Best Cover Letter Format Guide For 2017

By Mike Simpson

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Before I give you all of my secrets for the perfect cover letter format for 2017 (and trust me, you want to keep reading because this is going to really help you), I have to ask you a question.


Have you ever heard the phrase “You never get a second chance to make a first impression?”

Of course you have. So what’s the point?

Bear with me for a moment.

Let’s say you’re at a party and meeting people for the very first time. You want to look your best, right?

You put on your favorite outfit, double and triple check your hair, brush your teeth five times, roll on your strongest deodorant and pack your pockets full of mints.

You’re doing everything you can to make sure you’re ready to go.

Okay so here’s another question: When people meet you for the first time, how long does it take for them to form an opinion about you based on their first impression.

Ready for this?

Seven seconds.

Seven seconds?! Are you serious?

That’s right, just seven fast seconds. As soon as you meet someone for the first time, their brains are processing everything about you at a rate of thousands of decisions a second:

Are you someone they want to talk to? Do you look friendly? Are you approachable? Do you look interesting? Is that spinach in your teeth?

Of course, most of these thoughts and decisions are made on the subconscious level at lightning speed and before you can fully get your name out and shake hands, that person has already decided whether or not they want to continue the conversation or move onto the next person to talk to.

Crazy, right?

Did you know the exact same thing happens in the job marketplace? It’s true.

Okay, so maybe you’re not meeting at the buffet line both contemplating the last shrimp puff, but when it comes to applying for a job and getting that interview, you need to treat it just like you treat your party, and that means getting everything exactly the way you want it to be for that first, crucial, first impression.

Hang on, how is that possible? Are you saying I have to dress up just to apply for my dream job? All I’m doing is sending in my paperwork…do I have to put on formal wear just to type it up?

In job interviews, just like our party, first impressions are everything, which is why we always encourage you to make sure you’re looking and sounding your best in every possible way, and in many cases that starts with your cover letter.

Oooh! My cover letter! But didn’t we already go over those?

Yes, we did! But this article is more than just how to write a cover letter. In this article we’re going to get down and dirty with the actual formatting of your cover letter.

Formatting? You mean there are different formats? I thought it was just a basic introduction and blah blah blah, here are my qualifications…hire me?

In a nutshell, yes, but remember, you only get one chance to make that first impression…so why run the risk of making the wrong one?

Why Cover Letter Format Is Important

Let’s start with why cover letter formatting is so important.

As we’ve already said, first impressions are everything. You want a hiring manager to look at your cover letter and be so intrigued that they not only read it, but they call you in for an interview.

Chances are they’re going to be slogging through hundreds, if not thousands of cover letters and odds are the majority of those are going to be tossed in the trash after nothing more than a quick glance or two.

So, how do you make sure your cover letter (and attached resume) don’t get “filed under G” (for garbage… see what we did there)?

By making sure it’s not only the best first impression it can possibly be, but also the right impression.

Let’s get started.

How To Format A Cover Lettercover-letter-best-practices1

To begin, let’s get some basics out of the way.

What is a cover letter?

A cover letter is a quick way for you to summarize who you are, what position you are applying for and what skills and knowledge you have.

But can’t they just get the majority of that information from my resume?

Yes, but at the same time, a cover letter is a great opportunity for you to introduce information that’s not in your resume!

Most people fail to realize this and just use the cover letter as an opportunity to regurgitate everything that’s in their resume. Not only are they just doubling up useless information, they’re missing out on a huge opportunity to engage a potential employer as well as showcase other skills or outside experiences that might not be on their resume but which are perfect for the position.

Say what?!?

You don’t need to include every skill you possess in your cover letter, rather you use your cover letter to specifically target both the job and employer.

Using the cover letter as a way to express to your potential employer what it is about the position that appeals to you and why you want to work for them is a great way to both introduce yourself and get them curious enough about who you are to keep reading.

Think of your cover letter as the “laser pointer” highlighting exactly why you’re the Perfect Candidate.

So how long should my cover letter be?

A well written cover letter should never be longer than a single page.

No hiring manager wants to read a five page letter. Remember, they’re busy! Keep it short and sweet.

That’s it?! That doesn’t seem so hard!

Slow down there, turbo. It might not seem hard, but before you go rushing off to type yours up, we’re going to break it down even further…including the three different types of cover letter formats. Once we get those explained, we’ll circle back to actual formatting including fonts, margins, paper, etc.

Different Types of Cover Letter Format

There are three basic types of cover letter format you need to be aware of, and we like to call them:

The Paragraph cover letter
The Specific Needs cover letter
The Grocery List cover letter

PARAGRAPH COVER LETTER

The Paragraph cover letter is the most common form of cover letters and is probably the format you’ll end up using the most often, especially if you are just starting out in the job market or don’t have a ton of experience yet.

Paragraph letters allow you to engage your reader with direct story telling style utilizing a series of three to four short paragraphs.

People who would benefit from using the Paragraph Letter are:

High school grads
College grads
Entry Level Workers
People with Gaps in their Work History
People Making Career changes
Individuals with extensive experience
Executives
Specialists
Anyone!

But what does each paragraph contain?

Well, let’s take a look.

Your first paragraph is your introductory paragraph.

You use it to quickly tell a prospective employer who you are and why you are writing to them. You can include information here about things like your areas of expertise and your career goals and how they align with the company.

This is also where you let them know what position you’re specifically applying for as well as how you heard about it.

Your second and third paragraphs are all about what skills and knowledge you have that is specific to the job you’re applying for and will be bringing with you should they offer you the position.

Make sure you highlight your qualifications and how they fit in with the open position. Use words directly from the job description.

Again, this isn’t the time to just repeat your resume…use this space as an opportunity to really show them how you’re the employee they’ve been looking for all along and how you’re perfect for the job they’re currently hiring for.

When a company posts a job opening, they’re posting what they need. What skills, abilities, knowledge and experiences are they looking for?

Use this paragraph to highlight how you fill that need. This is also where you can fill in any information that might not be on your resume but which will help show why you’d be perfect for the position.

Your final paragraph is your conclusion. Wrap up your letter by thanking them for taking the time to read your letter and considering you for the position.

Don’t forget to include how they can contact you as well as your plans to follow-up with them.

All in all, a traditional paragraph letter looks like this:

Your Name
Your Address
Your City, State, Zip Code
Your Phone Number
Your Email

Date

Name
Title
Organization
Address
City, State, Zip Code

Dear Mr./Ms. Last Name:

I'm writing to apply for your Corporate and Events Planning Director position at Big Top Bash, Inc. I have spent the past six years working exclusively in the event planning industry and bring with me both extensive experience as an event planner and an organized and detail-oriented work ethic to the position.

As an event planner, I have organized and executed hundreds of corporate events. Group sizes have ranged from small intimate gatherings to large-scale galas. My clients not only include corporations, but also include politicians interested in organizing fundraising and networking opportunities, weddings, retreats, anniversaries, and everything in between, including international events. I am also skilled in finding the appropriate venues, entertainment, security, transportation, vendors, and promoters.

I am also an experienced contract negotiator and am proud of my ability to secure economical solutions to fit the needs of my clients without compromising quality. I am skilled in working with budgets and guest lists of any size and am proud of my ability to deliver high quality results both on time and on budget. I am creative in my approach to problem solving and cool under pressure. I am confident in my crisis management skills and my ability to anticipate and proud of my long list of satisfied clientele.

I have enclosed my resume and will call within the week to see if we can arrange a time to speak.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,
Signature
First Name Last Name

 

THE EMPLOYER SPECIFIC NEEDS COVER LETTER

The specific needs cover letter (also known as the “T-Format” cover letter) is a little bit different from the paragraph letter. Yes, you still start out with your introductory first paragraph, and wrap up with your final concluding paragraph…but the real difference is how you format the middle of your letter.

Rather than writing it out in paragraph form, you go straight to what the employer is looking for and addresses each one in turn with your own matching qualifications using a dual column format.

That style looks like this:

Your Name
Your Address
Your City, State, Zip Code
Your Phone Number
Your Email

Date

Name
Title
Organization
Address
City, State, Zip Code

cover-letter-format-example1

 

This is a great format to use when you want to instantly show an employer that you have specific skills that are a direct match for what they are looking for.

People who would benefit from the Employer Specific List of Needs letter are:

Individuals with extensive experience
Executives
Specialists

THE SHOPPING LIST COVER LETTER

The Shopping List cover letter is a hybrid of the two other types of cover letter formats, the paragraph letter and the specific needs letter.

Just like the previous two letters, you start out with your opening paragraph and close with the same concluding paragraph, but much like the specific needs letter, it’s the central paragraph that’s a little different.

Rather than doing a two column comparison or a story style paragraph, you list out exactly what the employer is looking for and respond with your own matching qualifications.

Pretend that the employer is going to the grocery store to find the Perfect Candidate. It’s up to you to show them that you fill their shopping list!

People who would benefit from the Shopping List Letter format are:

People with Gaps in their Work History
People Making Career changes who have relevant experience that might not be on their resume
Individuals with extensive experience
Executives
Specialists

It looks a bit like this:

Name
Title
Organization
Address
City, State, Zip Code

Dear Mr./Ms. Last Name:

I'm writing to apply for your Corporate and Events Planning Director position at Big Top Bash, Inc. I have spent the past six years working exclusively in the event planning industry. I bring with me both extensive experience as an event planner and an organized and detail-oriented work ethic which I believe apply directly to your job requirements including:

Experience – With over six years of practical hands on experience as a Senior Events Planning Director I have been responsible for successfully organizing and coordinating hundreds of events.

Attention to Detail – During my time, I’ve organized and executed events ranging in size from small intimate gatherings all the way up to political fundraising galas for over 1000 guests. No matter the size or budget, I approach each event with the same level of dedication.

Ability to Remain within Budget – I am comfortable working with both budgets and guests lists to ensure client satisfaction. I am also skilled at negotiating with vendors, venues, entertainment, security, transportation and promoters and am proud of my ability to secure economical solutions for my clients without sacrificing quality.

Ability to Work Well under Pressure – I am confident in my crisis management skills as well as my ability to anticipate potential problems before they arise. I am creative in my approach to problem solving and cool under pressure.

I have enclosed my resume and will call within the week to see if we can arrange a time to speak. 

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

Signature
First Name Last Name

Not only is a cover letter like this easy to write, but it allows you to quickly list your relevant skills and accomplishments and can instantly show a potential employer that you are a perfect match for the available position.

This is also an excellent format for someone who is in the middle of a career change or transitioning as you can showcase exactly how the skills and experience you possess relate to the position, regardless of your work history.

Okay, all this is great, and I’m really excited to start writing my cover letter, but before I do…what about cover letter formatting specifics, like paper and margins and fonts?

Best Cover Letter Fonts, Margins & Paper

what-font1

When writing your cover letter, you should follow the same rules you use when formatting any professional letter.

Let’s start with fonts.

FONTS

Open your word processing program and take just a second to scroll through your font choices. If you’re like me, it seems as though there are a hundred different styles to choose from…so which one is the right one?

Yes, you want to stand out in a sea of other applicants, but remember, before you go selecting that font with all the swirls and loops that rule number one when typing up your cover letter is: legibility.

Making sure your cover letter is readable is step number one.

You want to make sure that a potential employer can easily read it regardless of if it’s printed out or on a computer screen. Speaking of computer screens, not everyone is on the same operating system which means a unique or quirky font on your screen might show up as code or nonsense on someone else’s.

Your cover letter, just like all documents you send to a potential employer, is a professional representation of who you are, and as such, should look professional.

Try to avoid any font or typefaces listed as a Serif. Yes, they look nice and they’re certainly legible, but Serif fonts are fonts with added embellishments and stylizations which, when run through a scanning program or software, can result in the program rejecting it.

Remember, many companies these days use an automated applicant tracking software to first pre-qualify candidates and the last thing you want to do is you’re your application rejected because the computer program didn’t recognize your font or had difficulty reading it.

So what fonts should you use?

Sans Serifs fonts are fonts which are clean, crisp, sleek, and most importantly, scanner-friendly! They’re also “eyeball-friendly” which means a hiring manager reading it won’t have any issues trying to figure out what they’re looking at or run into eye-strain.

Stick to classic fonts like ArialVerdanaTrebuchet MSCentury GothicGill Sans MT (but NEVER Comic Sans), Lucida Sans and Tahoma as well as our personal favorite, Helvetica. It’s a flawless blend of style and clarity.

Another thing to keep in mind with fonts is the size you’re using. Shrinking everything down to the size of an ant just so you can fit it all onto a single page won’t win you any points. Again, you want to ensure that your cover letter is readable.

Try to stay between 10.5 and 12 points. Any smaller and it’s hard to read.

MARGINS AND SPACING

When you format your cover letter you want to make sure that your leave enough margin space to allow for printing.

Try to resist the temptation to adjust your margins, even if you’re trying to fit more into your page. Just because it prints out on your printer doesn’t mean it will all print out exactly the same on an employer’s printer. Adjust your margins too much and you run the risk of critical information being cut off if an employer prints it out.

Inversely, making your margins too large will leave your cover letter looking boxed in and squished.

The general rule is to set your margins at one inch on all sides.

PAPER

When you turn a cover letter into a potential employer, you want to make sure you’re using paper that helps convey the message that you’re a professional.

Of course, if you’re using an online submission system, you don’t get to choose what sort of paper an employer might potentially print your cover letter out on, but in the instances when you’re physically turning something in, it’s a good idea to put some extra time, thought, and a little bit of money into the paper you’re using.

Yes, it’s a little more expensive to pick up a package of high quality paper, but think of it as an investment – in you!

Look for paper rated at around 24lb weight. Anything lighter is intended for bulk copying and will come across as cheap and flimsy. If you’re using paper with a watermark, make sure it’s facing the correct way relative to your cover letter.

When selecting the color of paper you’re using, it’s always a safe bet to stick to white or neutrals. Off-white, cream, ivory and light gray are acceptable for most professional jobs.

Finally, make sure you’re always using 8 ½ x 11 paper.

LENGTH AND SPACING

As we mentioned earlier, no matter which of the three formats you decide to go with, your cover letter should fit neatly onto one single sided page without crowding.

Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule, and in some (rare) cases (career changes, highly advanced technical fields, or individuals at the senior/executive level), a slightly longer cover letter is acceptable.

Keep in mind this isn’t your autobiography!

In terms of the spacing, keep your cover letter to single-spaced with a blank line between each section of your content.

nail-screw-small

5 Common Cover Letter Format Mistakes to Avoid

1. Spelling and Grammar Mistakes (and Typos)

THIS IS A PROFESSIONAL DOCUMENT…which means, ALWAYS proofread your cover letter before you send it out! This includes double checking your contact information.

It won’t do you any good if you have the perfect cover letter and employers who want to hire you if they keep calling the wrong number or emailing the wrong email. Double check! Then…check again!

2. Not Tailoring Your Cover Letter

Stop me if you’ve heard us mention “tailoring before”. By now, you should have. After all, it’s the backbone to our whole job-getting strategy!

MIKE'S TIP:

Not familiar with "tailoring?" That's okay... it's quite simple. Think of it like “customizing“. We now know that your company has a specific type of person in mind for the role that they are interviewing for. They have a specific set of knowledge, skills and abilities that this person MUST HAVE in order to get the job. So what do you need to do? You need to customize, or “tailor” your entire interview (including your cover letter!) to the needs of the company.

Blanketing the job market with a one-cover letter-fits-all approach not only makes you look lazy, but it shows an employer that you’re comfortable doing the bare minimum rather than going the extra step to make sure your cover letter is tailored to the job you’re specifically seeking.

Do your research beforehand and make sure the letter you’re sending out not only highlights your skills and experiences, but shows an employer that you’re the Perfect Candidate for not only the job but the company you’re applying to!

3. Rambling

Keep in mind your first impression rule. Submitting a cover letter that’s long, rambling, confusing or poorly organized isn’t going to get you anything except dumped.

This includes padding your cover letter with unnecessary information. Keep your cover letter tailored, clear, concise, and clean. A short letter that’s straight to the point and laser focused is far more powerful than a long letter filled with big words and confusing sentences.

4. Personal Information

Religious affiliations, social security numbers, personal social media contact, birthday (or age), marital status, or anything else that’s personal has no place on your cover letter.

This also includes photos or headshots. All a potential employer needs to know is what your name is, how to contact you, and why you’re the perfect candidate based off of your skills, experience, and qualifications.

5. Salary Information

Save that for a personal discussion with the hiring manager a little further down the road. Putting your salary requirements on your cover letter is never a good idea. Check out the article we wrote on “How to Negotiate Salary During the Job Interview Process” here.

Top 5 Cover Letter Formatting Tips

1. Keep your format simple: Remember, you only get one chance to make a good first impression. Presenting a hiring manager with a cover letter that’s overly crowded, hard to read, confusing or just plain messy isn’t going to get you the job…it’s going to get you thrown out.

2. Keep it professional: Avoid cute fonts, gimmicks, scented paper, glitter, odd shapes, or anything that could potentially make an employer look at your cover letter and question your sanity. Don’t print on cheap paper. Show an employer you’re serious about the job. Save the stickers and smiley faces for your holiday letters you send home to family.

3. Focus on the job description and how you satisfy what the hiring manager is looking for. Read the job description and then read it again. What does the hiring manager need? How do your skills and experiences fill that need? Make sure when you’re writing your cover letter that you’re using words specifically used in the job posting and relating your skills directly to those that the hiring manager is looking for.

4. Make sure you’re selecting the cover letter format that best reflects who you are, your work history, and the job you’re applying for. Remember a cover letter is a great way to introduce yourself to an employer and explain away any questions they might have about you based on your resume information. Make sure you’re selecting the right format cover letter (paragraph, employer needs, shopping list) and that the information you include is relevant to the position you’re applying for.

5. Be honest: I know we’ve said this again and again in multiple articles on this site, but it’s a sentiment that bears repeating. Be honest. Don’t pad your cover letter with jobs or duties you’ve never held or exaggerate ones you have just to impress an employer. The last thing you want to do is get a job you can’t do. Not only will you look bad, but it’ll haunt you down the line with other future potential employers. Be honest!

Putting It All Together

We promised you a much deeper look into cover letter format and I think we’ve managed to deliver just that!

A cover letter is intended to introduce you to your potential future employer and show them who you are in the best possible way…and now, thanks to this article, you shouldn’t have any problems! Who needs a second chance at a first impression if you do it right the first time?

Of course, reading about it is one thing, but seeing how these cover letters look is another. If you’re interested in seeing examples of how these cover letters look in person, head on over to our 12 Great Cover Letter Examples article.

Just make sure, no matter which format you choose, that you’re tailoring it to the job you’re applying for, making sure to include relevant information, and that you’re using specific key words from the job posting and relating your skills directly to the needs of the employer.

And as always…good luck!

15 Comments

  • Ambrose Ibrahim

    Reply Reply October 27, 2016

    You have really done a great help to me and I’m very thankful to you. Good job.

    • Jeff

      Reply Reply November 3, 2016

      Thanks a lot Ibrahim!

  • Liz

    Reply Reply December 23, 2016

    As a young professional re-entering the job market after a few months of traveling (resulting in a gap in employment), I was starting to get lazy with blanket-resumes. This website has been incredibly helpful in waking me up and revising my resume/cover letters. Thanks so much!

    • Jeff

      Reply Reply December 27, 2016

      Thanks Liz! Good luck on your job search!

  • Piyush Akar

    Reply Reply December 29, 2016

    Thanks Jeff for your such a useful article. It helped me to prepare my Cover Letter a lot.

    • Jeff

      Reply Reply January 4, 2017

      Thanks Piyush!

  • Fathima

    Reply Reply January 19, 2017

    Thank you for the advice

  • Grace

    Reply Reply January 23, 2017

    Helpful indeed.

  • Swapnil

    Reply Reply January 23, 2017

    This one is really helpful. Thanks jeff.

  • Lorraine

    Reply Reply January 31, 2017

    Very Helpful.

  • Aaron

    Reply Reply February 4, 2017

    So, I’m probably not your key demographic, but as an ordained minister, religious affiliation is kind of an important thing to talk about in a cover letter…

  • Yana

    Reply Reply February 4, 2017

    Great article! Thank you Jeff

    • Jeff

      Reply Reply February 8, 2017

      🙂

  • kristin

    Reply Reply February 7, 2017

    Thank you for your help with cover letters. It’s been a long time since I’ve done one and your tips really helped!

    • Jeff

      Reply Reply February 8, 2017

      You are welcome Kristin..

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