by Katharine Hansen Ph.D.
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.
One solution of course 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. (See our article Tips for a Dynamic Email Cover Letter).
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 four such formats:
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.
See an example of a letter that uses word bullets.
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: "Several months ago you referred me to your Web site where there was a sample of a cover letter using a 'you require/I offer' table format. Believe it or not I sent in my resume along with a cover letter in this format to a job that was posted on Monster.com 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!"
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.
See examples of cover-letter postscripts.
Why not try one of more of these cover-letter formats today to see they improve your response from employers?
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college career and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker's Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.
Go back to the Cover Letter Resources for Job-Seekers section of Quintessential Careers where you will find a collection of the best cover letter tools and resources including articles tutorials and more.