There are about 3.69 million results on a Google search for “cover letter template,” which isn’t surprising. Many are concerned with making sure they have the right cover letter format, so they go searching for a template.
Here’s the problem with that approach: by definition, a template (especially those residing on Page 1 of Google’s search results) is something that thousands of people are using. This cannot stand out from others. Your cover letter begins from a very average place.
The average number of applicants to a job these days is 59, with most jobs receiving far more. Recruiters and hiring managers simply don’t have the time to go through 60+ resumes and cover letters thoroughly without sacrificing many other priorities during the day.
A good, interesting cover letter — especially one that hooks the reader immediately — can be a huge difference in getting you a job. A generic cover letter on the same template the recruiter just saw 50 other times? No.
When we discuss cover letter format, then, let’s shift the focus to how to make yourself stand out as a candidate via your cover letter.
Make It Personal (Like You Know the Hiring Person)
This is actually much easier in the modern age, because you can use LinkedIn often to find the specific hiring manager for the position. For example, a writer job may report to a marketing or content marketing manager, and a design job might report to a marketing manager or Chief Designer. Once you know the hiring manager, you can personalize the cover letter format pretty easily:
- No sir/madam; use the name.
- Look at their career arc and mention one commonality between theirs and yours.
- Mention one skill or concept you think you could learn from them.
Now the cover letter is directed at one person and wholly personal. This is a great first step.
If you can, look up potential pain points for the employer online. Some sources are Google News, Seeking Alpha, The Wall Street Journal, and other financial sources. If you’ve determined the biggest problems they face and you have a few sentences about how your role could solve them, that might endear your candidacy to them.
Narrate Your Story
Nothing resonates for the human brain like stories. Tell a great one here — especially given the time constraints for a hiring manager to read all these letters. Some tips:
- Use the inverted pyramid approach and put the most important information first.
- Assume that with every additional word, the chances of the hiring manager continuing to read it declines. You can assume that because it’s been proven by research.
A good story-driven intro might go something like this:
Hi Mr. Peterson,
I saw that you were a river guide for a while in your 20s. I was also for three years and a near-death experience I had with a group from a corporate retreat changed everything for me about how I considered my career arc.
Mr. Peterson is likely to keep reading. The story has hooked him.
Play up Your Connection with the Company
This is where your research (LinkedIn and otherwise) comes into play. You need to convey why working for that specific company is important to you, not just the concept of having a job. The goal is to build emotional attachment based on the research you did. Here’s an example:
Hi Mr. Smith,
My dad always told me his best experiences were in family-owned businesses, so I’ve been gravitating towards those in my recent search. I discovered how many awards your team has won, including the 2017 Best Business award for the metro area, and I began doing additional research on your culture. It seems fantastic, especially that part about company-wide data accountability and bonding “color days.” I’ve been searching for a great fit like this since those long conversations about being a male and career-building with my dad, and your approach seems excellent. I’d love to show you why I’m the best candidate here.
This references research, shows you care about the company, and plays to the ego of those already inside the company. It’s a triple win!
Focus on 3 Attributes Only
When the iPhone first came out, there were over 200 features. Steve Jobs could have discussed them all in that famous opening press event. He discussed seven only. If he had discussed 200+, the event would have taken forever and no one would remember the key elements.
You don’t need seven features for a cover letter, but picking three attributes is usually a good start. It may look something like this:
I believe I can add value in this role in three specific ways, namely advanced data analysis, communication and presentation of that data to senior leadership, and project management around the initial stages of transferring what the data says into a direct action plan. I’ve been working in the data context space for six years, and some examples of my biggest projects include…
The letter/section would go on, but the important point is that you specifically defined your value adds. The experiences underscoring those value adds comes next.
At this point, the optimal cover letter format focuses on:
- Personal context
- Background research
- Defining your value-add
- Friendly tone
And now, let’s get to some more logistics.
Make It Easy-To-Read
This means font (Arial, Courier New, Times New Roman, etc.) and size (usually 12-14). Use standard margins. It should be one page or shorter, and save it (as with your resume) as a PDF instead of a MS Word file, which can look different across different devices.
Also make sure it’s clearly labeled as the cover letter, as oftentimes you’ll send as attachments with the resume. While this may seem minor, confusing a recruiter or hiring manager for even a few seconds could get your cover letter tossed.
The baseline: no mistakes. Avoid typos, run-on sentences, poor grammar, or misspellings (especially of the company or hiring manager’s name). This is a baseline that will get any cover letter tossed aside. Proofread it and make sure you run it through a spell check process.
The Bottom Line on Cover Letter Format
As the number of applications to a standard position rises, you have to make your cover letter stand out. An impressive cover letter will get you through those top of funnel hiring stages and onward to an interview with the hiring manager.
Your cover letter format is less about the exact best template and more about the story you convey. That’s going to push the door further open in the hiring process.