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 well-made resume and a great 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?
Here are our top 10 tips to writing, designing and formatting a perfect cover letter.
The header, an electronic version of what used to be called a letterhead, is the space at the top of the page containing your full name, occupation, address, phone number and email. (Sometimes the mailing address is omitted, and sometimes people add their contact info for LinkedIn or other platforms.) This is where you can also insert your job title in some cover letter designs.
The main purpose of the header is obvious: 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.
2. Greeting or Salutation
In old-timey days, it used to be OK to write “To Whom It May Concern,” “Dear Sir or Madam,” or even “Gentlemen” in the salutation of a cover letter. But those days are long gone. Today’s job searches are all about going that extra mile, establishing that emotional connection.
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 if it’s a “Mr.” or a “Ms.”)
Psychologists have found that people get a little thrill from reading their own names, and it makes them tend 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 be better off showing some tact and using something like “Dear Hiring Manager” or “Dear (Company Name) Hiring Team.”
3. The Body
Your next challenge will be writing a one-page letter, 400 words max, broken into a series of paragraphs. The goal here is to show the hiring manager exactly why you are the perfect candidate. Before we get into what those paragraphs should say, let’s talk about how they should look.
Additionally, fonts are a big factor for the readability of your cover letter: while some prospective employers may be fine with fonts like Times New Roman, many modern companies now are so used to fonts like Arial, Verdana and Helvetica that prioritize easy reading that you may want to choose them for your cover letter. Calibri has even replaced Times New Roman as the default font in Microsoft Word, so that should tell you something.
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 font. 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.
4. Tips for paragraphs and spacing
The first rule of thumb is: 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 indent 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 the paragraph lengths consistent. Imagine 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 one reason paragraphs were invented.
Straight to the point here: use 1-inch margins on all four sides 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.
In the opening paragraph of your cover letter, you need to make an opening statement that sets up a make-or-break case. In the first paragraph of your letter, you must find a way to introduce yourself, identify the specific job you are seeking, and provide a preview of why you are eminently qualified for this job. Your 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.
7. Conclusion and sign-off
Your closing paragraph can include a recap, a thank you and anything else important that you haven’t said yet. It should also finish with an appropriate sign-off phrase, such as “sincerely”, “respectfully”, “best regards”.
But it 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 in your header (and some sources suggest that you repeat your phone number and email in this final paragraph).
Make it clear from your close that you’re serious about this job and that you are genuinely eager to follow up.
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.
8. How many pages?
The golden rule is: stick to a one-page cover letter, but don’t try to “cheat” when aiming for this goal. 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 even tamper with the leading that provides an appropriate amount of space between lines of text. 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.