What Is the Difference Between a Resume and Cover Letter?

When hunting for a job, candidates should be familiar with working on both resumes and cover letters.

While these two share the common goal of showing that you have the right set of skills for the job you’re applying for, there are clear distinctions between these documents.

In this article, we’ve rounded up the key elements that show the difference between a resume and a cover letter.

Let’s find out:

Dawn D. Boyer, Ph.D.

Dawn Boyer

CEO, D. Boyer Consulting |
Author, Human Resource Professionals in Government Contracting Guidebook

A resume is a 1-4 page (max of four pages) summary of a job seeker’s career experience

This highlights their most vital achievements or accomplishments for each employer over the most recent 10-15 years.

A cover letter is one page ‘cover’ for the resume, noting what the job seeker knows about the company and where they saw the ad for the job

It may also contain a brief summary of the specific job and career experience (including anything not touched in the resume) in the second paragraph, and a ‘here is where and when you can find me and dates and times I am available’ in the third paragraph.

Dana Case

Dana Case

Director of Operations, My Corporation

Resumes and cover letters differ not just through their formatting, but also in the information presented in each one.

A cover letter is you, the candidate, making an initial introduction of yourself to the business for the job you’re applying for

In a cover letter, you mention which role you’re applying for, briefly cover your current experience, and are able to discuss what you can bring to the position.

Resumes allow you to highlight your existing career background

You may list out previous roles you held, their titles and companies, and how long you worked there. Additionally, you can (and should!) include a few key bullets of accomplishments you were able to achieve while working in these positions.

Resumes differ from cover letters in that they allow you to share more about your professional career while a cover letter works more as the candidate introducing themselves and stating why they would be a great hire for the particular position they’re applying for.

Ron Humes

Ron Humes

VP of Operations (Southeast Region), Post Modern Marketing

You are told to send a prospective employer a resume and a cover letter, but what is the difference? Should information be repeated, or should they play off each other at all?

Checking the boxes is different than filling the void!

No piece of paper can replace a good in-person interview, so you need to understand the difference and importance of submitting both a resume and a cover letter.

If you were going to purchase a home, you would want to know all the specs (specifications) like price, type/style, location, school district, square footage, bedrooms, bathrooms, garage, etc. In other words, does it “check all the boxes” to meet your needs? If it checked all the boxes would you buy it without seeing it? Probably not. Why? Because you haven’t “met it” yet.

You would want to see the home in person and see if it “felt” like the right home for you. Well, a resume and a cover letter are similar in this way.

A resume is a document that indicates the “boxes” or qualities checked by the candidate

Does the applicant have the proper education, certification, license, knowledge base, training, experience, and so forth? In other words, will they be able to do what the job requires?

The cover letter is as close to the in-person meeting as one can achieve with a piece of paper

This is where you get to tell the employer who you really are and how you would be a great fit for the position of interest. While the resume is fairly dry and professional, the cover letter should reveal the candidate’s goals, drive and unique qualities that make them the ideal candidate for the specific job and the company as a whole.

Keep in mind that both documents should place you in the best light to obtain that in-person meeting required to secure the position.

Today, employers have no shortage of applications, resumes and cover letters. Your resume and cover letter will need to stand out, in a good way, to make the cut.

Related: How to Make Your Resume Stand Out

Maksym Babych

Maksym Babych

CEO and Owner, SpdLoad

The difference between the two depends on the following:

Volume

The text of the resume can take on average about two pages

The cover letter should be short, but at the same time capacious. Its volume should be no more than half the page.

Related: How Long Should Your Resume Be

Personal touch

The cover letter does not copy the resume but makes it possible to supplement it

In addition to the fact that here you can further emphasize your strong professional qualities, achievements, you also have the opportunity to draw the attention of the employer to personal qualities important for this work.

Motivational aspect

In a cover letter, you have the opportunity to demonstrate your interest in the vacancy

You can show enthusiasm, and convince the employer of great motivation to work for the result. This is especially useful if you do not have enough experience to get a position, for example, immediately after graduation or when changing the field of activity.

Maximum adaptation

Adapting a resume in each individual case is very important. For a cover letter, this is even more relevant

Analyze the text of the vacancy, answer for yourself the question of what the company is looking for, and compare these requirements with your professional background. Show how your experience, skills, personal qualities will be useful precisely in this position and in this company.

Format

The resume has a comprehensive structure in which you set out information

about your professional skills, work experience, education, and provide the employer with the necessary additional information. The cover letter consists of several paragraphs in which you succinctly explain who you are, why you would like to work in the company and why the company should hire you.

Matt Dodgson

Matt Dodgson

Director, Market Recruitment

A cover letter gives you an opportunity to answer this question; “why am I right for this job?

Resumes are fairly generic and give an overview of your whole career

And I’d always suggest tailoring a CV to fit the role you’re applying to, but a cover letter lets you go one step further. It lets you craft a message to persuade the reader to invite you in for an interview.

Here are my tips for cover letters:

  • Tailor: Don’t use a generic cover letter for every role. This is your opportunity to stand out from the crowd.
  • Attention: Don’t start your cover letter like everyone else e.g, ‘I’m writing to apply for the marketing role I saw advertised…’
    You’ll send the person who’s reading it to sleep before they’ve even got to your CV. Instead, grab the reader’s attention. You could argue a cover letter is a marketing document, a piece of direct mail. Start with something that captures their imagination. This could be something about the company that you’ve researched, the problem they’re looking to solve from hiring the role, or a big achievement you’ve had.
  • Length: like resumes, hiring managers don’t read CVs for very long and that’s the same with cover letters so keep it punchy and short.

Related: How Long Should a Cover Letter Be

Daisy Wright

Daisy Wright

Chief Encouragement Officer, The Wright Career

The main difference between a resume and a cover letter is that the resume tells one’s career story, in a structured, chronological fashion so the reader can get a quick synopsis of the candidate’s work experience and suitability for the role.

The resume is largely written in third person format with itemized bullets, while the cover letter is written with full sentences ad done in the first person

Depending on the level, the resume can normally be anywhere from one to three pages, although, executive recruiters will say that value is more important than the length of one’s resume.

The cover letter is usually a one-pager that creates a strong first impression

It answers the “how” and “why” questions: how the candidate heard about the position and why they are the perfect candidate for the role. While the resume lays out one’s skills, education, and experience, the cover letter expands on how the experience meets the company’s needs.

It also showcases how the candidate’s background aligns with the position and what the employer can expect from the candidate. The cover letter draws attention to the candidate’s key contributions and what makes them uniquely qualified for the job.

While the resume might have gaps in employment, the cover letter gives the candidate an opportunity to answer potential questions that could arise because of these gaps. Or, it allows them to explain any omissions from the resume.

Robyn L. Coburn

Robyn L. Coburn

Writer | Artist, Work in Production | Owner, Robyn Coburn Resume Review

A resume is written in point form, with bullets, while a cover letter is written in prose, with paragraphs

The first obvious difference is the formatting. While some people like to use some bullets in a cover letter, I don’t recommend that because the cover letter should not simply reiterate the same information as the resume, but should be telling an interesting story about you. You do not use personal pronouns on a resume, but you should do so in your cover letter.

If the resume lists the features of the product (you), then the cover letter explains the benefits of the product (you).

It should expand the soft skills that are listed in the summary of your resume with specific examples of you using those skills. The examples are proof of your assertions. I like to say something like, “This project had a series of hard deadlines attached that taught me how to be great at time management.”

If you have some nice metrics in your resume, you can use the cover letter to expand on your particular contribution, and perhaps add how that achievement benefited the company.

For example, “The new protocols I developed helped the division secure contracts worth $250Million over two years, which allowed the company to expand its services into a whole new market.”

While the resume should always be customized to the keywords in the job listing, your cover letter is an opportunity to reflect your broader research about the company by explaining specifically what attracts you to the company.

For example, you might say something about how you appreciate the company’s growth over time that shows its stability, or how they donate a portion of profits to local social causes. Always read the mission and vision statements, and any pages about the company’s core values and priorities.

A cover letter is very helpful for entry-level people, whose resume might be thin, by emphasizing how your extra-curricular school activities or volunteering or classwork demonstrate the same soft skills that are important to the hirer. These include such things as the willingness to work hard, enthusiasm, ability to learn new skills quickly, communication skills, and the ability to follow-through to complete tasks.

Finally, and probably most importantly, if at all possible, the first paragraph of your cover letter should say who referred you to the job or at what networking event you met the hirer. Add a sentence about what you discussed, or how your referrer knows you.

Bruce Hurwitz

Bruce A. Hurwitz, Ph.D.

President, Hurwitz Strategic Staffing, Ltd.

The difference between a resume and a cover letter is their purpose.

A resume aims to get the recipient to invite the applicant for an interview, while a cover letter aims to get the recipient to look at the applicant’s resume

Additionally, the cover letter may be used to explain any anomalies in the resume, such as a large number of short-term engagements or gaps.

Brian Cairns

Brian Cairns

CEO, ProStrategix Consulting

The resume is a generic summary of your work targeted to a specific industry

The cover letter is how you position your resume to the needs of the specific company to which you are applying

For example, I’m looking for a job in marketing. I would make sure that my resume highlights all the important skills that are needed as a marketer. Let’s then say, I’m applying to an assistant brand manager role at P&G. The cover letter explains how all the skills in my resume make me the right fit for this role at P&G.

Joe Bailey

Joe Bailey

Business Development Consultant, My Trading Skills

A cover letter demonstrates your desire to have the job, and what makes you the perfect candidate for the job while a resume is a document that summarizes who you are as a job candidate. The cover letter will show the employer your personality while the resume is basically a list of your skills and qualifications.

The format of the cover letter is usually in the form of a letter with full paragraphs. On the other hand, the format of the resume is usually in bullet points, with very short sentences. Cover letters are usually written in the first person, while resumes are written in the third person.

A resume is written as a summary of education and professional background while a cover letter is written to demonstrate to the employer the qualifications that make the candidate best suited for the job in question.

William Taylor

William Taylor

Career Development Officer, MintResume

A resume itemizes your employment history and summarizes the jobs you have held

It also includes the education you have attained, certifications, skills, and other quantifiable information about your background and work experience.

Usually, a resume is written in the third person and uses as few words as possible to summarize the experience. For example, instead of writing “I supervised a large team at XYZ company” a resume would have a bullet point that says, “Supervised 20-person team.”

A cover letter is written to highlight the qualifications you have for the job for which you are applying.

It is used to provide the employer with additional information as to why you are a good candidate for the job. The main purpose is to show off how your qualification makes you a match for the job.

It is written in a letter format including a salutation, several paragraphs, and a closing. Unlike a resume, you should use the first-person to write your cover letter.

Bottom Line: Resume and cover letter are a complementary yet unique pair of documents.

Justin Harter

Justin Harter

Staff Support, On Demand Staffing, Inc.

People get frustrated at crafting a resume only to be asked on the next screen of the application to fill in all the details that were already in the resume. This is a bit of the nature of the beast today with so many automated job application processes. But add in a cover letter and suddenly you’re juggling three things.

The cover letter typically focuses on the goals and objectives you see in for yourself in the job you’re applying to

It’s future-focused and forward-looking. The cover letter isn’t always required, but we like to see it even when it’s not. It helps us understand a bit more about you, like your proficiency with English and mastery of writing skills. We see hundreds of people fill out job applications every day and a good cover letter, or including one at all, is sometimes all it takes.

Your resume is more historical as it shows us where you’ve been and what you’ve done

It tells us when you’ve been able to move ahead in big career moves or have had some misfires. In those cases, your cover letter is a great place to briefly explain those gaps in your resume or why you’ve left some positions.

As for those seemingly never-ending job applications that ask for everything in your resume: that’s purely for the convenience of the employer.

In a world where a job can get hundreds of thousands of applicants, having all that data in a consistently formatted database makes searching and filtering easier. We don’t use them, but some automated systems even suggest potential best-matches based on algorithms.

Nabil Freij

Nabil Freij

CEO, GlobalVision International, Inc. | Business Mentor, SCORE

The resume has one purpose and one purpose only. It is not to land a job, or promote your name, or brag about your accomplishments.

A resume’s purpose is to land you an interview at the company you are applying to

Your resume should include information about your educational pedigree, your skills and the jobs that you have already performed. You should also pepper essential keywords all over your resume, in case search engines are used to select it. Your resume should mirror your LinkedIn profile.

A cover letter’s purpose, on the other hand, is to invite recruiters to read your full resume

This is as opposed to the 6 seconds that recruiters typically spend on a resume. It should intrigue, entice, engage and encourage the reader to want to learn more about you.

Each cover letter should be customized to include the target company’s name, address and person’s name if you know it. A cover letter should mirror the job posting you are applying to and correlate your accomplishments to it.

Louis Watton

Louis Watton

Marketing Executive, Shiply

Resumes (or CVs) are much more well known and are essentially a summary of your working life, skills and successes so far

Whilst it is a good idea to tailor each CV you send to each company, the content will largely stay the same.

A cover letter, on the other hand, should contain the specific reasons you want to work at that company and why you are a good fit

It is completely bespoke and unique to each job you apply for. It’s more of a unique sales pitch about yourself and why you are perfect for the role, whereas a resume is almost the raw facts about you.