Special Cover Letter Formats Can Grab Employers’ Attention

Typing on computer

One of the challenges of getting an employer to pay attention to your cover letter is that letters tend to look uninviting with large expanses of gray type broken up only by paragraphs. You can also use special formats to make your letter more reader-friendly and enticing. These formats also call attention to your qualifications and enable you to tailor them very sharply to the requirements of the position you’re applying for. This article describes five such formats:

Brevity. One solution is to make your letter as concise as possible so that it doesn’t look like a daunting reading project. Be as brief as you can and make sure your letter has a pleasing amount of white space. Keep your paragraphs short and include no more than 4-5 paragraphs. Cover letters sent electronically in the body of an e-mail message should be especially brief.

Bullets. Bullet points can break up the text of your cover letter and draw the reader’s eye to your most compelling selling points. Be sure you don’t re-hash your resume’s bullet points. And unlike bullet points on a resume, those on a cover letter should either be in complete sentences (instead of clipped “telegraphed” resume language) or should complete the sentence that leads into the bulleted list.

Word bullets. Word bullets (which can be used with regular bullets) also break up the text and are excellent for spotlighting words or phrases from the ad or job posting you’re responding to. By pulling these words out of the ad you can focus your letter sharply on how you meet the requirements that relate to those words. This article is formatted in a word-bullet style.

Postscript. Adding a PS to your cover letter -- especially one that’s handwritten -- is another great way to grab the employer’s attention. Ideally your postscript should encapsulate your Unique Selling Proposition -- the one quality that you feel will inspire employers to hire you above all other candidates.

The Two-Column Letter. A particularly effective way to deploy the specifics of an ad or job posting to your advantage is to use a two-column format (also known as a “T-formation” letter) in which you quote in the left-hand column specific qualifications that come right from the employer’s want ad and in the right-hand column your attributes that meet those qualifications. The two-column format is extremely effective when you possess all the qualifications for a job but it can even sell you when you lack one or more qualification. The format so clearly demonstrates that you are qualified in so many areas that the employer may be willing to overlook the areas in which your exact qualifications are deficient.

One of my former students describes her success in using the two-column format: “I sent in my resume along with a cover letter in this format to a job that was posted, and I actually got an interview!! The position is with [name of company] and I can’t even imagine how many applicants they had. When I went in for the interview the person that I met with complimented me on the cover letter and actually said that that’s what got me in the door ahead of so many others!”

In the two-column or T-formation cover letter, the job-seeker quotes in the left-hand column specific qualifications that come right from the employer’s job posting and in the right-hand column, his or her attributes that meet those qualifications.

Many employers appreciate this format for showing at a glance how the job-seeker qualifies – but not all employers are in love with the 2-column approach. Some feel it’s a lazy tactic that takes away from your self-expression and creativity in the letter. Should you use a two-column format in a cover letter? Proceed with caution. If your life sciences field is one in which technical requirements are more important than writing skills, this format can work for you. You might also consider creating a two-column format as a supplement to a resume and cover letter submission, but not use it for the letter itself.

Here is a case in which the subjectivity of cover letters means that with some employers, you’ll be taking a risk if you use this format, while with others, you’ll be taking a risk if you don’t. Thus, you may want to experiment with the format before using it in all your cover letters. Try it for applying for a job that is not a high-stakes proposition for you, and see if you get an interview.

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