The Language of Resumes vs. The Language of Cover Letters

Resume Tips

According to a 2009 study, 56 percent of employers want job seekers to attach a cover letter to their application. Learning how to write an effective one is therefore essential. That means using your cover letter to tell the employer something that your resume, which they are guaranteed to request, does not. Repeating information in both documents signals that you don’t fully understand the value of either, and may not live up to your own promises of being a strong communicator and creative thinker.

Resumes and cover letters are intended to differ in many respects: purpose, tone, format, style, and content. When you make decisions about what to include and where, you’ll want to be sure that all of these factors line up. Here are some helpful guidelines:

1. A resume is general; a cover letter is specific to the job.


Some applicants, especially those with a greater number of years in the workforce, choose to alter their resume slightly for each new application to emphasize difference experiences and talents.

This is not absolutely necessary, however, especially for younger workers. A strong resume, ideally one that doesn’t take up more than one-and-a-half pages, can be sent to any employer offering a job in your field.

A cover letter, on the other hand, should be written based on the details in a particular job posting, as well as the company’s brand voice. It’s a good first step toward demonstrating your fit.

2. A resume is informational; a cover letter is conversational.


A resume is written in the third person, typically eliminating pronouns, in short, clear bullet points. It’s not the place to show off your personality – just the facts.

A cover letter is written from the perspective of “I/me/my,” addressed to “you/your,” and in paragraphs, which allow more room to let your unique voice shine through.

The best cover letters name the hiring manager in the salutation, instead of falling back on “To Whom It May Concern,” and describe how the applicant is well-equipped to solve a problem or fill a gap that the company is facing.

3. A resume is backward-looking; a cover letter is forward-looking.


A resume lists everything you have done. A cover letter explains how this background relates to what you can do for the hiring company.

If there is a special skill that you picked up in your last job, list it in your resume with your other skills, then use the cover letter to describe how it will help you complete assignments that your desired job entails, and how it bodes well for your ability to develop new, related skills.

To show that you can survive and thrive in a new position, use the cover letter to give the employer an idea of your potential, not just what you have to offer this very minute.

4. A resume is objective; a cover letter is subjective.


In a resume, there is little room for doubt or interpretation: Either you know what you claim to know and you’ve done what you claim to have done, or not.

A cover letter is where you share your personal assessment of your capabilities and your suitability for the job. Think about what you would want one of your references to tell an employer about you, and include that in your cover letter.

Many people are worried about sounding boastful; don’t let those concerns get in the way of your willingness to project the confidence that you want others to have in you.

5. A resume offers background details; a cover letter offers a summary.


Think of a research report: It sums up its argument in a few paragraphs at the outset, then goes on to back up the argument with data.

A similar relationship should exist between your cover letter and your resume. The first gives the higher manager a quick snapshot of why you’re the best pick for the job, and the second outlines the particular knowledge and proficiencies – the what, where, and when – that make you the best pick. And much like a research report, the data should always be assembled before you write the summary.