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.