how long should a cover letter be?

A reader writes:

I have the most basic of questions, but I’ve received a different answer from everyone I ask. How long should a cover letter be?

I tend to be more concise in my writing, so I would be okay submitting a half page cover letter. However, I feel like that appears too short and should be about a page. Because I always strived to submit a full page, I think a lot of my cover letters may have ended up wordy/contained a lot of fillers.

Would hiring managers be happier with a shorter cover letter, that’s more direct to the point?

Different hiring managers have different preferences. Most prefer about a page, but you’ll also find managers who prefer something shorter (although I think these tend to be ones who don’t place a major emphasis on the cover letter at all). Few if any would tell you that they prefer more than a page.

Really, though, it’s less about length than it is about content (assuming you don’t impose on people’s time and get too lengthy). The perfect length for a cover letter is the amount of space that it takes to explain why you’re an unusually strong candidate for the job aside from what’s on your resume. Half a page isn’t usually going to be enough to truly do that — although there are exceptions to that. One page is usually about right — but you also shouldn’t be writing to hit a certain word minimum, since that’s a recipe for a bad letter. And if you find yourself adding filler or fluff to lengthen it, that’s a flag that you’re not really doing what you should be doing with a cover letter. (And while we’re on the topic: 99% of job applicants write cover letters that just summarize their work history. That’s relatively worthless. Stop that.)

Being a certain length isn’t what makes a cover letter effective; it’s what it says.

The litmus test is this: Does your letter make a compelling case for why you’d be awesome at the job, without repeating your work history?

If your letter does that but it’s longer than a page, look for ways to edit it down without losing its essence. If it’s half a page or less, you should just be damn sure that it’s truly passing that litmus test. It’s hard to meet that test if you’re writing very short. Not impossible, but a lot harder.

And really, there are exceptions to every rule. Hell, at least one example of a real-life great cover letter that I’ve printed here is longer than a page, but it worked, and when something works, the rules don’t matter. But if you’re looking for guidelines, about a page is usually right.

{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. Adam

    I think mine usually end up being around 2/3’rds a page of actual content. Any more and I feel like I devolve into word salad pretty quickly. When I’m actually at a job I am to be as concise as possible so getting into cover letters it often feels like I have to stretch a bit more.

    Reply
  2. Barefoot Librarian

    How funny that this topic came up today. I just finished writing a cover letter for a job I really, really want, so a lot of thought and care went into it. It ended up at about a page and a half. It’s academic though so I have a bit more wiggle room. I’ve sat on plenty of hiring committees where there were two page cover letters and no one batted an eye.

    I completely agree though….a cover letter should be long enough to say why you’d be awesome at the job.

    Reply
  3. TeaBQ

    This is well timed, as I recently submitted a cover letter that was more than half a page and was worrying that I’d talked for too long.

    Reply
    1. TeaBQ

      And I just got scheduled for the first round phone interview! Good thing I’ve got AAM’s book to help me get ready =)

      Reply
  4. Meg

    Adding on to what AAM said about preference – if you’re pretty much emailing a resume, your cover letter will usually be the body of the email, not an attachment. Depending on the industry, that cover letter email shouldn’t be too long – but again, these are typically hiring managers that don’t put too much emphasis on a cover letter.

    In my industry, for example – web development – half page is usually fine, and is pretty casually worded too. Informative enough so they know what they’re reading, but concise enough that they don’t lose focus before proceeding to download and look at the resume attachment. I’ve seen a few sentences work that doesn’t repeat the resume as a cover letter.

    So as with all things cover letter related, length and word choice/language is tailored to the position (and industry).

    Reply
    1. CoffeeLover

      I don’t put my cover letter in the body of the email because it gets passed around. So they’ll either be forwarding the email (in which case the cover letter can get lost) or they print it off and pass it around (in which case it doesn’t look as good as if it were a pdf attachment). I usually just say something like: “I would like to apply to XYZ position. Please find my resume and cover letter attached.”

      Reply
  5. NurseB

    Mine usually runs a full page but that’s including the proper address format, greeting, closing and attachment line. The body is about half page total. I’ve received compliments on my cover letter and never felt it was too short. It says why I’m suited for the position and what sets me apart. If you’ve got that covered in a short space then you’re done. Adding filler is quickly noticed and doesn’t help. Good luck in your job search!

    Reply
    1. OhNo

      That’s usually what mine end up being as well. I put all the proper letter formatting in just in case, and end up removing most of it when I send. But the actual body of the letter is generally between half and two thirds of a page, depending on how many different things I need/want to address.

      Reply
  6. Robin

    This is the basic layout I tend to use for cover letter:

    Paragraph 1: Express my interest in the position, summarize key points about why I would be a great fit, maybe mentioning a personal connection if there is one.

    Paragraphs 2 and 3: Lay out specific reasons / accomplishments that show what I bring to the table

    Paragraph 4: Talk about why this particular organization and position appeal to me.

    Paragraph 5: Any additional information about my availability, timing, how best to reach me, or other info that doesn’t fit into the categories above.

    Usually this more or less will fill out a page.

    Reply
    1. YogiJosephina

      This is somewhat helpful, because I must admit I’m always confused by the advice that the cover letter needs to talk about how you’d excel at a certain position beyond what’s on your resume. The thing is, the reasons why I’d excel at the position are the reasons that are ON the resume. I don’t really see how you can make a case for how you’d excel at a job without explaining/repeating your work history and achievements. What else are you supposed to say exactly?

      I honestly am lost about this. Your advice to talk about the organization and position’s appeal is great and I’m totally going to do that if I find myself searching again in the future (though frankly I plan on retiring at my current company, although who knows what might happen), but aside from that, if I couldn’t repeat my achievements and job history, I honestly would have no idea what to write. I don’t know how to make a case for myself otherwise.

      Can anyone advise?

      Reply
      1. Lulubell

        I’m in PR, and I’ll usually put something in my cover letters about how I am a voracious consumer of media, always reading and staying on top of what’s happening in pop culture. It’s not resume-worthy, but it’s definitely something that helps me in my job, that my natural inclination is to be immersed of current events in my industry. I just started a new job and one of my interviewers told me that sentence on my cover letter made them want to meet me. I’ve also tried to give examples of things I’ve done that speak to their requirements. For instance, instead of saying I’m detail oriented, I’ll explain how I am the unofficial office copyeditor, or grammar police, or something of that nature. It’s demonstrating a tactile benefit to what could otherwise be a generic bullet point. Again, I would never use the term “grammar police” on my resume, but I think it’s humanizing in a cover letter.

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      2. Trixie

        Your instinct is correct, you don’t want to repeat parts of your resume. Looking at the resume, I would select those items that you can really expand on in your cover letter. Some things are pretty self-explanatory by themselves. Other things have a much richer history or explanation behind them. A cover letter is great place to go into a little more detail, while keeping in mind you’re shooting for a single page. If you don’t have anything like this, maybe select a few items that are most significant and basic to the position and highlight those.

        Reply
  7. Stephanie

    Mine are usually about two-thirds a page to just shy of a page. More than that and I find it just gets too wordy and repetitive, especially if it’s in the body of an email.

    Reply
  8. The Other Dawn

    I’d love it if we could post our cover letters for critique by commenters who hire people. While I’ve read a lot about them on this site, I still honestly don’t know if it’s actually good and if it’s the reason I haven’t gotten any calls. I’ve edited my resume ruthlessly and made sure to include some achievements, so I wonder if my cover letter is my stumbling block. It’s almost a page and I’ve made sure to talk about how I got my start in my area of expertise and included things that aren’t on my resume. I’ve made it conversational and somewhat enthusiastic.

    Reply
    1. OhNo

      That would be awesome! And even if only a few people shared their letters, it would be a good resource to point to in the future for examples.

      Reply
    2. Ask a Manager Post author

      Traditionally I’ve been sort of opposed to the idea because I worry about people getting bad advice, and me being responsible for it since it’s living on my site. (I realize that’s true with anything discussed here, but bad cover letter advice seems particularly rampant.)

      Reply
    3. Nethwen

      If you want examples of cover letters that landed interviews, opencoverletters.com has them from the information science/library fields. Not the same as you want, but it might help to see the spectrum of successful.

      Reply
  9. soitgoes

    I usually end up writing a short intro paragraph, a medium-length paragraph about my academic credentials, another medium one (though a bit longer) about my relevant work experience and skills, and a short closing/thank you. After formatting, it covers about one sheet of paper.

    Reply
    1. Adam

      I bet it happens a lot actually. Cover letter advice is kind of all over the place if you look across the internet and I imagine lots of people submit letters that err on being too brief rather than too long, if they bother to include them at all, which I understand a lot of applicants don’t even if the job ad specifically asks for one. And I’ve seen plenty of articles where the writer claims cover letters are pointless so I think a lot of people discount their use.

      Reply
  10. Dave Jones

    Don’t bother, as most companies are rude/lazy and will only contact people willing to be Superman for low wages. And then the people who don’t get an answer will be told to follow up constantly by “experts” only to be mocked by the Scrooges on sites like this. Because those who lost their jobs are the enemy while those at the top are rewarded for consistent failure.

    Reply

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