When you have a task to complete, it helps to know what the end product should look like. It's especially true when you’re doing something you might find difficult—like writing a cover letter. How long should it be? What information do you need to include?
Hiring managers and recruiters are busy people, so you don’t want to disqualify yourself by writing a cover letter that’s too long. But you do want to make sure your cover letter is effective. “The cover letter should serve as an introduction to your resume, highlighting why you’re interested in the position, what you’re looking for in your next role, and how you can potentially add value to the position or company,” says Muse career coach Yolanda Owens, who has over 20 years of recruiting experience.
So how much space do you have to do all that? And how can you make the best use of that space?
How long should a cover letter be?
The ideal cover letter length is:
- Less than one page
- Three to five paragraphs
- Less than 400 words
At least that’s the approximate consensus we came to based on research and input from a few experts who have worked as hiring managers, recruiters, or both.
If this feels short, “Keep in mind that the cover letter is not a tell-all of everything you've done,” says Muse coach Emily Liou, a recruiter and HR professional. “You just want enough to position yourself as a fit and to pique the curiosity of the reader.” You don’t need pages and pages to do that.
In a survey of 205 HR professionals, ResumeLab found that 42% of respondents preferred cover letters between half and one page and 40% preferred cover letters that were less than half a page. Only 18% said they preferred cover letters longer than one page. Muse coach Steven Davis, a technical recruiter, advocates for a cover letter that “can be comfortably read in less than a minute.”
How do you write a cover letter that's just the right length?
Here are a few tips that'll get your cover letter to the ideal length:
1. Pay attention to your structure.
You may remember the five-paragraph essay from school: introduction paragraph, body paragraphs, and conclusion paragraph. Cover letters are structured similarly.
Basically, you should lay out your cover letter like this:
- Introduction (one paragraph): Your cover letter opening should be original and creative to draw your reader in. It should show your connections to the employer and your interest and excitement for the position, Liou says. You might also use this paragraph to explain that you’re making a career pivot or re-entering the workforce after an employment gap.
- Body (one to three paragraphs): Your body paragraphs should focus on the ways you can help the organization or team, Owens says. Talk about what skills and experience you bring to the company, and back up what you’re saying with past examples—but keep them concise.
- Conclusion (one paragraph): Your conclusion should be “a final paragraph thanking the reader for their time and reiterating your interest,” Owens says.
2. Figure out what matters to the employer.
“This is a great time to dissect what is most important to this position,” Liou says, so you can focus your cover letter on what your prospective employer cares about most. Go back to the job description and read it thoroughly. What’s listed first and what’s repeated? From there, Davis says, you should be able to identify the top skills and experiences they’re looking for.
Then, think about what in your background most exemplifies these qualifications—with an emphasis on situations where you’ve made an impact for your past employers, Liou says. These are the experiences you should recount in your cover letter.
3. Use concise examples to pique your readers’ interest.
Davis suggests using the “the STAR format without any details to create curiosity and motivate the interviewer to review the resume.” If you’re unfamiliar, the STAR method is a way of telling stories in an interview where you make sure that you hit on the situation, task, action, and result of the experience you’re recounting. Using a compact version of the STAR method in your cover letter will help show the impact you’ve had in past roles and how without adding too much length. So you might write something like:
“When my last company redesigned their website, I took the lead on layout, and by working as a constant liaison between our product team and our users, I helped produce a website that our users found 50% more intuitive and drew 33% more repeat users.”
4. Go beyond your resume—without regurgitating it.
“The cover letter should be a supplemental piece to your resume, not a summary,” Owens says. So don’t waste space regurgitating other parts of your application. “Use the cover letter to tell the employer what you want them to know about you that’s not on your resume,” or anywhere else, Owens says.
Focus your precious page or less on highlighting your relevant achievements and explicitly connecting your resume to the position. Don’t worry about including all of the context and details about your past jobs. For anything you talk about in a cover letter, your resume can “continue your narrative—filling in the remaining details of the where, when, and what of your work experiences and history,” Owens says.
5. Consider using bullet points.
And we don’t mean repeating your resume bullet points. We mean using a few bullet points to concisely relay a few key pieces of information that aren’t on your resume, but contribute to your qualifications as a candidate, without taking up too much space.
For example, Owens says you might create a “What I bring to the table” section with three to four bullet points (one or two sentences each). In a section like this, you can touch on a few more disparate topics such as your management or leadership style, pain points you can help your next employer with, or work environments you have experience thriving in, Owens says.
6. Use standard formatting.
Did you ever make your font size a bit larger or choose a slightly wider font to hit a page count on an essay for school? What about widening those margins? Did you ever do the opposite to slip in under a page maximum without having to do another editing pass at 3 a.m.? (Guilty!)
These tactics won’t fly for your cover letter (or your resume for that matter). Instead, stick to standard, easy-to-read formatting. Generally this means:
- Common fonts like Arial, Helvetica, or Times New Roman
- Font sizes between 10 and 12 point
- Margin sizes of about one inch on the top, bottom, and sides
- Lines that are single spaced (1.15 max) with an additional space between paragraphs if you'd like.
Don’t make your cover letter harder to read by cramming as much onto a page as possible. Also keep in mind that your cover letter often passes through the same applicant tracking system (ATS) that your resume does—so any flashy formatting could trip up the software that parses your application materials.
7. Trim the excess.
If your cover letter is still too long, take another look and trim out anything extra that doesn’t need to be there. Some things to cut include:
- Content about how much you’d enjoy doing the work, Davis says—beyond what you need to express enthusiasm.
- Mentions of years of experience: While the job description may call for three years of experience with a CRM (customer relationship management) program, you don’t need to use your cover letter to write a word problem where your six months experience from one internship, three months each from two classes, and two years at your last job equals three years.
- Extra details in your examples, especially those that are found on your resume or don’t contribute to your strength as a candidate
- Filtering language: This includes phrases like “I think” and “I feel.” You don’t “believe you can help” a company solve a problem, you can help a company solve a problem.
- Overused or cliché phrases
- Anything about what the job would do for you: Focus on what you can do for them.
8. Follow any instructions in the job description.
Finally, all of the above are just guidelines. The best indicator of what an employer is looking for in a cover letter—length-wise or otherwise—is the employer itself.
So if a job posting tells you that a cover letter should be a different length than we’ve indicated, default to the job description. If a job posting tells you that a cover letter should include different things than we’ve indicated, default to the job description. If a job posting tells you that you shouldn’t include a cover letter at all, default to the job description.