The Cover Letter Format—How It Helps You Land Your Next Job

Overview

Sick of the Silent Treatment? Here’s the Cover Letter Format That’ll Get You Past the AI

The only thing worse than not having a job is looking for one. 

You may try to approach a job search with enthusiasm—it’s a chance to explore new opportunities, meet new people, and not be broke for a change. But filling out countless forms knowing that you won’t get responses to most of the applications you’ll turn in puts a damper on the initial excitement. 

Come the cover letter writing stage, and it drains all the fun out of the experience. On top of writing a stellar resume, you’ve got to think about the proper cover letter format, the right font, styles (like APA), margin width, and line spacing. And the HR bots…The elusive HR bots. What can you do to avoid an ATS eating up your cover letter and to get a human to see it?

It’s a messy business, but it’s a mess that you can manage. This article will break down everything about cover letter formatting—we’ll explain why you shouldn’t mess up the date, how to use bolding to your advantage, whether generic greetings are okay, and why you should never include tables and charts in this document.

Cover Letter Structure—The Basics

Whether a human or a bot is reading your cover letter, the key to getting noticed is to make your letter readable.

What does that mean?

There is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to making your cover letter easy to read, but keeping your formatting simple and clear-cut is one of the key points. 

Choosing the right fonts, margins, and line spacing will go a long way to helping you get that clean look and boost the cover letter’s readability. Still, dealing with formatting is a lot easier once you have your text ready—the first thing you need to do is map out the structure of your cover letter and write the content.

Two women in an office working together and pointing at the laptop

Source: mentatdgt

Note that your letter should fit in a one-page document. This is pretty uniform, even if the content changes.

A cover letter generally consists of:

  1. Heading
  2. Greeting
  3. Three main paragraphs
  4. Formal closing

What To Put in a Cover Letter Heading

The cover letter heading is the contact section of your cover letter.

It should include:

  1. Your full name, phone number, and email address—You have no obligation to include your address, but in some cases, it can be useful. If you’re applying for a remote role, there is no need to mention where you live. When applying for an office job, adding your address can be beneficial as it can show the recruiter whether they’ll need to cover your travel expenses
  2. The date—You may not expect the date to be an essential part of the cover letter, but an incorrect date will instantly raise some red flags with a recruiter. To avoid being perceived as careless or sloppy, make sure to use the current date in every cover letter—e.g., if you’re applying for a job in December, make sure the date is not November 23
  3. Info on the company you’re applying to—name, address, phone number, and email address

Note that you do have some flexibility regarding the formatting and placement of these items. 

You can arrange the three sections one on top of the other. Another option is to place your contact info in the top right corner, add the date one line below it, and leave the company’s data on the left (above the greeting).

A sample cover letter format for the heading

Source: Community College of Vermont

In case you’re sending your cover letter via email—not as an attachment—your contact section should be below your signature. 

If you’re going for a role in Marketing, PR, or any creative field, add your social media profiles and a personal website.

Adding your LinkedIn profile can be a plus regardless of your desired position. It can be a beneficial addition to a cover letter for an entry-level position.

Formatting a Cover Letter Greeting

Your cover letter is your pitch. It’s a way to sell yourself to the recruiter, appealing to their human nature.

So, is opening with “To whom it may concern” a big NO? Well, no—not really. 

Let’s say the company didn’t state the hiring manager’s name anywhere in the ad. What are you going to do? Find the company on LinkedIn and look for the hiring manager or the human resource manager?

Sure, that’s an option but a time-consuming one.

Three colleagues engaged in conversation in a modern and inclusive workspace

Source: Kampus Production

If this is your #dream job, then absolutely, go for it! Scour the company’s website, Linkedin page, and social media. Give your best to make that cover letter as personalized as it can be.

But if you are applying to 20+ job ads (mass applying is not great, but we do live in a society), you might not have the time to track down all those hiring managers on social media.

In such cases, using “to whom it may concern” or “dear recruiter” is still absolutely acceptable. 

The Body—Formatting the 3-Paragraph Cover Letter

The main part (or the body) of most cover letters consists of three paragraphs. The format can vary a bit, but the most common outline consists of:

  1. The hook—Use this to present yourself and explain your interest in the position. To convince a hiring manager that you’re not simultaneously applying to 50 other companies, mention the role and the name of the company in your opening statement. Recruiters want their candidates to make an effort and show passion. They will notice if the cover letter is not written especially for their job opening, so to make this even more pronounced, don’t shy away from bolding the info
  2. The pitch—Describe what you have to offer to the employer. Show how your skills are relevant to the position you’re applying for. Don’t just repeat or rephrase the info from your resume. Make sure to tie in any relevant information with the requirements from the job ad
  3. The call to action—Thank the employer for their time, explain how they can reach out to you, and mention why you fit in with their company. This is the part that shows you did your research on their values and corporate culture

How To Format a Cover Letter Closing

Your cover letter structure and format are not set in stone. 

Some general guidelines exist—as well as the big NOs to avoid—but you can mix and match sections a bit.

When it comes to ending your cover letter, the sections you can include in the closing instead of elsewhere in the letter are:

  1. Thanking the hiring manager for their time—instead of being a part of the call to action sequence, it can work on its own in the closing
  2. Your contact info—commonly added to the bottom of the letter if you’re sending an email
Two women sitting in a lobby, examining their resumes and waiting for their job interview to start

Source: RODNAE Productions

Apart from those details, you should keep your closing simple and go for something like this:

Sincerely,

Jane Smith

Be careful with the farewell phrases you use. Here are some dos and don’ts:

YesNo
Sincerely
Sincerely yours
Regards
Best
Best regards
With best regards
Kind regards
Yours truly
Most sincerely
Respectfully
Respectfully yours
Thank you
Affectionately
Best wishes
Cheers
Fondly
Warm regards
Love
XOXO
Yours
Yours faithfully
Thx
Emoticons

The closing of your cover can contain another part that may seem like overkill but can be helpful—enclosures.

An enclosure is a list of the attached documents placed below your signature. If you’re applying via email, your attached documents will show up right beneath your signature, but if you’re sending documents in paper form, an enclosure will round up your entire application.

Why is this important? It helps recruiters check whether all your supporting documents reached them—and it will make you look professional.

Formatting 101—Cover Letter Rules and Tips

Once you figure out the cover letter structure that works for you, it’s time to deal with the formatting.

You can always use templates and pre-designed cover letter samples and tweak them until you’re happy with the result. You can also start from scratch.

When it comes to formatting, there are a few crucial details to pay attention to:

  1. Fonts
  2. Bolding
  3. Spacing
  4. Margins

Fonts

Make sure to choose a professional font that is easy to read. Avoid fonts like:

  • Script-style
  • Comic Sans
  • Handwriting

The size should be 10–12 pt—large enough to make the text legible, but not so much that a few sentences of text engulf the page.

Popular font choices include Arial, Calibri, Verdana, Courier New, and Times New Roman.

What should you avoid doing? Do NOT:

  • Use different fonts in your resume and a cover letter
  • Combine different font styles within your cover letter 
  • Use italics
  • Underline text

Bolding

You want your document to be easy to skim. A hiring manager will scan your cover letter, looking for specific elements—make sure they find them. How? Bold them.

Details you need to bold:

  • The job title and the company’s name—Pay particular attention to this in the first few sentences of your cover letter. Introduce yourself and state your interest in the X role in the Y company. Bolding these two elements shows the recruiter that you are serious about applying specifically for this position
  • Keywords from the ad—Scan the requirements. Look for years of experience, educational background, and specific technical skills. If your profile fits these conditions, make sure to state that and bold them. You’re using keywords to optimize your document for an ATS, but you’re bolding keywords to optimize it for a human
  • Skills not mentioned in the add but relevant to the role—If there is a particular achievement, specific skill, or a certificate that might not have been mentioned in the ad but could prove useful for the role, bold it

Spacing

Your cover letter should be single-spaced. Make sure to include a space between paragraphs and different sections of the letter to separate them visually and make the letter easier to skim.

As for alignment, the text should be aligned to the left. Justified is popular in writing as it gives the text a neat look, but hiring managers are not fans of this style, though, because it’s difficult to read—especially when they have to go through page after page of cover letters.

Margins

You can play around with this a bit—to make sure your text fits on one page and looks presentable. You could follow the standard and set your margins approximately 1 inch on all sides. 

If you have too much text, adjust the margins to 0.70 inches—either all of them or only the left and right ones. This will decrease the white space around the text and give the cover letter a cleaner look that is easier on the eyes.

You can even make a short cover letter (half a page of text) visually longer by adjusting the margins to 1.5.  Doing so will make your page look less empty.

Why Do You Need a Cover Letter? 

Is a cover letter even necessary? 

You would think that submitting your resume and then resubmitting that same information in a form on a job board would provide the company with (double) the relevant info—but no. Highlighting your strengths—this time in a paragraph form and letter-like style—should do the trick.

Candidates get hired for their character just as much as they do for their skills profile. 

As annoying as drafting a cover letter can be, think of it as a chance to add a personal touch to your application. From this perspective, showing a bit of zest couldn’t hurt.

A white female hiring manager interviewing a Black male candidate

Source: Artem Podrez

Whether the recruiter will see your letter is a somewhat more complex question.

Assuming you’re applying to work in a smaller company, the answer is likely yes. Startups and local businesses rarely use applicant tracking systems (ATS). 

If they ask for a cover letter, sending one that stands out will work to your advantage. If they don’t, it’s up to you.

What happens if you apply for a position in a big corporate environment? That’s where AI comes in.

Will a Human Even See Your Cover Letter When You Apply for a Corporate Job?

Big companies get a lot of applications for each open position. Your average HR manager won’t have the time to go over every application and provide feedback in time. 

That’s where applicant tracking systems come in. An ATS is software used to narrow down the number of candidates by searching the applicant database for specific keywords. 

Applicant tracking systems are primarily used to scan resumes, so applicants generally try to make resumes ATS-friendly.

Does that mean you can ditch your cover letter or not worry about optimizing it for these HR bots? You can, but it’s not advisable.

Some popular bots will treat cover letters like resumes—crawl and search these documents for relevant keywords and forward the most suitable candidates for the job to recruiters.

Optimizing your cover letter cannot hurt—it could even boost the chances of getting your application past the bots and to an actual human.

Who Is on the Other Side—ATS or a Human?

There is no way you can figure out whether a company is using an ATS, right? Wrong! It is actually pretty simple.

Here are some hints that can help you identify whether a prospective employer is using an ATS:

HintsExplanation
BrandingYou might see a logo of the ATS program on the application page and the company’s website
LinksIf you hover over the Apply button and look at the URL at the bottom of your browser window, you will see the name of the ATS company within the link
FormsIf the company asks you to complete an online form, it’s likely your answers will go through an ATS. They are easy to recognize—lengthy, super-detailed forms asking you to spend 50 minutes repeating the info that’s already in your resume
RedirectionsOnce you click on Apply, you might get redirected to a new but similar website. This is like the ATS vendor page mimicking the company’s page. The URL is the giveaway in this case
LinkedIn & the Easy Apply ButtonApplying via LinkedIn using the Easy Apply option means your application will be run through an ATS. You won’t be asked to attach your resume—your LinkedIn profile is your resume in this case, and it should be ATS-optimized as well

ATS Tips and Tricks

A proper opening and ending and the signature are essential parts of a cover letter. Still, additional formatting tweaks might be necessary when you consider that your application documents could be ATS-screened.

A focus shot of a young woman, wearing a hijab and a winter jacket, lying on a bench outside and working on her laptop

Source: Keira Burton

ATS bots will often skip over certain information or deem them unreadable. Avoiding unusual fonts, right alignment, charts, graphs, and text boxes make your cover letter (and resume) ATS-friendly and readable (for both humans and ATS software).
Is formatting enough to turn ATS bots in your favor? Readability is a plus, but you do need to put in more work.

If you figure out (or at least suspect) that your application is going through an ATS, here are some improvements you can make:

  • Use keywords from the job description—the ATS will crawl through your application, looking for the main skills mentioned in the ad. Make sure to include them and place them contextually (the ATS also looks at the phrases around the keywords)
  • Customize your cover letter for every job application—different ads contain different keywords
  • Add the company address and point of contact’s name to your cover letter
  • Add relevant and compelling measurable results in your cover letter
  • Explain any significant shifts in your career (i.e., changing industries or job titles)
  • Include info from the company’s website or publications to convey your interest in the job
  • Include the job title for which you are applying
  • Keep your cover letter up to one page long
  • Do not add a bunch of keywords to the bottom of your letter and change the font color to white—the ATS will catch this, and you will get disqualified

A Job Search Shouldn’t Be a Full-Time Job—Find the Right Role Fast

The U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics states that the unemployment rate decreased to 6% in March 2021 (in 2020, it was around 15%). 

The situation is still pretty dreadful—we have more than 4,200,000 people who have been unemployed for more than 27 weeks.

When hunting for a job, you have to engage with multiple online job boards—and you’re going against 30% of active job seekers. Your resume could be top-notch and the cover letter perfectly formatted, and it could still take you weeks or months of browsing through job boards to find a job. Factor in that it will take you an average of six applications to land an interview, and even then, the company culture might not be the right fit for you.

You could also make things simple and choose Lensa.

Lensa is an AI-powered job aggregator that helps our users make more informed career decisions, considering more than a salary and location. 

Some of the benefits you get if you sign up for our app are:

  1. Access to job ads from all major job boards
  2. A chance to learn more about your professional strengths by playing the Workstyle game
  3. Assessment of your resume based on its ATS-friendliness
  4. Customized job recommendation
  5. The opportunity to choose jobs based on your character or cultural fit
  6. The option to filter (out) remote positions
  7. Email notifications and SMS alerts

How To Register for Lensa

Make your job hunt easier and register for Lensa in a matter of seconds.

Follow these steps:

  1. Visit the website
  2. Provide the desired job title and location
  3. Click on the Search button
  4. Add your email address and click on Submit

From this step, you’re good to go—you can continue your job search, play the Workstyle game, or work on your profile.

Some of the actions you can take are:

  • Filling in your first and last name and mobile number—to get notifications
  • Providing desired compensation, education level, and experience
  • Uploading your resume

By completing your profile, you will receive job suggestions tailored to your needs and personality and cut down the time you spend on your job search.

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