A well-written and targeted cover letter is an essential part of any job application, with many hiring managers and recruiters arguing that it’s probably even more important than a résumé. After all, it’s your chance to share your story and prove that you have what it takes to contribute to your target company’s success — and go beyond just the cold, hard facts of your résumé.
But while your skills and accomplishments, and your overall fitness for the job you’re applying for, are what really matter in your cover letter, how you present and organize that information can make or break your chances of getting invited to an interview. Indeed, a poorly formatted and designed cover letter will likely find its way to the trash bin — even if you’re the most qualified candidate for the position.
To make sure the very opposite happens, I’ll walk you through how to properly format your cover letter in 2023, as well as provide some practical tips, strategies and examples for job search success.
Let’s begin with the structure of a winning cover letter, which generally looks like this:
- Date and inside address
- Professional greeting
- Opening paragraph
- Middle paragraph(s)
- Closing paragraph
- Complimentary close
Below, I’ll walk you through each component of a cover letter’s structure, step by step.
Although not strictly necessary, I recommend preparing an outline of your cover letter before you begin writing it. This will help you keep everything organized and keep you on track when you actually get round to putting pen to paper (or hand to keyboard). The same goes for your résumé!
Step 1: Start with the letterhead
The letterhead — which, as the name suggests, is the topmost part of your cover letter — contains your name and basic contact information, including your phone number and professional email address.
Your name (the one you go by professionally, sans any nicknames!) appears first, typically in a larger font size than everything else (between 20 and 24 pts). You can set it in bold, all caps, a different font or a different color (or a combination of these) to make it stand out more.
Below this, you can optionally add your professional title or a short headline (eg: “Bilingual Customer Service Representative with 8 Years’ Experience”). Set this in a smaller font size than your name, but larger than your letter’s body, typically between 14 and 18 pts.
Then, add your contact information, specifically your phone number, email address and postal address or, preferably, general location (city and state or country). Set this information to 10–12 pts and use bolded labels such as “Phone:” for each item. To save space, I recommend keeping everything together on one line, separating each item with a symbol like a round bullet (•) or a vertical line (|).
This is what it all looks like in practice:
Customer Service Representative
Phone: 555-5555 | Email: [email protected] | Location: Boston, MA
Do not place your name and contact details (and other important information) in the header or footer areas of your word processor. Applicant tracking systems can’t “scan” these areas, which could result in your job application being automatically rejected.
Step 2: Add the date and inside address
As with any formal letter, you’ll need to include today’s date — that is the date that you’re sending your letter. This goes immediately below the letterhead, in the letter’s main body.
Make sure to format the date according to local conventions. If you’re applying for a job in the US, then you’d format the date as “Thursday, September 7, 2023”. But if you’re targeting jobs in the UK, for example, then you’ll have to switch around the month and date, and omit the comma before the year, like so: “Thursday, 7 September 2023”.
Underneath the date, write the inside address, otherwise known as the recipient’s address. This should include the hiring manager’s name and job title (or department name, if you don’t know who to address your letter to), the company name and the company’s business address.
Here’s an example:
Thursday, September 7 2023
Ms Olivia Johnson
123 Main Street
New York City, NY 12345
If you’re addressing your cover letter to a woman, make sure you follow proper title etiquette: “Mrs” for married women, “Miss” for unmarried women and “Ms” when a woman’s marital status is unknown. Of course, academic and professional titles like “Prof” and “Dr” should always take precedence over common titles like “Mr” and “Ms”.
Step 3: Open with a professional greeting
A cover letter calls for a courteous and professional greeting to start it off — a simple “Dear” will suffice, followed by the recipient’s name and a comma. (Do not start your letter with an informal greeting like “Yo!” or “Hey”. Remember: you’re writing a professional letter to a potential employer, not your work buddy.)
Below are some examples of professional greetings for a cover letter:
- Dear Mr Hemsworth,
- Dear Mrs Osbourne,
- Dear Miss Brontë,
- Dear Ms Greene,
- Dear Mx Lopez,
- Dear Dr Grey,
You’ll usually find the hiring manager’s name and contact details listed in the published job advertisement, but if you come up empty, you’ll need to do some detective work. Start by checking the company’s website (specifically their “Team” page) to find out who is the head of the department you’d be working in. If you found the job on LinkedIn, double-check the ad, which often identifies who posted the ad. If all else fails, contact the company directly and just ask who the contact person is.
If, after all your research, you were unable to locate the hiring manager’s name, consider using one of these greetings:
- Dear Hiring Manager,
- Dear HR Manager,
- Dear [Department] Hiring Manager,
Whatever you do, stay away from generic and impersonal greetings like “Dear Sir or Madam” and, worse still, “To Whom it May Concern”.
Step 4: Write an introductory paragraph
This is the part where you actually start writing the body of your cover letter, beginning with an introductory paragraph that explains to the reader who you are, why you’re writing and how you can contribute to the company’s success.
But it needs to be catchy. That means staying away from the same generic, boring template that everyone else is using: “My name is [Name] and I am writing to the apply to the [Job Title] position at [Company Name].”
Although you could argue it’s straight to the point, hiring managers are all too familiar with that specific formula, so it’s hardly memorable. Instead, hook the reader with a creative and unique introduction by telling a story or a clever anecdote, or even bringing up something newsworthy, like so:
I recently came across an article in Forbes magazine in which Company ABC was highlighted for its commitment to renewable energy and sustainable business practices – all while achieving double-revenue growth. After reading this article, I was inspired to work with your company, and I was excited to see that you had an opening for a Sustainability Specialist. With my track record of promoting greener workplaces and reducing organizations’ carbon footprint by up to 45%, I believe I am a strong candidate for the position.
Step 5: Explain why you’re a great fit in the middle paragraphs
The middle paragraphs of your cover letter are probably the most important, and you need to keep the hiring manager’s attention while describing what you bring to the table and explaining why you want to join their company. Usually, this is done in one or two short paragraphs.
It’s incredibly important to tailor your experience, skills and qualifications to the company’s specific needs — not your own goals, professional or otherwise. After all, no employer wants to feel like they’re a steppingstone to something bigger and better.
Here’s an example:
Through my 10-year experience of successfully promoting and managing green business initiatives while developing strong relationships with businesses, I have become well-versed in ensuring compliance to both local and national environmental regulations while achieving and exceeding sustainability goals. In my current role at Company XYZ, meanwhile, I have supervised the development and delivery of training materials to different teams and stakeholders, resulting in the reduction of our carbon emission by 22%.
I’ve been following Company ABC for years and I know the company’s current plans involve developing environmentally sustainable products. This is a great match to both my personal and professional interests, and it is an exciting opportunity for me to leverage my environmental science skills and knowledge.
Step 6: Wrap up with a call to action
The final paragraph of your cover letter is your final pitch to the employer, showing them that you’re passionate about — and that you’re the right person for — the job.
Here, you should end with a call to action by inviting the reader to take the next step, like contacting you for an interview, reviewing your résumé or online portfolio, or requesting additional information — or a combination of these. Also, take this opportunity to thank the hiring manager for taking the time to read your application.
Here’s a practical example:
Thank you for taking the time to review my application. I believe my skills and qualifications make me an ideal candidate for the position, and I hope I can contribute to Company ABC’s mission of developing and applying sustainable solutions to real-world problems. I would appreciate the chance to talk with you to discuss my candidacy further.
Step 7: Use the right formal closing
All that’s left to do now is end your cover letter with a formal closing (or complimentary close), followed by a comma, for example:
- Best regards,
- Kind regards,
- Thank you,
- Thank you for your consideration,
- With best regards,
- Yours respectfully,
- Yours sincerely,
Whatever you do, avoid informal or otherwise unprofessional closings like “Cheers,” “Take care,” or, worst of all, “Love,”.
Underneath the closing, you should include your name, while it’s also a good idea to include your contact information here again, especially if you’re emailing your application.
Here’s what this part should like when everything’s put together:
If you’re sending your application via snail mail, add one or two line spaces between the formal closing and your name to make room for your handwritten signature.
Bonus: End with a PS
You might think that a PS (short for “postscript”) has no place on any kind of formal letter, but it can be a nice little touch on a cover letter — if done thoughtfully. In fact, it’s actually one of the most commonly overlooked tricks up a jobseeker’s sleeve.
Indeed, as hardly anyone ever uses a PS in their cover letter, recruiters will be naturally drawn to it and will be more inclined to the rest of what you have to say. Not only does it provide you with a unique opportunity to stand out from the crowd, but it’s also an excellent way to encapsulate your unique selling proposition to potential employers in one or two short sentences, like so:
PS: My fluency in Japanese, Korean and Filipino can be of great assistance in the firm’s efforts to expand in the Asian market.
You should only include a PS if it adds value or meaning to your message and it doesn’t contradict or undermine the main body of your letter, like “I enjoy hiking and reading in my spare time.”
Now that you’ve perfected the general structure and outline of your cover letter, here are some formatting tips and best practices to keep in mind when putting it all together:
1. Choose the right font
Make sure the font you choose for your cover letter is clean, professional and easy to read — and is the same as your résumé’s font choice (this helps maintain a consistent personal brand). Some of the best cover letter fonts include Calibri, Helvetica and Garamond. As for size, stick to between 10 and 12 pts, depending on the specific font.
2. Make use of bullet points
Despite common misconception, cover letters don’t have to follow a strict paragraph structure. Indeed, you can — and should — use bullet points, particularly in the middle part of your letter, to present key information at a glance.
Stick to 3–5 bullet points, and keep them to no more than 2 lines long each. Likewise, stick to standard bullet symbols like round and square bullets — never hearts or smiley faces!
3. Keep it short
You’ll want to keep your cover letter short and sweet, not long and flowery. After all, recruiters often have to review hundreds of cover letters and résumés each day, and they don’t have the time (or the inclination) to read an entire essay.
Keep it to between half a page and one full page long — anything longer is simply overkill. Generally, you should aim for 250–400 words, roughly about 3–6 paragraphs.
4. Get the line spacing right
Make sure to separate paragraphs (and any bulleted lists) with ample line spacing. This makes your letter’s content more cohesive and less scrunched together.
But don’t just press “Enter” to manually add a line; instead, use your word processor’s spacing function to add a single line space (one line high) between each text component. In Word, you can do this in the “Home” tab. Select the paragraphs you want to update. Then, click on the “Line and Paragraph Spacing” icon and select “Single” from the “Line spacing” dropdown.
5. Set the page margins
Like your résumé, set your cover letter’s page margins to between 0.5″ and 1″. Make sure to use the same settings for all sides of the document — for example, if you set the top margins to 0.5″, you should also set the bottom, left and right margins to 0.5″. If you’re using Word, go to the “Layout” tab, click “Margins”, and select one of the preset options or “Custom Margins” to define your own.
6. Maintain a uniform alignment
As all documents in the Western world are typically aligned to the left, your cover letter should follow suit. That said, you can use center or right alignment for the information in your letterhead, but everything else should always use left or justified alignment.
If you’re using a bulleted list in your letter, Word will automatically indent the bullet points; you can leave this as is or click on the “Decrease Indent” icon in the “Home” tab to push the list back to the page’s left margins.
7. Be careful with color choices
Traditionally, cover letters (and the résumés that they accompany) use a simple black-and-white color scheme: black or a dark shade of grey for the text, and white for the page background. However, you can use a third color (ideally a jewel or earth tone that complements the base color scheme) for your name at the top of the letter and any design elements.
8. Follow any special instructions
Although employers will rarely influence candidates on their cover letter or résumé’s formatting choices, it does happen sometimes. For example, they might ask you to submit your application as a specific file format, to address it to a specific person, or to use MLA style for capitalization and punctuation.
Make sure to carefully read the job description and make note of any special instructions — and follow them to a T. Ignoring these instructions can (and will) reflect negatively on your job application.
9. Be consistent
No matter how you design and format your cover letter, make sure that consistency reigns supreme. For example, if you use Calibri for one paragraph, don’t use a different font for the other paragraphs or any bulleted lists.
One more thing: make sure your letter’s overall look is consistent with that of your résumé. For example, the letterhead you use in your résumé should be the same one exactly in your cover letter.
10. Test for applicant tracking systems
Most employers use applicant tracking systems in their recruitment process, which scan résumés and cover letters for, mainly, keywords to determine whether an applicant’s skills and qualifications match the job description’s requirements. But poor formatting means that ATSs won’t be able to correctly “read” your documents, which, in turn, often means instant rejection.
As such, it’s a good idea to test your job application documents before sending them out, and the best way to do that is to copy the content into a plain text file. Does the result look disorganized, or is anything missing from the original document? If so, you’ll need to make some fixes — pronto.
Avoid using tables and other fancy graphics in your cover letter, as ATSs can’t scan these properly, if at all. Instead, prefer a clean and professional design. Remember: less is more.
Here are some good cover letter examples (based on our professionally designed résumé templates) to help you get started:
Internship cover letter format
Professional cover letter format
You’ve done it: you’ve crafted a well-written and professionally formatted cover letter. Now it’s time to send it out to your target employer. But wait — there are some final checks you need to make, depending on how you’re submitting your application.
Via snail mail
Although most job applications are made online today, it can be better in some cases to apply the “old-fashioned” way: via snail mail. If you do, it’s a good idea to use high-quality paper for your letter, ideally with a weight of 24–32 lb and cotton content of 75–100%. You should also opt for a large envelope that won’t require you to fold your documents. Meanwhile, don’t forget to sign your name by hand!
As an email attachment
When applying for job opportunities online, you’ll either be submitting your cover letter (and résumé) as an email attachment or through an online form. In both cases, you should send your letter as a PDF document (unless the ad specifically requests a Word version) and give it a clear, descriptive name like “Jane Smith Cover Letter 2023.pdf”. For email applications in particular, remember to write an eye-catching subject line and include your digital signature.
As an email message
If you’re copying the content of your cover letter into the body of an email message instead of adding it as an attachment, then you won’t need to add a header, the date or an inside address. Simply copy in the main body of your letter (including the greeting and the closing, of course), and you’re good to go. Just make sure that you attach your résumé and that you proofread everything before you hit “Send”!
Whether you’re applying for job or internship opportunities, you’ll need to include a well-written cover letter in your application package (unless the ad specifically asks you not to). But, as we learned in this article, your letter’s format is equally important as its content.
To sum up, here’s everything we covered:
- Include a beginning, middle and end, and structure your letter in a way that tells employers your story.
- Address the hiring manager by name, and use an appropriate complimentary close.
- Limit your letter to one page, and make sure the content fills up at least half the page.
- Be consistent with formatting, including fonts, colors, page margins and line spacing.
- Save your application documents as plain text files to test for applicant tracking systems before sending them out.
Got a question about formatting your cover letter? Let me know in the comments section below!
Originally published on November 8, 2017.