • Middle section (body)
  • Closing (conclusion and sign-off).

The following sales representative example packs equal parts passion and professionalism into a compact 300 words. 

Example: Sales Representative Cover Letter

Dear Ms. Underhill,
 

With a seasonal product such as garden furniture, you need a sales rep who can go into marketing mode for half a year and sales mode for the other half. Having been a rep for two gardening manufacturers previously, I understand the investment that this requires.
 

My career began with a sales management degree from Northwestern University and a graduate placement selling hot tubs. It was a perfect introduction to selling a high-value seasonal product and many conferences and events later, I had perfected my sales pitch. In my first two years as a sales rep, I skyrocketed my region’s sales by 80%, attracted 55 more customers and won the national sales prize in my second year.
 

I have just left a role with your competitor due to a change of company ownership – they brought in their own sales team. This was disappointing, as I took great pleasure in eating away at your market share (the net gain for my previous employer was 6%), but after an acrimonious exit and on finishing my gardening leave, I am keen to stay in garden furniture and feel that my three years of direct experience will prove useful.

My accomplishments there are readily transferable:

  • Developed a marketing brochure that increased ATV by 35% on tables and chairs.
  • Cultivated a sophisticated sales pipeline, including social media in the sales funnel.
  • Negotiated payment terms from 60 days to 51 days on average.
  • Sourced new products at exhibitions and sourcing trips with the company buyer.

I know that we have met before, but as I was a rival rather than a potential hire, I hope that the current circumstances may be a little more interesting. I would love the opportunity of an interview to discuss the market and how I might contribute to your sales team.
 

Sincerely,

Tyler Bellinger

Copied!

While “sales representative” is one of the broadest job titles in existence, this cover letter example fully illustrates how to target each specific position and employer. 

Let’s look at how to optimize the impact of each cover letter part.

Cover letter greeting

Start your cover letter off on a professional, yet approachable, note in the greeting. Science has proven that positive responses are triggered by people hearing or reading their own name. That’s why all cover letters should be addressed to someone by name if possible. 

To whom it may concern: just don’t
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To whom it may concern: just don’t

“To Whom It May Concern” is an old-fashioned way of writing a letter greeting when you don’t know the name of the correct person to address. But it should never be used in a cover letter in which you’re seeking a job. Here are some alternatives.

Cover letter introduction

In the few seconds it would take in person to shake hands and be seated for an interview, your cover letter introduction facilitates the same connection in writing. Recruiters will expect you to jump in right away with your relevant strengths and experience. And so you should. But the “why you need me” hook is what they will find irresistible.

Our sales representative sample letter leads with this masterful introduction.

Example: Sales Representative Cover Letter Intro

With a seasonal product such as garden furniture, you need a sales rep who can go into marketing mode for half a year and sales mode for the other half. Having been a rep for two gardening manufacturers previously, I understand the investment that this requires.

Copied!

Cover letter body

This is the place to show, not just tell, what makes you an ideal job match. Elaborate on a few carefully selected achievements and the transferable skills brought to bear. Cite relatable facts and figures that the employer would relish seeing you replicate if hired. And let your motivation shine through in a pertinent anecdote or two. 

The cover letter body sample below demonstrates the reader-friendly use of bullet points for both showcasing and word-trimming.

Example: Sales Representative Cover Letter Body

My career began with a sales management degree from Northwestern University and a graduate placement selling hot tubs. It was a perfect introduction to selling a high-value seasonal product and many conferences and events later, I had perfected my sales pitch. In my first two years as a sales rep, I skyrocketed my region’s sales by 80%, attracted 55 more customers and won the national sales prize in my second year.
 

I have just left a role with your competitor due to a change of company ownership – they brought in their own sales team. This was disappointing, as I took great pleasure in eating away at your market share (the net gain for my previous employer was 6%), but after an acrimonious exit and on finishing my gardening leave, I am keen to stay in garden furniture and feel that my three years of direct experience will prove useful.

My accomplishments there are readily transferable:

  • Developed a marketing brochure that increased ATV by 35% on tables and chairs.
  • Cultivated a sophisticated sales pipeline, including social media in the sales funnel.
  • Negotiated payment terms from 60 days to 51 days on average.
  • Sourced new products at exhibitions and sourcing trips with the company buyer.
Copied!

Cover letter closing

Close off in a manner that’s concise but not entirely conclusive. Thank recruiters for their time and interest in your application, adding a reminder of why you are an ideal job fit. Then, be sure to include a call to action that puts some onus on the employer to respond, not cast your application aside.

The call to action in this sample cover letter closing is unusual but potentially effective.

Example: Sales Representative Cover Letter Closing

I know that we have met before, but as I was a rival rather than a potential hire, I hope that the current circumstances may be a little more interesting. I would love the opportunity of an interview to discuss the market and how I might contribute to your sales team.

Copied!
How to write a cover letter with no experience
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How to write a cover letter with no experience

When you don’t have much experience in the field you’re applying to, writing a cover letter can feel like a daunting task. While you might be tempted to submit your application without one, that would be a big mistake.

Expert tip

Searching for more information? Our “ How to write a cover letter ” goes into more detail about the broader aspects of writing a well-rounded cover letter.

How to keep your cover letter to one page

Here are some ways to keep your cover letter short and snappy without selling yourself short. 

  • Purposeful is persuasive. An engaging cover letter focuses solely on your most relevant and relatable qualifications. It should be obvious to recruiters that you’ve done your homework, to the extent they can picture what you would look like in the position and hiring organization. 
     
  • Leave readers wanting more. As an elevator pitch hitting just the high notes, your cover letter should never rehash your resume information, but rather reframe it as a preview. Seamlessly bridge from past to future accomplishments, giving a sense of:
    • Who you are and what you’ve done
    • How you will contribute if hired
    • Why you want to work for this employer more than any other. 
       
  • Write lean, not lazy. Think of concise and precise as synonymous in writing that’s clear, descriptive, dynamic and solid. Consult a thesaurus often for help pinpointing exactly the right words to say what you mean. Fewer words are always better, with sparing reliance on adjectives and adverbs.
Expert tip

Action verbs in the active present or past tense are your best friend in a cover letter or resume. They automatically make your writing tighter and more results-driven. Tell the reader what you do or did, not what you are responsible for doing.

  • Say it for the first time, your way. Meaningless clichés and other superfluous fluff waste valuable cover letter page space and the reader’s precious time. Nothing in your cover letter should sound anything like what recruiters have ever seen from other job applicants — especially a thousand times before. That includes this opening line: “I am applying for the position of …”  Readers already know that.
     
  • Don’t be a drag on the reader’s time and energy. Taking too long to make your point is as bad as repeating yourself. Don’t be afraid of short sentences. The pauses pack more punch and command staying power, while also sustaining reader momentum. The same goes for shorter paragraphs and bullet points. 
     
  • Self-edit scrupulously. Every time you review each cover letter redraft, a crisper, cleaner and more efficiently polished new version should emerge. Then, when you think it’s perfect, ask someone else to give it a look. Revise accordingly. Shorter word counts virtually guarantee a higher recruiter’s score. And make sure to use a cover letter builder with a good built-in spell check.
     
  • Proofread for perfection. No one should need reminding of the obvious reason to scrutinize your final cover letter draft for integrity-compromising mistakes. But proofreading can sometimes reveal word-tightening opportunities too, including inadvertent editing errors.
Expert tip

“If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”

That these famous words are frequently misquoted or misattributed takes nothing away from their meaning. Don’t be surprised or discouraged by this oft-misunderstood reality when composing your cover letter: the shorter it is, the longer you might take writing it well. 

Put another way: cover letters are a classic case of “less is more.” And getting to “less” typically takes more time and effort.

* The earliest recorded version of this quote dates back to 1657, when French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal published “Lettres Provinciales.” Later variations are attributed to philosopher John Locke; inventor Benjamin Franklin; authors Henry David Thoreau and Mark Twain; and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson.

Short and sweet — looking as good as it sounds

Don’t even think about tinkering with margins or font size as a way to squeeze in too many lines of space-busting cover letter text. If word bloat is the real problem, then further edits are the only slimming solution. 

But if your cover letter is well within the 400-word count limit, and seems to fit fine on a single page, it might still benefit from eye-pleasing improvements. Every aspect of the document’s layout, design and formatting should help make it:

  • Inviting to read at first glance — neat, clean and streamlined, with ample white space.
  • Easy to read all the way through — reflecting suitable choices of fonts and sparing graphic touches.
Expert tip

How to prevent widows and orphans 

Knowing how to manage straggler text snippets in your cover letter is useful to ensure the document fits on one page without compromising the layout’s look.

“Widows” are paragraph-ending lines of text that stray onto the top of the next page, while “orphan” lines start a new paragraph at the bottom of a page. Neither is desirable in a multi-page document, but can be prevented with certain line or page break adjustments.

Even within a single-page document,“widow” lines of text can cause problems with page fit and layout imbalance.  One of the following solutions can make a difference:  

  • Break a long paragraph into two paragraphs
  • Combine two short paragraphs into one
  • Revise the wording to remove “widow” lines.
How to write a cover letter - expert guide [2022]
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Here is exactly how you can write a cover letter that will stand out from the crowd, and help you land that interview.

Key takeaways for the right cover letter length

  • The unbreakable rule for maximum cover letter length is short and simple: 400 words on a single page.
  • As a resume companion document, your cover letter is designed to catch the recruiter’s attention in a more direct, personal fashion. It can even make a difference in whether your resume gets read at all.
  • A carefully crafted cover letter should automatically be short enough and complete enough. It should also motivate readers to dig deeper for more details in your resume.
  • The writing and formatting tips in this guide can help you optimize the reader-friendly impact of your cover letter, from start to finish.
Expert tip

For more inspiration, check out our free cover letter templates and build your own cover letter

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