Cover Letter vs Resume – What is the Difference?

A job-winning resume and cover letter can set you apart from other job candidates. However, it’s important to know that these two job documents are very different from one another. Learn the differences between the two to maximize your hireability.

At first, the answer to, “What’s the difference between a cover letter and a resume?” seems obvious. But once we get past the fact that a cover letter is clearly a letter – and a resume is not – most job seekers run out of ideas.

Is a cover letter just a resume, written like an essay?

Is it a personal statement about our feelings and beliefs?

Is it something I can skip entirely?

An applicant who doesn’t understand what a cover letter is, or how it differs from other job search materials, will struggle to write one successfully. And, since your cover letter will provide the first impression your prospective employer will have of your interests and abilities, you definitely want to get it right.

This article will explore how a cover letter differs from, and even enhances, other job search materials, such as resumes and CVs.

Equipped with this information, you will be on your way to making an excellent first impression, and landing the job interview you deserve.

To understand the difference between a cover letter and a resume, let’s look closely at what each document is designed to do, how it is created, and how it helps advance your job search.

Resumes vs. Cover Letters: What Do They Do?

What is a Cover Letter and What Does it Do?

Imagine that you are a hiring manager, sitting at a desk surrounded by stacks of resumes – impersonal, bullet-pointed documents listing the names of companies of which you may have never heard. Some may have more bullet points, some may have more color, but they all start to look the same.

Then, you pull a resume with a cover letter from the pile. It addresses you by name and outlines the personal journey of the candidate – their passion for the industry, their supporting experience, and the research they’ve done on your company.

Intrigued, you read their attached resume more carefully and, concluding that they are the type of go-getter your company needs, you add the candidate to the interview list, before returning to your stack of nearly identical resumes.

That story illustrates why a cover letter matters. More than just “a letter you include with your resume,” a cover letter lends depth and personality to your resume, by allowing you to sell your skills and enthusiasm, while making your resume stand out from the crowd.

To this end, a cover letter is a concise – often one page – introduction of who you are, your interest in the position, how your top skills and experiences have prepared you for the position, and a closing “call to action,” typically a politely-worded request for an interview.

What a Cover Letter Doesn’t Do:

A cover letter is not simply a retelling of your resume.

With that in mind, do not provide a long-winded overview of all the skills or positions listed on your resume, and refrain from repeating, “as you can see in my resume” before discussing your credentials.

Furthermore, if you have included any language pulled directly from your resume in your cover letter, such as a cut-and-paste of bullet points or of your objectives statement, remove it. Instead, think of what fresh clarity or perspective you could bring to that information to show your skills at their best.

Remember, even if you wrote your resume and cover letter days apart, your hiring manager will review them together, back-to-back. Any cutting and pasting you’ve done will make you look lazy or disinterested, not efficient.

Instead, think of your resume like an appetizer – it should make the hiring manager hungry to read your resume and to meet you in person – not stuff them full of repetition and redundancy.

With that said, let’s look at the main course of your job application, your resume.

What is a Resume and What Does it Do?:

A resume is a document of 1-2 pages that provides a summary of your professional experience, relevant skills, education, and accomplishments. This document rarely extends back more than 10 – 15 years in the past, and often lists jobs in reverse chronological order, with the most recent opportunities presented first.

Formatted for clarity and simplicity, often using headers and bullet points, a resume is designed to provide an easy-to-scan comparison between you and other candidates, as well as your qualifications and those outlined in the position.

The goal of a resume is to present as much information related to relevant professional experience as possible, with a particular focus on specific responsibilities, measurable achievements and transferable skills.

What a Resume Doesn’t Do:

A resume is not intended to tell your life story.

In fact, the word resume derives from a French word meaning “summary” – and that is exactly what it is.

Resumes are not the place for dense blocks of text, inspirational quotes, or discussions of role models. Furthermore, while soft skills, such as communication and dependability can be listed in specific sections, resumes don’t usually allow much room to explain context.

Instead, a resume presents a concise overview of all the measurable reasons why you are prepared to excel at the position, with a focus on current and recent experiences. With this in mind, resumes rarely allow for a sense of the “whole person,” thereby requiring candidates to find another means by which to share that information.

Resumes vs. Cover Letters: How Are They Formatted?

Format of a Cover Letter

First and foremost, a cover letter is a business letter, and you will want to follow those formatting conventions as much as possible.

While there are a number of cover letter templates available online, or through Microsoft Word, at no cost, there are still some basic formatting guidelines that will help you on your way:

  • Use one-inch margins on all sides of the document
  • Left-align all contents
  • Pick a standard business font, like Times New Roman or Calibri, in size 11 or 12
  • Use single spacing overall, and double spaces between paragraphs
  • Don’t indent your paragraphs
  • If possible, include an inserted image of your actual signature in your closing, creating the visual impression of a signed document
  • Save your cover letter as a PDF before submitting electronically. This preserves the layout, keeping a professional appearance regardless of the device on which the document is viewed

Taking these tips into consideration, it is still good to keep in mind that there is no “right” or “wrong” way to create a cover letter. The goal is simply to explore the story behind your resume through the vehicle of a professional document.

Format of a Resume

There are many different ways to format a resume, depending on the experience and skills you wish to highlight.

For example, a chronological resume presents a list of recently held job experiences in reverse chronological order.

While this format may be a great choice for candidates with relevant work history, candidates who are switching industries, or returning to work after a hiatus, may want to consider a functional resume, which emphasizes skills over positions held.

There is even a hybrid resume format that allows candidates to include the best parts of functional and chronological resumes – using both bullet-pointed skill lists and a chronological job listing.

With so many options, it can be challenging to provide guidelines specific to all formats. However, there are some pointers you should always consider when creating a professional resume, regardless of the specific template your choose:

  • Use one-inch margins on all sides of the document
  • Pick a standard business font, like Times New Roman or Calibri, in size 11 or 12
  • Use single spacing, with an added space before and after each section heading
  • Left-align content, with the possible exception of your header section
  • Choose a tasteful resume header format for your contact information. A little color can be nice, but unless you’re in graphic design, don’t get too creative
  • Divide your resume into resume sections, including: Contact Information, Education, Work Experience, Skills, References, etc. But, remember, the order of the sections will depend on your overall goal for the document
  • Use bullet points to list specific job accomplishments and professional skills
  • Be consistent with your resume formatting
  • Consider adding a second page. Contrary to previous assumptions, research suggests that hiring managers are more likely to select resumes that present two pages of experience, as opposed to just one.
  • These formatting tips should help you create a clean, well-organized document. But the most important part of a resume is the skills and experiences it showcases, so don’t become so focused on formatting that you forget to let your talents shine.

    Difference in Cover Letter Tone vs. Resume Tone

    As previously discussed, resumes and cover letters are different, but complimentary documents. When used together, they enhance each other, with the cover letter providing depth and character to the list of experiences provided by a resume.

    Taking this into consideration, the tone of the documents is different as well.

    Examples of Resume Tone – Objective

    Resumes typically adopt an objective, matter-of-fact tone, citing data and measurable achievements whenever possible.

    This is because a resume is intended to be easily scanned visually, allowing for quick comparison between two competing resumes, or between a resume and a job description. Simple, objective wording makes it easier for a hiring manager to establish your skillset, and as a result recommend you for an interview.

    Some examples of the objective resume tone are as follows:

    • Increased sales in the home furnishings division by 110% in year one
    • Managed team of 12 sales associates
    • Developed training program for new sales managers
    • Exceeded customer retention goal by 45% in year two

    Notice that resumes language also omits the use of pronouns. For instance, instead of saying, “I sold medical equipment to large physician practices,” you would simply say, “Sold medical equipment to large physician practices.”

    Examples of Cover Letter Tone – Subjective

    The strength of your cover letter is found in how it allows you to tell the story of your career, highlight your strengths and showcase your personality. In conjunction with your resume, this provides a sense of the “whole person,” behind the application, and makes a hiring manager eager to meet you.

    While resumes focus on bullet points, data and objective, language, cover letters allow you to write subjectively, and in the first person.

    Examples of the subjective cover letter tone are as follows:

    • Having researched your company’s culture, I’m inspired by X Corporation’s commitment to diversity and inclusion
    • A first-generation college graduate, I believe I could contribute a unique perspective to W Brand’s employee mentorship program
    • I have followed your social media content for years, and the excitement and humor you bring to your marketing is impressive
    • Since I rescued my first stray kitten at the age of 8, I knew I wanted to be a veterinarian. And it’s my dream to fulfill that calling at the Ohio State University College of Veterinary Science.

    It is important to remember that, even though a cover letter can be subjective, and may even contain quotes or brief personal stories, you should avoid hyperbole, dramatic language, or flowery speech as much as possible.

    Since a cover letter is still a professional document, exaggerative statements like “giving 110%” or “your company is the most exciting business in the world,” will seem silly and immature.

    Example of a Cover Letter

    Now that we’ve discussed what a cover letter is, and how it differs from a resume, let’s look at an example:

    June 16, 2020/

    Stephanie Williams Sales Coordinator Y Brands 847-846-4201 [email protected]/

    Jamal Martin Hiring Manager Walters Communications [email protected]

    Dear Mr. Martin,

    With over 11 years of experience in high-level sales, I’m excited to apply for the position of Sales Manager for Walters Communications.

    Since I first began my career in sales, I have been promoted six times, receiving increased responsibility, exceeding sales goals, and spearheading new customer outreach initiatives. This advancement has strengthened my sales skills and prepared me for a leadership role with a fast-paced, consumer driven company.

    In my current role as Sales Coordinator, I helped plan the launch of three new product lines, developing sales and marketing strategies to ensure their success. With the support of my team of five sales associates, we attracted over 50 new corporate clients to our portfolio, and exceeded all sales goals associated with these new lines.

    Sales is my passion and connecting clients with exciting new products brings me joy. It is my dream to immerse myself in a company culture that is results-oriented and prioritizes cutting edge sales techniques. I’ve researched the culture of Walters Communications, and I know it is a company in which I could learn and grow.

    While I’m grateful for my current position, I believe that my experience has equipped me to excel in an opportunity with greater challenges, such as the chance to serve as the Sales Manager for Walters Communications. And the commitment I would bring would advance your company mission.

    I’m confident that I possess the skills required to succeed in this new role, and to help take the Sales Department to new heights.

    I appreciate your time and consideration and look forward to discussing this opportunity with you at your convenience.

    Sincerely,

    Stephanie Williams

    The fictional cover letter above is effective because it helps communicate the candidate’s enthusiasm and experience, while providing a glimpse into her personality. She concisely demonstrates that she has conducted research into her prospective company, and links her experience with the needs of the position.

    If a cover letter is effective, the hiring manager’s next step will be to read the candidate’s resume to learn more.

    Example of a Resume

    Below is a sample resume for the fictional applicant from our previous example:

    Stephanie Williams

    123 Adams Rd, Los Angeles, CA 90001

    Home: (123) 456-7890 | Cell: (123) 456-7890

    [email protected]

    An MBA with over 11 years of experience in competitive sales environments, seeking the role of Sales Manager with Walters Communications with the goal of exceeding sales goals, and spearheading company initiatives.

    Skills
    • Sales
    • Account Management
    • Written and Verbal Communication
    • Team Leadership
    • Strategic Planning
    • Marketing
    • Client Retention
    • Recipient of the 2018 and 2019 Y Brands Top Sales Award
    Professional Experience
    SALES COODINATOR
    • Launched three new product lines
    • Led a team of associates
    • Exceeded 2018 sales goal by 25%
    • Exceeded 2019 sales goal by 35%
    • Screened job applicants during the early stages of the hiring process
    SALES ASSOCIATE
    • Answered, screened, and directed incoming phone calls while providing basic information as needed
    • Managed Corporate Sales Accounts $10,000 and above
    • Increased Client Portfolio by 15% in year three
    • Increased Client Portfolio by 30% in year four
    • Exceeded Customer Retention Goals by an average of 10% annually
    SALES PROSPECTOR
    • Cold Called 35-45 Businesses Daily
    • Highest Call to Sale Conversion Rate for Three Consecutive Years
    • Organized XYZ Media’s 1st Client Recognition Day
    Education
    The Ohio State University
    B.A. in Business, The Ohio State University, May 2008
    Minor: Accounting
    Cum Laude, GPA: 3.52

    Since resumes are usually data-driven, this document provides significant information about the candidate that wouldn’t necessary be included in a cover letter. While the cover letter highlights her enthusiasm and passion, her resume shows a measurable track record of high performance.

    When the documents are reviewed together, it becomes clear that the candidate has both the drive, and the personality, required to succeed.

    The Curriculum Vitae

    Before we conclude with a summary of the differences between cover letters and resumes, there is one question left to address: “How does a curriculum vitae fit into the discussion?”

    A curriculum vitae, also known as a CV, is a job application document that is often confused with a resume – though key differences exist.

    While most resumes are position based, outlining the roles and skills related to the desired position, a curriculum vitae focuses more on education, research / publications, teaching experience, awards, professional affiliations, public presentations, conference attendance and credentials.

    Given their concentration on educational attainment and scholarship, curriculum vitae often serve as a substitute for traditional resumes for those pursuing academic careers or medical careers.

    Furthermore, considering the amount of information they convey, it is common for a CV to be significantly longer than a resume

    With this in mind, employers in fields that frequently use CVs may request that a CV summary be included, or even sent in place of the full CV, for the initial round of consideration. This summary rarely exceeds two pages in length, and provides an overview of the major achievements outlines in the longer curriculum vitae.

    It is important to note, however, that while a CV is a much longer document than a standard resume, this does not mean that a candidate should forgo the inclusion of a cover letter. Ultimately, just like a resume, a curriculum vitae is still a list of relevant qualifications. Though its focus may be different, it does not provide the “big picture” context that can be provided by an effective cover letter.

    Conclusion: Cover Letter vs. Resume. What’s the Difference?

    Cover letters and resumes, though very different, serve the same goal – to make the candidate stand out from a crowd. That said, they both accomplish this objective by drawing upon unique perspectives.

    A resume is a summary of the work experience, education and skills that prepare a candidate to succeed in a position. It should be easy to read, and organized using a format that prioritizes the best the candidate has to offer.

    The advantage of a resume is that, even with a glance, it can leave no question about a candidate’s experience and qualifications.

    The disadvantage of a resume is that it doesn’t convey the humanity behind the information. No amount of bullet points can help a hiring manager understand why a candidate is determined to succeed, inspired by their industry or interested in the company. By itself, a resume can be dry, or even boring.

    A cover letter can provide an applicant with a chance to tell their story – the background, humor, motivation, and journey that make them unique.

    When paired effectively, these documents provide a big picture view into an applicant’s life, allowing a hiring manager to truly see them in the role.

    At the end of the day, a hiring manager isn’t hiring a list of achievements, they are hiring you, and all of what you bring to the position.

    Using a resume and cover letter together, you can showcase the full range of your abilities, and let your talent shine from all possible angles.

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