Cover Letter vs. Resume What’s the Difference

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

Imagine your job application as a captivating story. Your resume lays out the plot, detailing your skills and experience clearly and concisely. Meanwhile, your cover letter adds color and context, allowing your personality to shine through and explaining why you’re the perfect fit for the role. Together, they create a compelling narrative that can capture the attention of hiring managers and set the stage for your career’s next chapter.

Your resume and cover letter each play a vital role in this job search narrative. The resume offers a snapshot of your skills and work history, providing the hard facts and figures. On the other hand, the cover letter lets you express your passion for the role and the company and demonstrate why you’re uniquely qualified.

With a strong resume and a compelling cover letter tailored to the specific job, you’re sure to make a lasting impression on hiring managers. So, let’s delve deeper into the differences between these essential documents to ensure they work in harmony to tell your professional story effectively.

What is a cover letter?

Typically sent alongside your resume or job application, a cover letter is your personal introduction to prospective employers. It’s a narrative document that explains why you’re a good fit for the job and the company while showcasing your personality. It’s also your first chance to go beyond the facts in your resume by expressing your passion for the company and demonstrating your communication and writing skills.

Unlike a resume, a cover letter is more conversational and allows you to address the hiring manager directly. It’s your first opportunity to explain why your experience, skills, and other qualifications make you an ideal candidate. This is particularly important in the tech industry, where showing a passion for innovation and entrepreneurship can set you apart from other applicants.

Here’s an overview of the contents of a cover letter:

  • Heading: Include the date, your name, your city and state, your phone number, and your email address.
  • Greeting: Address the hiring manager by name, if possible, and avoid overly formal salutations like “To Whom It May Concern.”
  • Introduction: Mention how you found the role, especially if a current employee referred you, in the first paragraph.
  • Body: Explain why you’re the best candidate for the role by elaborating on your professional experience, projects, and other qualifications that are relevant to the job description.
  • Conclusion: Reaffirm your excitement and fit for the role.

Cover letters aren’t always required, although many career experts recommend submitting a cover letter with every job application. However, tailoring your cover letter to each job posting can be incredibly time-consuming, even if you use tools like ChatGPT to speed up the process. Plus, busy recruiters might not read every cover letter.

Photo of pie chart graph that shows Majority of recruiters don't read cover letters

“Of the 8% that did review cover letters, many of their job postings or application portals explicitly called out cover letters as an important part of their application process,” notes Kevin Wu.

This tells us the following truth: cover letters don’t hurt, but they probably don’t matter much. Cold emails matter much more. That being said, when cover letters do matter you can be sure that the employer will give you a heads up on the application form itself.

We recommend the strategy of sending cold emails directly to hiring managers:

“If you’re shooting for a high volume of applications and you’ve already got a high-quality resume and LinkedIn profile, skip applications that require cover letters and send cold emails instead. Recruiters are more likely to read cold emails, and you can treat the body of a cold email like a cover letter, just shorter.” — Ben Hyland, a senior career mentor at Pathrise who has helped hundreds of job seekers find their dream roles at leading tech companies

A bonus of sending cold emails is connecting with another person at the company besides the recruiter and hiring manager, like the director or manager of the team you’re applying to. Once you build that relationship, this person is more likely to advocate for you during the hiring process, giving you an edge over other applicants.

What is a resume?

A resume, sometimes known as a CV (curriculum vitae), is a concise, objective, and factual document that summarizes your professional background. It covers your work and project experience, education, and skills, all neatly organized with bullet points for easy skimming.

In the tech industry, hiring managers prize innovation, adaptability, and continuous learning, best demonstrated through a history of consistent career improvement. Compared to a cover letter, a resume zooms out to provide a holistic view of your professional background and showcase your commitment to career growth.

Let’s review the basic structure of a typical resume:

Photo of Basic structure of a typical resume

Tech recruiters might review hundreds of resumes a week, so a well-organized and professional resume can help you stand out. However, it’s not just about standing out to human eyes — your resume also needs to pass application tracking systems (ATS) that many companies use to filter out resumes and find the most qualified candidates.

5 differences between a cover letter vs. resume

Both your resume and cover letter are key players in your job hunt, but they’ve got different parts to play. They each spotlight unique aspects of your skills and fit for the job. Let’s dive in and unpack these differences and see how they team up to make your job application a winner.

1. Purpose

Your resume and cover letter showcase why you’re the best fit for the job opening, but they each serve a different purpose in the hiring process.

Because a resume is typically the first point of contact between you and potential employers, it’s intended to be easily scanned by hiring managers or applicant tracking systems. Its main goal is to highlight your most relevant qualifications quickly. It’s less personal than a cover letter and focuses more on hard facts than your motivation or fit for the role.

On the other hand, a cover letter allows you to stand out in a sea of applicants. Many recruiters only look at cover letters after narrowing their applicant pool to the top candidates. A well-crafted cover letter can convey your personality, demonstrate why you’re uniquely qualified for the role, and showcase your passion for the company. It can also be used to mitigate any concerns a hiring manager might have, such as explaining a career transition, an employment gap, or plans to relocate.

A cover letter lets you connect the dots for the hiring manager, explaining how your work experience and skills make you the best fit for the role. Meanwhile, a resume presents the dots in a clear, concise manner. Together, they create a complete picture of your qualifications, with the cover letter adding context and personality to the facts in your resume.

2. Structure and format

Another significant difference between a cover letter and a resume is the format. A cover letter follows a business letter format to tell a story about your qualifications and interest in the job while also demonstrating your writing skills.

In contrast, a resume is a more structured document that concisely presents factual information. Each section of a resume is formatted with bullet points or short paragraphs so it’s easier to read quickly. The information is typically presented in a reverse chronological resume format, with the most recent experiences or achievements first.

3. Length

The length of your resume can vary depending on your level of experience. A one-page resume is often sufficient if you have less than 10 years of experience. However, a two-page resume may be more appropriate if you have extensive experience or are in certain industries. The key is to ensure that every piece of information on your resume adds value and supports your candidacy for the job.

Cover letters, on the other hand, need to be concise and to the point. Typically, a cover letter should be around three-quarters of a page and consist of three to four paragraphs.

“It should not be a novel — that’s a frequent misstep I see with a lot of job seekers,” says Becca Kronenbitter, a career mentor at Pathrise who has placed fellows at top tech companies like Google and Meta. A cover letter could potentially extend to a full page at most, but it should rarely be more than one page.

4. Tone of voice

A cover letter is a more personalized document that allows you to showcase your charisma. It’s your chance to share some of your personality and the qualities of your character that you bring to a team.

“The cover letter lets the job seeker share some of their personality and the qualities of their character that they bring to a team.” — Becca Kronenbitter

The tone of a cover letter is typically professional yet personal, and you should use personal pronouns like “I” and “we” to describe your qualifications. As long as you maintain a professional demeanor, you can use a more conversational tone in a cover letter. This can help you connect with the hiring manager on a more personal level, which makes your enthusiasm for the role seem even more authentic.

On the other hand, a resume has a more straightforward and factual tone. It’s a formal document that lists your relevant skills, experiences, and accomplishments from the third-person perspective.

The language used in a resume is concise, clear, and to the point. There’s less room for personal expression in a resume compared to a cover letter, as the focus is on providing evidence of your professional qualifications and achievements.

5. Keyword optimization

The strategic use of keywords in your resume and cover letter can significantly enhance your chances of landing an interview. A resume, for instance, should be rich with keywords related to hard skills, such as technical abilities, software proficiency, programming languages, qualifications, or job titles.

Keyword optimization in a resume is crucial for both human readers and applicant tracking systems (ATS). Many employers use ATS to filter out resumes that don’t include specific keywords. So including relevant keywords from the job description can increase your chances of getting past these initial screenings. Remember, the goal is not to stuff your resume with keywords but to incorporate them in a meaningful way that demonstrates your suitability for the role.

On the flip side, a cover letter offers a different avenue for keyword optimization. Here, the focus shifts toward character traits, strengths, and soft skills. “The cover letter lets you share some of your personality and the qualities of your character that you bring to a team,” explains Becca.

Including relevant keywords from the job description in your cover letter demonstrates that you’ve read the job description carefully and understand what the role entails. These keywords will also help you align your application with the job requirements.

A real-world example of a cover letter and resume

Let’s take a closer look at how a cover letter complements your resume. Example of resume Above is an example of a resume for a project manager and operations specialist. Now, let’s look at the cover letter they wrote to highlight their most relevant qualifications for a role they applied to. example of cover letter As you can see, this candidate briefly summarized the skills in their resume to align with the job description. This makes it easier for the hiring manager to see exactly why they’re qualified for the job. They also highlighted their most relevant experience across their career to show what they will bring to the table.

Finally, they mentioned their ongoing efforts to learn SQL and Notion, which isn’t in their resume. Adding this kind of detail to your cover letter demonstrates initiative and a commitment to continuous learning. In the fast-paced, ever-evolving world of tech, these qualities will make you that much more of an attractive candidate.

Refine your resume and cover letter with Pathrise

Together, a strong resume and a compelling cover letter create a powerful narrative that can capture the attention of hiring managers. They’re the dynamic duo that can make you stand out in a sea of applicants, each complementing the other to provide a comprehensive picture of your professional prowess. And when tailored to the job description, they can set the stage for a successful interview.

If you’re ready to take your job application to the next level, Pathrise is here to guide you. Our online program offers personalized career mentorship, pairing you with industry experts who can help you craft a winning resume and cover letter that truly showcase your unique skills and experiences. With a deep understanding of the tech hiring process, our experienced career coaches are ready to support you every step of the way.

Ready to make your job application stand out and land your dream job in tech? Apply to Pathrise today!

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Alex MacPherson

Hi I'm Alex! Since graduating from UC Berkeley in 2019, I have worked on the growth team for Pathrise helping job seekers hone their skills to land their dream role through curated content on interview prep, resume building and more.

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