Formatting Mistakes that Doom Your Cover Letter

John Krautzel
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After spending countless hours honing your cover letter to highlight your skills and experience, the last thing you need is for mistakes in formatting to leave a bad impression with hiring managers. Font type, size and spacing matter when putting together this critical element of your application materials. Find out how to make your cover letter create a positive impression on potential employers.

Avoid Awkward Spacing

Word processing programs offer many options when it comes to spacing. However, it's best to keep things simple and traditional when writing your cover letter. Avoid double spacing the body of your paragraphs or putting multiple spaces in between paragraphs. Too much white space can lead employers to believe that you don't have much to say about yourself.

Single space the body of the cover letter, and leave one space between each paragraph. Insert one space between your contact information at the top of the letter and the greeting. Leave three lines between the final salutation and your typed name, allowing room for your personalized signature. In addition, make sure that your paragraphs are aligned to the left of the page. You can also differentiate between paragraphs by indenting the first line of each paragraph to the right.

Your margins are also important. The traditional cover letter should use a 1-inch margin on all sides of the document.

Resist the Urge to Embellish the Letter

Your cover letter should model the same professional look as your resume. More importantly, it should be easy to read. Avoid using script or stencil-style fonts that are difficult to read. This type of font may be visually appealing on invitations or brochures, but hiring managers are not evaluating your ability to use fancy fonts. Remember that your goal is to draw the reader into the text of the letter.

Select a basic 12-point font such as Times New Roman, Arial or Verdana. These standard fonts are also highly recommended for your resume. Coordinate the two documents so they have a consistent appearance. This strategy lets employers know that you pay close attention to detail.

Your eye may be drawn to colorful fliers or brochures produced by marketing firms or companies. However, a cover letter that is busy, flashy and colorful is not always appropriate, unless you are working in a creative industry. Stick to a traditional black and white color scheme when crafting your letter so the focus remains on your qualifications.

Even the most well-written cover letter can wind up hurting your chances of securing an interview if poor formatting makes the document difficult to navigate. When in doubt, stick with a traditional format so potential employers are able to assess your professionalism, experience and skills without distractions.

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  • Hema Zahid
    Hema Zahid

    It is extremely important to be careful about the spaces in a cover letter. I don’t know how many hours I’ve spent trying to get the formatting of my cover letter right, only to print it and find that there’s an unnecessary space before a word. I’ve found that reading a printed version often helps me catch all sorts of errors that I might have missed otherwise.

  • Nancy Anderson
    Nancy Anderson

    @Mia thanks for your question. I would think that you would just make it look like a traditional cover letter and not worry so much about formatting. When you have to input your "cover letter" into an email, don't try to use tables or any other funky formatting. Just straight forward - intro paragraph, one or two paragraphs about how the company will benefit from hiring you, and then the last paragraph being the close and thank you. Although we have a lot of articles on formatting - don't get so caught up in it that you forgo the thought that has to go into both the cover letter and the resume. You could have the most beautiful cover letter and resume - formatted perfectly - but, if it doesn't have the necessary keywords, it won't get through the ATS.

  • Mia Greenwood
    Mia Greenwood

    What should you do when you are required to send a cover letter in the body of an email? The formatting that looks good on one screen can look terrible on another. Do you still make it look like a traditional letter?

  • Erica  T.
    Erica T.

    This should go without saying, but unfortunately, I've seen this too many times - people printing out cover letters without replacing the ink cartridge. A cover letter printed with faint black ink is just as much of a distraction as an obnoxious font. This sends a clear message to the recruiter that the applicant has already sent out a bunch of cover letters for positions they really want, but decided last minute to apply for a few more positions just in case the one they really want doesn't pan out .

  • Erin H.
    Erin H.

    These concepts are important to remember when writing a cover letter, but it is also important to know that the eye is drawn to the top left of the page first and then the top right. I like to insert an unobtrusive graphic that doesn't detract from the content. Sometimes a well placed block letter adds that extra "something" that gets you noticed.

  • Katharine M.
    Katharine M.

    While too much white space can definitely be a bad thing, I think it's also important that there be enough white space that the cover letter isn't too dense. Big blocks of text are likely to be a turnoff, making the hiring manager less likely to read the letter. The letter has to at least look like it's an easy, quick read.

  • Nancy Anderson
    Nancy Anderson

    @Abbey I don't think that the ATS cares what font we use. We do that to show our individuality when we are applying for a position. It's always best to send it as a .doc or even a .pdf. Most job postings will indicate what format they would like to see the resume and cover letter in so there's no guess work. If they don't, try to stick to the standard word document.

  • Abbey Boyd
    Abbey Boyd

    Many companies, especially the larger ones, have shifted to the use of applicant tracking software. Although I imagine a candidate's cover letter and resume will be viewed by human eyes at some point, will the ATS notice a difference in the formatting? If you use a different font or size, is this something that will be picked up, and if so, will it cause your resume to be automatically rejected?

  • Duncan  Maranga
    Duncan Maranga

    A very conspicuous cover letter can actually be the impediment to you getting that dream job. I believe the employer is looking for a neat and organized professional figure to fill the vacant position. Though the temptation to impress comes so strongly sometimes, its wise to present your cover letter in a calm professional appearance that is simple and straight to the point. It pays.

  • Nancy Anderson
    Nancy Anderson

    @Jacob if there is no possible chance of formatting your cover letter and/or resume, then it probably doesn't really matter because everyone's resume and cover letter is going to look the same. That's when the meat of the actual resume and cover letter really comes into play. As @Jane mentioned about a candidate who sent their application in a corked bottle - regardless of the packaging, if there's no meat, there's no interview.

  • Jacob T.
    Jacob T.

    How does formatting come in to play for a completely electronic application process? Either with an email doubling as a cover letter or a generic text box in the middle of a job application, there is limited ability to control things like margin, font or overall appearance. Does it matter quite so much in that case?

  • Jane H.
    Jane H.

    I have seen all kinds of creative ideas in this field, including sending one's resume and cover letter in a corked bottle. In a tight marketplace, gimmicks can help a person stand out. Once the packaging is removed, however, then all these rules apply. If the gimmick is the foot in the door, then the business of actually reading the cover letter is the elevator pitch. Making it easy to digest with a standard font, type size and formatting with proper spelling, punctuation and usage are key to ensuring the message is not lost in a sea of other applicants.

  • Lydia K.
    Lydia K.

    @Shannon, good point about easy to read font and I think the same rules apply for graphic design. If you're a creative type, I suggest showing off your layout skills, or making your experience pop with eye catching descriptions. But everyone's eyes work the same, so the rule of thumb is if you wouldn't use a font on a blog, etc., don't use it on a resume.

  • William Browning
    William Browning

    I don't understand how you get 1-inch margins if your email serves as a cover letter. Many firms these days eschew cover letters in the first place, even though many industry insiders think your email with an attached resume doubles as a cover letter. I think formatting the margins isn't a big deal anymore. Instead, strive for three to four paragraphs of two to four sentences each.

  • Nancy Anderson
    Nancy Anderson

    @Shannon in a creative industry, you could probably include an infographic in place of a standard cover letter. Just knowing your audience can help you decide what type of formatting to use.

  • Shannon Philpott
    Shannon Philpott

    As a former hiring manager, I cannot stress enough how important it is to use font that is easy to read. However, do these type of rules apply to people seeking jobs in creative industries? For example, a graphic designer should be able to show off their skills and creativity.

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