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Cover Letter vs Resume: How Do They Fit Together?

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If you’re job hunting, you’ll know that crafting a customized cover letter for each application is a pain. Shouldn’t sending an updated resume do the trick?

Unfortunately, resumes and cover letters are two entirely different formal documents. Yet, they still complement each other to balance objective and subjective approaches.

In this cover letter vs resume comparison, we’ll go over the key differences. We’ll also see how the two documents help employers put together a complete picture of the job applicant!

Cover Letter vs Resume: Overview

Both documents are common in job applications, but one of them isn’t always required.

What is a Cover Letter?

A cover letter is a brief document that a job seeker sends with a resume or a CV to the employer as part of the application.

Not all employers require cover letters. Those who ask for one use it to gauge the applicant’s level of interest in the position.

Back in the day, people would send it by mail. Today, it’s usually uploaded as a PDF file, but it still follows the standard business letter format.

Some job seekers also use the same concept behind the cover letter to draft an application email. Then, they attach a resume only.

What is a Resume?

The term “resume” traces back to the French word “résumé,” which means to sum up.

The definition of a resume echoes this origin: it’s a formal document that summarizes a person’s career history and relevant skill sets.

People applying for academic jobs in the US need to note the difference between this definition and the definition of a CV.

Cover Letter vs Resume: Contents

One of the common mistakes in writing cover letters is using the same content as the resume. Ideally, each should cover a different angle!

What Should Be Included in a Cover Letter?

Business letters start with your name, contact information, recipient’s address, and a formal greeting.

The body of an effective cover letter should address two main questions: why do you want this position, and what makes you an ideal candidate?

You can merge your answer to the first question with a brief introduction in the opening paragraph.

To answer the second question, focus the middle paragraphs on how your skills can help the company. Using related anecdotes is one of the handy cover letter writing tips to keep in mind!

After the body, the bottom parts of the letter include a closing paragraph with a call to action (CTA) and a sign-off.

What Should Not Be Included in a Cover Letter?

To avoid overstuffing your cover letter, leave out the following:

  • Details about your work experience
  • Salary expectations
  • Reasons for leaving your current role (if they’re negative)
  • Regurgitation of the job description

What Should Be Included in a Resume?

The first section to include in a resume is your full name and contact information in a header. Sometimes people also add a one-sentence objective.

The bulk of the resume will focus on education, work experience (up to 15 years), and skills. Each of those should go in a separate heading, followed by a bullet list.

Whether you should include references is debatable. Some experts find the brief “References available upon request” statement redundant.

Instead of worrying too much about it, direct your energy to resume writing tips to polish the essential content in the document.

What Should Not Be Included in a Resume?

Here are some details to leave out of the document to avoid wasting the hiring manager’s time:

  • Irrelevant personal information (like marital status or nationality)
  • Overblown skill sets
  • Attached certificate copies (listing them is enough)
  • Current (or expected) salary
  • Details about short-term or temporary jobs

Cover Letter vs Resume: Length

Yet another difference between cover letters and resumes is the document length.

How Long is a Good Cover Letter?

Since employers won’t have time to scan a lengthy cover letter, you’ll want to keep it concise.

Usually, half a page does the trick. Depending on your formatting, this document length can allow for 200-400 words.

How Long is a Good Resume?

A resume should be longer than a cover letter but shorter than an academic CV. To balance this length, aim for one full page.

People with over ten years of work experience can push the limit to two pages. Some studies indicate that an employer is more likely to prefer this length over the brief one-pager, anyway.

Cover Letter vs Resume: Purpose

Although resumes and cover letters complement each other, they don’t serve the same purpose at all.

What is the Purpose of a Cover Letter?

When people used to mail job applications, a cover letter gave context to the accompanying documents.

The way we send cover letters has changed over the years. Yet, the purpose is still the same: to provide context for the resume!

To do that, cover letters offer subjective information about why the applicant is a good fit for this specific job.

What is the Purpose of a Resume?

At its core, a resume is objective and focuses on facts instead of reflecting motivation.

It provides the recruiter with the information they need to decide if an applicant’s qualifications meet the job requirements.

What Can a Cover Letter Explain that a Resume Cannot?

There are a few aspects that you can reflect on a cover letter but never on a resume, including:

Motives and Attitude

The main aspect that a cover letter explains, and a resume doesn’t, is the “why” behind the application.

Sure, a recruiter can see how your skills and expertise on the resume match the job description. However, the typical resume never reveals your intention or attitude!

Cover letter formats favor paragraphs over bullet lists. That’s why they give you a chance to let the recruiter know why you want the job in the first place.

Resume Gaps

Although a career gap isn’t a deal breaker, some job seekers worry that it will ruin their chances.

Thankfully, it’s possible to use the cover letter to explain those gaps. That’s not something you can go gracefully on a resume!

Be prepared to address this gap in the interview, too.

How To Explain Employment Gaps In Your Resume | Forbes

How Does a Cover Letter Complement Your Resume?

Here’s how your cover letter can be a non-redundant extension of your resume:

  • Adds context if you’re sending an unsolicited resume
  • Balances the objective facts on the resume with some subjectivity
  • Maintains the same visual and formatting aspects
  • Directs the recruiter to check the resume through a CTA

Frequently Asked Questions

Do Employers Like Cover Letters?

Some employers find cover letters invaluable—others, not so much.

Opinions are split about this, but a 2011 survey found that 53% of employers see the cover letter as a “must-have.”

Even if recruiters don’t read it, it shows that the applicant is willing to put effort into getting the job.

Do Employers Look at Resumes or Cover Letters First?

Some go for the resume first, while others prefer starting with a quick scan of the cover letter.

It depends on the hiring manager’s preference and the nature of the position. In jobs that require a lot of technical skills, resumes usually carry more weight.

Wrapping Up

Resumes and cover letters differ in length, format, content, updating frequency, and purpose.

One is an overview of career-related facts, while the other is a brief business letter that reflects motivation and highlights a candidate’s selling points.

During your job search, one updated resume can do the trick. Yet, you’ll need to customize a cover letter for each application. The key is to make sure that your cover letters complement your resume.

Do you have any questions about turning your resume and cover letter into a cohesive unit? Let us know in the comments below!

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