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8 Cover Letter Formatting Don’ts

A well-written cover letter filled with information pertinent to the position at hand encourages an employer to call for an interview. But to get someone to read that content, a job seeker first must submit something that appears worthy of a look.

Give your document the chance it deserves by avoiding the following eight mistakes that make busy hiring managers skip your cover letter and move on to the next candidate:

  • Exceed one page in length
    Nothing turns off a person pressed for time like the thought of plodding through too much text. Stick to a single page filled with interesting, relevant highlights that make the reader want to know you better.
  • Barely say a word
    On the flipside, why bother writing a cover letter at all if you're just using the valuable space to state that you're applying for the position and have attached a resume? Such brevity raises concern that you are either not a good writer or that you do not care enough about the job to bother trying to sell yourself. You need to tell a compelling story in your cover letter, one that entices a hiring manager or recruiter to want to reach out to you. You also need to make sure that your cover letter is not a mere regurgitation of your resume.
  • Forget about proper structure
    Cover letters adhere to a standard style. Following it demonstrates professionalism. Mandatory sections include contact info (name, phone number, email), a salutation (directed to the recipient by name – such as Dear Mr. Smith – not a generic "To Whom It May Concern"), an opening paragraph (who you are and why you're writing), body paragraphs expanding on your experience and qualifications, and a closing that reiterates enthusiasm, encourages further action, and cordially closes off (Sincerely, Ann B. Johnson).
  • Clutter your document
    Visual appeal matters! Aim for margins set at one inch all around (top, bottom, left, right). Align text to the left. Leave a space between elements so that sections do not cram together. Remember that when it comes to attractiveness, sometimes less is more. As executive search professional Robert Reck of Kilbourn Marshall points out, "The effective use of white space will allow for the accomplishments that a candidate is attempting to highlight to stand out. Utilizing bullet points is a great way to take advantage of white space to draw attention."
  • Forget to utilize email space
    Sending an email to the hiring manager? Paste your cover letter directly into the message space. As noted by hiring expert Talley Flora, CEO of Red Seat, "In this digital age, an email suffices as a cover letter, and sending one as an attachment is redundant. Additionally, depending on the ATS (Applicant Tracking System) the company uses, the attached cover letter may not make it into the database. Our system, for example, only imports one document (typically the resume)." If you are submitting an application via an online form, and the online job advertisement specifically calls for a cover letter to be submitted as an attachment, then submit your cover letter as an attachment.
  • Neglect ATS considerations
    Speaking of Applicant Tracking Systems – use care if asked to upload a cover letter. Fancy headers, your personal logo, and other unique touches that may look great on a printed out cover letter may not translate well. Keep uploads plain and simple to avoid a potential mess.
  • Make a poor font choice
    The safest bet for an uploaded cover letter is a simple, machine-friendly font. However, human readers also prefer fonts that are easy on the eyes rather than fancy or unconventional ones. Likewise, stick with font size in the 10-12 point range. Hiring managers don't like to squint, but they also aren't fond of cover letters that look like billboards.
  • Forget to proof your letter
    Finally, check your final product before submitting! You may have inadvertently introduced errors or style inconsistencies when playing around with fonts, trying to tailor old text to a new opportunity, or hurrying to send something off before the application deadline. As Flora warns, "We see plenty of cover letters with spelling errors or with mistakes such as addressing the wrong individual or an incorrect company, or that express interest in a position that is different than the one advertised. These are careless mistakes that lower the candidate's chance of interviewing."

There is a lot more to learn and know about cover letter writing. If you are interested in exploring the topic further, check out our How to Write a Cover Letter resource.

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Beth Braccio Hering

Beth Braccio Hering

Career Advice Contributor

Beth Braccio Hering has been a freelance writer for more than 20 years. In addition to extensive contributions to various Encyclopaedia Britannica products, her work has been published by outlets such as CareerBuilder, FlexJobs, Business Management Daily, Walt Disney Internet Group, and Chicken Soup for the Soul. Hering graduated from…

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