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What Is a Cover Letter? Definition, Purpose, and Types

Updated on March 17, 2023Professionals

When you’re applying for jobs, your goal is to present yourself and your work in the most positive (and accurate) light possible. Your résumé shows potential employers your background, employment history, skill set, and certifications. But it doesn’t show your personality, how you work with a team, challenges you’ve faced and learned from, or why you made the career choices you did.

That’s where a cover letter comes in. A cover letter is a valuable part of a job application because it answers the “why” and “how” questions an employer might have when reading your résumé.

What is a cover letter?

A cover letter is a letter containing three to four paragraphs that a job seeker or an internship applicant shares with their prospective employer when applying for a job. A cover letter is submitted alongside the applicant’s résumé and in many ways complements it. While a résumé lists the applicant’s employment and education history and describes their specific skills, certifications, and experience, a cover letter showcases their personality and why they’re a good fit for the role for which they’re applying. This is why every cover letter you write should be tailored to the position you’re seeking. If you’re new to the workforce and the job search, learning how to write a cover letter is a critical skill that will serve you for decades.

A cover letter doesn’t need to be long—400 words or fewer is ideal. A cover letter’s purpose is to supplement an applicant’s résumé by filling in any gaps and answering any questions an employer might have after reading their résumé. For example, your cover letter might explain why you spent a few years working outside your industry, or how your unique background would make you an asset to the company.

When do you need a cover letter?

When you’re applying for jobs, you may notice that many listings say a cover letter is optional.

Technically, this may be true, but if you want an employer to view you as a serious applicant, write a cover letter. Your cover letter is your opportunity to make a connection with an employer and leave a positive impression on them, which can increase your likelihood of being called for an interview.

Of course, if a listing says a cover letter is required, write a cover letter. Yes, this means putting more time and effort into each application, but according to RésuméLab, 83 percent of HR professionals say cover letters play an important role in their hiring decisions. The same number also reports that a strong cover letter can help an applicant with a weak résumé land an interview. You can streamline the cover-letter-writing process by using a template and keeping a few “career highlight” sentences ready to fit into each letter between a strong opening paragraph and an effective closing paragraph.

The only time you shouldn’t submit a cover letter with an application is when a job listing explicitly tells you not to submit one.

3 types of cover letters

The goal of most cover letters is to help the author secure an interview and, ideally, a new position. But there are different types of cover letters an applicant can write, each of which addresses specific topics.

1 Application cover letter

This is the most well-known type of cover letter. This cover-letter format summarizes the applicant’s work experience and showcases how this experience makes them a strong candidate for the role they’re seeking.

2 Referral cover letter

This type of cover letter is similar to an application letter, but it includes an important piece of information: the name of the employee who referred you to the role. By mentioning the contact who referred you, your cover letter can make you stand out among applicants.

3 Value proposition

A value proposition is a short (one to two paragraphs) cover letter that explains your skills, experience, and accomplishments. Typically, you’d submit a value proposition instead of a full-length cover letter as a résumé summary, or when an online application only offers a limited number of characters for your cover letter.

Cover letter vs. résumé

A cover letter is formatted like a friendly letter and speaks directly to its reader. A résumé has a more technical format and simply lists the applicant’s skills, certifications, past roles, and volunteer or community experience, when relevant.

Cover letter vs. letter of interest

A letter of interest is a bit different from other types of cover letters. Instead of submitting it in response to a job listing, a job seeker sends a letter of interest to a company to inquire about potential job openings. It similarly details the individual’s experiences and qualifications, but without being tailored to a specific position.

Cover letter vs. personal statement

While a cover letter focuses on an applicant’s skills and experiences in relation to the position they’re seeking, a personal statement focuses on them as an individual. It might detail how their educational background led them to a certain career path, or how they’re pivoting their career after a personal experience.

Cover letter FAQs

What is a cover letter?

A cover letter is a short letter that details why a job applicant is a good fit for the role for which they’re applying.

What’s its purpose?

The purpose of a cover letter is to showcase and expand on an applicant’s qualities in a way their résumé can’t. For example, a cover letter might detail how they navigated a challenging merger, or why they chose to spend two years doing volunteer work.

Cover letter vs. résumé: What’s the difference?

A cover letter is formatted like a letter and addressed directly to a hiring manager. A résumé has a more technical format and lists the applicant’s skills, education credentials, past professional positions, and volunteer experience.

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