You can use the same cover letter format for online applications as for hard copy. One tip that is especially important for online app cover letters is that you include exact phrases and key words in the cover letter that appear in the job description. For example, if the job description says, “experience with behavioral health required,” just go ahead and write something like, “From my previous positions, I have extensive experience with behavioral health issues.” Oftentimes companies use computers that scan letters for key words and phrases (and toss them if they don’t “see” what they’re looking for!)
Finally, make sure you know where they want you to put it. They might ask you to upload it. If that’s the case, triple-check your document for spelling, grammar, and syntax, and make sure the file name is something useful like, “mfitzgerald.coverletter”. Or, they might ask you to cut and paste your letter into a box. If this is the case, once you’ve cut and pasted your letter, look it over to make sure the plain text version didn’t make anything look weird, and if it did, correct it, re-format, whatever you need to do. This is especially important if you used indents or bullet points.
This is an excellent article on how to write a good cover letter for online applications and has some great links.
For extra help (if you’re willing to pay for it), Jimmy Sweeney’s cover letter tutorial has been getting a lot of positive buzz in the online job hunting community. His approach is bold and maybe a little dramatic (and the website’s a little tacky), but it’s helped thousands of people get interviews. And there’s a 56 day money back guarantee (no idea where that number comes from…). It’s about $40.
photo credit: Mike Licht