Dear Sarah,

I’m applying for jobs and I have NO IDEA how long my cover letter should be.  I want to fully explain my skills to hiring managers but I also don’t want their eyes to glaze over. I want to ensure that it actually gets read and not skimmed (or worse, tossed). How long should the ideal cover letter be?

Possibly Rambling

 

Hey PR,

Cover letters are hard enough to begin with. They ask the applicant to do something unnatural: tell other people what they’re good at. Like nicknames, there are certain qualities that you can’t bestow upon yourself.

It’s impossible to know if you’re a hard worker, a quick thinker or a “team player.” Side note: under no circumstances should you call yourself a team player. But that’s exactly what the average HR professional needs to know about you to separate you from the other applicants swarming their inbox.

It’s an uncomfortable situation and people in dicey spots tend to babble, looking to span the gap by kicking their feet in the air over the canyon until they land on the other side. If you don’t believe it, I’ve gone three paragraphs and I haven’t even arrived at the question yet! Ipso facto and a QED.

The short answer on how long a cover letter should be is one page. The proof is in the name. It’s meant to be a single page that covers your resume. Back in the antediluvian days of shoe leather and working your way up from the mailroom, it was a way to make the application you handed to someone a little neater than an easily chucked or lost piece of paper. And both the practice and the appropriate length have carried over into our age of surrealist memes and reality TV presidents.

As anybody who has ever gone to college can tell you, a page can fit a widely divergent amount of words. And that’s before you make your periods one font size larger (not that we ever did that). To avoid confusion, let’s say that a cover letter should be four to five paragraphs long. Here’s a few tips about how to fill out that space:

  • Address the letter to a person if you’re sure of their identity. Otherwise, use “Dear Hiring Manager.” Avoid the phrase “To Whom It May Concern” at all costs.
  • The first paragraph should explain why you’re interested in the job and how your values align with the mission of the company.
  • The second and third paragraph should broach your work history and explain how it’s relevant to the job at hand. They should move from broadly relevant to the position to specific to the job offered.
  • The final paragraph should reiterate your excitement about the position and put the idea of talking to you in the near future into the hiring manager’s head

One final tip before I go: while no one likes writing cover letters, it’s best to avoid using a canned cover letter for every application. The average job opening sees hundreds of applicants and hiring managers are better than most at sniffing out someone who didn’t try. Create a basic cover letter template that hits on the key points about you and then customize it based on the opening and the qualifications spelled out in the listing.

Best of luck!

ask-sarah

ask-sarah

 

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