The content – your skills, knowledge, qualifications, achievements, experience – is, quite naturally, what really counts when writing your cover letter. But its presentation is sometimes just as important.
After all, a cluttered, messy and poorly structured letter will get you nowhere, and you can rest assured the hiring manager won’t even bother reading it. They’ll much prefer to hire the other candidate whose letter is better formatted, even if you’re better qualified for the role.
To make sure you don’t miss out on a once-in-lifetime, career-changing opportunity, we’ve put the following tips together to help you pick the right font, use ample white space and much, much more!
Here’s how to format a cover letter!
1. Add a Heading
First things first, always make sure you include a heading with your contact information (name, home address, telephone number, email address, website URL and social media links) in your letter. This should be placed at the top of the page.
If you’re sending your letter in the body of an email, though, you should instead include your contact information after your signature at the end of the message. You don’t necessarily have to include your email address (the HR manager can easily find this in the ‘’From’ field), but it won’t hurt anyone if you do.
2. Follow a Clear Structure
You should organise your cover letter into the following sections:
- Salutation – e.g: ‘Dear Mr Hiring Manager’
- First paragraph – introduce yourself and mention the position you’re applying for and where you found the job ad
- Middle paragraph(s) – describe what you bring to the table and mention key skills, qualifications and achievements that demonstrate your suitability for the role
- Final paragraph – conclude the letter by thanking the HR manager for their consideration
- Complimentary close – e.g: ‘Best regards’
- Signature – your handwritten signature (if sending a hard copy letter) and typed name
3. Make Use of Bullet Points
Adding 3-6 bullet points in the body of your letter is a great way to highlight key skills, qualifications and accomplishments in easily digestible chunks of information – especially considering how, according to one study, hiring managers spend a mere six seconds reviewing an application before moving it into either the ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ pile.
In general, you should:
- Use concise phrases or statements
- Begin each bullet with an action verb
- Use simple bullets (circles, hyphens, etc) and avoid funky shapes like hearts, for example
- Include your bullet list in the middle of your letter
- Add a full stop at the end of each item (optional)
4. Keep it Short
The more information and, therefore, text you include, the more cluttered your letter begins to look. Your letter should highlight your most relevant skills and qualifications for the job in no more than one page. Typically, it should be shorter than this – about half a page. Having said that, make sure it’s not too short.
5. Choose the Right Font
When it comes to choosing a font for your cover letter, your best bet is to use a font that is simple and, above all, very easy to read, like Arial, Book Antiqua, Calibri, Cambria, Garamond, Helvetica, Open Sans, Times New Roman or Verdana. At the end of the day, though, it’s really a matter of personal choice, but whatever you do, please – PLEASE – avoid using Comic Sans! Remember to limit yourself to just one font throughout the letter and to try to use the same one used in your CV.
As for font size, the general rule of thumb is to stick to between 10 and 12 points.
6. Be Careful with Colours
You may decide to get a little creative and add some colour to your cover letter, and there’s really nothing wrong with that – unless, of course, your plan is to turn it into one giant rainbow!
Generally speaking, you should use colours sparingly and avoid bright hues and shades. If in doubt, simply stick to a black-on-white colour scheme (black text and white paper).
7. Set Your Margins
It’s best to use standard 1” margins on all sides of the document. This will give your letter an uncluttered look and feel, and it will also provide plenty of white space (more on that later). If you’re having trouble fitting everything on one page, though, you can use smaller margins (up to 0.5”) but make sure that you’re consistent. Not indenting paragraphs is another great way to save space.
8. Get the Spacing Right
Whether you’re sending an email or a physical letter, make sure you get the spacing right. As a general guideline, you should add a single space between paragraphs and every section of the letter. For example, there should be a space between your address and the date, a space between the salutation and first paragraph, etc.
9. Maintain a Uniform Alignment
We all know the hit song that goes:
To the left, to the left
Everything you own in a box to the left
In an alternate universe, however, Beyoncé actually sings:
To the left, to the left
Everything’s got to be aligned to the left
Remember: all documents are typically aligned to the left, so following the ‘norm’ makes your letter more readable.
10. Leave Plenty of White Space
White space, or negative space, is any section of a document that is left unused, and is an important feature when considering the design of your cover letter. Beyond the aesthetic benefits it can provide, it also increases legibility, helps HR managers better understand what they’re reading and it ensures that the reader’s attention is drawn to the right information.
11. Use Examples
If you’re having trouble formatting, designing and generally writing your letter, do check out our list of cover letter examples and templates for a little inspiration. Alternatively, you may choose to use an online CV and cover letter writing service, or download a free template and simply fill in the blanks yourself.
12. Complement Your CV’s Design
Remember: your cover letter is basically a spin-off of your CV, so it’s essential that you use a similar design. For example, if you set the font to Times New Roman at 12 points on your CV or you’ve included your logo, make sure that you do the same on your cover letter. This shows consistency and it also helps to strengthen your personal brand.
13. Format for Applicant Tracking Systems
Applicant tracking systems, or ATS for short, are designed to screen CVs and cover letters for specific keywords and rank candidates based on their skills and experience. But using a quirky font that is hard to read, for example, will only confuse the ATS and, therefore, take you out of the running before you’ve even begun. Remember: ATSs are designed to read simple text, not fancy formatting.
14. Sign by Hand
If you’re sending a hard copy of your cover letter by snail mail, make sure that you sign it by hand (in the space between ‘Sincerely’ and your typed name) before you send it. It simply adds a more personal (as well as professional) touch.
15. Be Careful with Paper Choices
While most people know not to use pink, scented paper, I think I should point out that unconventional paper choices will not impress the person reading your printed cover letter. It’s best to stick to plain, white (or ivory or cream) A4 paper between 100gsm and 120gsm. Remember to use the same kind of paper for your CV!
On that note, when mailing your cover letter (along with your CV), make use of good quality envelopes.
16. Edit and Proofread
Make sure that you proofread your cover letter (and proofread it again) before you send it off to the hiring manager. It’s also a good idea to ask family and friends to go over your letter who may be able to catch any potentially embarrassing typos you missed. I’m sure you all heard about the guy who bragged about his fluency in English and Spinach!
17. Save as a PDF
The file format in which you choose to save your cover letter is, quite naturally, a mere afterthought – but a very important one at that. This is especially true if you’ve used a fancy font or design element in your letter that may not be supported by the employer’s computer. Which is why saving your finished document as a PDF is essential, as doing so keeps everything in place and ensures no formatting issues occur.
Having said that, though, the job ad may require Word docs only – so, make sure you deliver by creating a basic letter with a universal font and simple design as a backup.
Do you have any cover letter formatting tips you’d like to share with us? Join the conversation down below and let us know!
Don’t forget to check out our comprehensive CV writing guide for some excellent tips on formatting and writing your CV.