Cover letter tips: ignore the format at your peril

Resumes and Cover Letters

Resumes and Cover Letters: Cover Letter Tips — ignore the format at your peril

A first-class cover letter requires laser-like focus on how an applicant’s skills might mesh with the needs of a prospective employer. It is the first writing sample and the first chance to create a bad impression.

Sadly, career services and recruitment professionals note that a significant number of students do not  know what a business letter should look like, thus providing them with an instant “clueless loser” aura which can be tough to shed. Select from one of the two formats at the bottom of this post, and you will be correct.


When applying  by email, make sure that the subject line identifies you (Jane Smith’s Application for Summer Fellowship), and that your message has a useful signature block (name, phone, law school if you are a student). In the email body, thank the person for considering your application, and list the attachments.  

Why am I writing a cover letter when I’m sending a resume by email?

Unless an employer overtly refuses to accept cover letters, you are foolish to miss this opportunity to make a series of connections that may make the difference between being on the interview list or in the reject pile. Are you from the employer’s city? What do you know about the employer and how did you learn it? (If you have gleaned everything from the website, leave this one alone.) Why are you interested in a specific practice area? (Don’t fudge this. If you know nothing about securities litigation, waxing eloquent about it will come back to bite  you.)

 Send every document as a pdf.


Business letter formatting rules are like ancient secret signs that mark a person as knowledgeable, sophisticated and (one hopes), trustworthy. Not knowing or deliberately ignoring the rules allows a prospective employer to question your knowledge and your judgement. Learn the rules or ignore them at your peril.


Battles are raging over the use of “Dear” when writing to a person unknown to you. Relax. This is part of the Secret Code of Business Correspondence.  Substituting “Mr. Smith:” for “Dear Mr. Smith:” may make you comfortable, but it may make you look unsophisticated and ignorant.

Always use a colon (:) after “Smith.” When you go to work, you will ask your secretary and then follow your employer’s standard.


You may know the full name of the person to whom you are writing (John Smith, Esq.,). One of the Secret Rules of Business Correspondence is that the salutation looks like this:

Dear Mr. Smith:   (this is correct)

These are not correct:

Dear Mr. John Smith: (this is not correct)

Dear Mr. John Smith, Esq.: (this is not correct)

Dear Mr. Smith, Esq.:(this is not correct)

Mr. Smith, (this is not correct)


You will need at least three paragraphs. (1) Introduce yourself and ask for what you want (a job, an interview, a meeting); (2) Show how your knowledge and experience is relevant and useful to the work that the employer does; (3) Promise to follow up and provide your phone number and email address. Be certain that your voicemail is professional and your email address is not the one that was hilariously funny in high school.


Use a single space between lines in each paragraph. If your word processing program is set to space-a-half, go into preferences and fix it. Skip one line between each paragraph.


Spelling the recruiting professionals’ and employers’ names correctly should go without saying, but misspellings happen too frequently to ignore. When writing to law firms, pay attention to the commas (or lack thereof) between names, and double-check that you are using the firm’s correct name. Know that prosecutors may be “State’s Attorneys,” “County Attorneys,” or “District Attorneys.” Get it right.


There is much lively discussion about lawyers and their fonts, led by Matthew Butterick, author of Typography For Lawyers, an excellent book which is available for Kindle, too. Should your practice be focused on submitting Supreme Court briefs, you will grow to love Century Schoolbook. In an Above the Law post, Jay Shepard deftly trashes Times New Roman and recommends Adobe Garamond. (Personal note: I once typeset ALL of Roget’s Thesaurus in Times New Roman, thus making it one of my least favorite fonts.)


It is so easy to get this right.

About susangainen

Whimsical Wildlife Documentarian. Abstract Painter. Writer. Teacher. Explorer.
This entry was posted in 2nd career law students, 3L, Job Search Strategy, technical skills and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Cover letter tips: ignore the format at your peril

  1. Anonymous says:

    Bless you, Susan. Every applicant needs to get these basics right. Unfortunately, I see these mistakes on a daily basis. I will be sharing your words of wisdom with our students. We try to get the point across, but sometimes hearing it from an outsider makes it sink in more. Thank you!

  2. gene bernice says:

    I would like to use formatting rules for preparing cover letter, because format of cover letter is critically important.

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  3. Lisa says:

    This is definitely a blog worth following. You’ve got a great deal to say about this subject, and so much knowledge. Job Requirement Letter

  4. Sara Lisa says:

    That was awesome! Probably one of the more interesting reads in awhile. SAP ABAP Online Training

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