Two-Column Cover Letters Work Best in Targeting Jobs Where Writing, Communications Skills Take a Back Seat


Continuing our series excerpted from our new, free white paper, Cover Letter Reboot: A Crowdsourced Update of Traditional Cover-letter Advice for Today’s Job Search, which you can download here. If you prefer not to download, you can read the contents here. WhitePaperScreenshot.jpg Hiring decision-makers have mixed opinions about two-column or T-formation cover letters; the more important writing and communication skills are required in the targeted job, the less effective this type of letter is likely to be.

In the two-column or T-formation cover letter, the job-seeker quotes in the left-hand column specific qualifications that come right from the employer’s job posting and in the right-hand column, his or her attributes that meet those qualifications. (See a sample.)

Since I have touted this format as highly effective for many years, I was surprised that several of the hiring decision-makers I talked to were not very enthusiastic about two-column letters. (The most extreme comment was Smith’s: “It causes brain hemorrhage.”) The common theme among the naysayers seems to be that the format hinders the decision-maker’s ability to gauge the job-seeker’s writing and communication skills. “I much prefer to see how people compose sentences and paragraphs, and what their writing style is,” Sprouse says. Others, like Oman, feel this format shows a lack of effort: “[Two-column formats] remove a lot of the work involved with writing a cover letter, so I don’t particularly like them.”

Some hiring decision-makers liked this format. “I am a big fan of the two-column cover letter,” Kubitz says, “if the second column (what they offer) is filled with quantifiable sizzle and not generic buzzwords. I want to see facts, figures, percentages, etc., in this second column, and I must come away from reading the second column knowing this person can make an impact within my organization. I like the layout of these cover letters, and they separate themselves from the rest of the pack.” Downing agrees: “I love the T-formation. I want to know how you plan to ‘add value’ to me and/or my clients,” she says. “The only thing I would caution job-seekers on is making the cover letter too long; just hit the key points outlined in the job description.” (For an example of a two-column letter that is, in my opinion, too long and poorly formatted, see this sample — registration required.)

Shelton likes the format for technical positions. “It’s a great way to compare IT professionals’ skill sets with my requirements,” he says. “I can quickly match your skills to my position. If you have everything, then you move to the next pile. If not, then your resume is removed.” Shelton disdains the format for non-technical positions, though, because “it gives a clinical analysis of the candidate and doesn’t allow much room to stand apart from others.”

So, should you use a two-column format in a cover letter? Proceed with caution. If you are in a technical field or one in which technical requirements are more important than writing skills, this format can work for you. You might also consider Cheyne’s suggestion to create a two-column format as a supplement to a resume and cover-letter submission, but not use it for the letter itself.

Here is a case in which the subjectivity of cover letters means that with some employers, you’ll be taking a risk if you use this format, while with others, you’ll be taking a risk if you don’t. Thus, you may want to experiment with the format before using it in all your cover letters. Try it for applying for a job that is not a high-stakes proposition for you, and see if you get an interview. See also the other parts of the white paper/Cover Letter Reboot package: Cover Letter Wish List: Hiring Decision-Makers Reveal What They Want to See in Cover Letters, Hiring Decision-Makers Cite Top Cover-Letter Mistakes that Disqualify Job-Seekers, and Cover Letters That Wowed: Hiring Decision-Makers Describe Winning Cover Letters.