What You Must Know About Cover Letters

Published: Jan 09, 2014

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January 9, 2014

Short and sweet or lengthy and elaborate?: "Right-sizing" your cover letter.

By BioSpace.com

Throughout most of our lives, we’re told that when it comes to writing, longer is better. From our first scrawled book reports to the college admission essays that we lovingly labor over, long-windedness and purple prose are usually praised and rewarded. On the other hand, communications that are brief and to-the-point are typically seen as advantageous only when it comes to informal emails and text messages. When we really want to write well, we tend to write long.

It’s that mindset that probably explains why so many job seekers fall into the trap of thinking that longer cover letters are more likely to help them land their dream job. In some cases, this assumption might actually be true. For example, if you’re applying for a technically demanding position, or if you are responding to an ad that asks to see a number of specific elements in your cover letter, you might have no choice but to extend the length of your document to two or more pages.

One size does not fit all.

Although there’s nothing inherently wrong with a longer cover letter, most resume experts tend to agree that shorter is usually better. Because hiring managers who are sifting through stacks of cover letters and resumes tend to give each applicant’s materials only a quick once-over before deciding whether they’re worth a second look, you’re usually better off conveying as much information as you can in as few words as possible. But what’s really important is your ability to figure what kind of cover letter is suitable for each position and tailoring the length of your document to match.

In the business world, the concept of “right-sizing” means using exactly as much time, labor, and resources as each project requires—no more, no less. You can apply the same principle to the process of crafting a cover letter. Here are some guidelines to help you answer the age-old question of how long your cover letter should be.

1. Is the position highly technical?

If there are major credential, experience, and education requirements for the position, you may need to point these out in your cover letter just to ensure that you make it past the first round of screening. If this is the case, try to cut down on some of the other verbiage you might otherwise include to make sure the letter doesn’t run too long.

2. Are there specific cover letter requirements?

Often, hiring managers use cover letter instructions in job postings to screen out applicants who didn’t follow the instructions. Make sure to include any elements that are requested. Again, you can balance out the excess length of these elements, by shrinking the other components of your cover letter.

3. How many applicants will be vying for the position?

If the position you are applying for is likely to draw dozens of candidates, it’s likely that hiring managers are going to be sorting through a lot of applications. In order to boost your chances of making it past the first round, aim for a shorter, more concise cover letter that is top-loaded with your important information in the first paragraph.

4. Are written communication skills important to the position?

In some jobs, most hiring managers might be more concerned with your ability to stay on your toes than your ability to craft a perfectly turned phrase. But if the position you’re applying for involves written communication, it might be worth it to stretch out and strut your stuff a bit in your cover letter. Extending the length of your document past the one-page mark might well be worth it if you use it as a chance to put your written communication skills on display.

5. When in doubt, stick to the basics.

If no special conditions or circumstances apply, it’s probably best to try to limit your cover letter to one page or less. One popular format for a brief and to-the-point cover letter follows this model: first paragraph, outline what you bring to the position; second paragraph, briefly outline your experience and credentials; and third paragraph, explain why you’re a good fit for the position and the organization in more detail. End your letter with what sales gurus term a “call to action”—in this case, a request for an interview.

There are no hard-and-fast rules that dictate the perfect length for a cover letter. The challenge lies in figuring out the most appropriate cover-letter length for each position and doing your best within those limits. Good luck!

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