What is a resume cover letter?

If you're stressing out at just the prospect of having to type up a cover letter, fear not! In this article, we'll break it down to make it as easy as possible.

4 minute read.
Free Resume Staff

There's nothing more irritating than reaching the end of a long job application process, only to realise that you still need to write a cover letter! But as annoying as it may be, including a compelling cover letter with your application is important. It could mean the difference between a rejection letter & landing an interview.

If you're stressing out at just the prospect of having to type up a cover letter, fear not! In this article, we'll break it down to make it as easy as possible. We'll cover:

  • What exactly is a cover letter?
  • Do you really need one?
  • What you should include
  • How long it should be

Let's get stuck into it!

What exactly is a cover letter?

The cover letter is an important part of any job application. It is addressed from you to the hiring manager, basically functions as a short introduction, and should entice the reader to take a proper look at your resume.

In a cover letter, you'll want to summarise yourself for the hiring manager, to express why you're interested in this specific role, and to outline how your previous experience makes you a great fit for the position.

It's a document that should be targeted for the job you're applying for. This means that if you're serious about your job search, you should be writing a new, unique cover letter for each application you're sending off.

I know it can be a pain, but the pay off of writing a great cover letter could be landing and interview for your dream job - so the investment is worth it.

Do I really need one?

I get it, after spending hours perfecting your resume the last thing you feel like doing is writing another document. Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but 99% of the time you do need to include a cover letter.

Many job applications will specifically ask for one - in which case it's pretty clear that you should do as requested.

However for some applications it's an optional field on the upload page. Do you really need one then? If you want to maximise your chance of getting the job, the answer is still yes. If nothing else, it shows that you care enough about the opportunity to put in the effort.

Realistically, the only case in which you shouldn't include a cover letter is if it's specifically noted in the job description that a cover letter is not required.

What should it contain?

When writing your cover letter, you should aim to include the following four sections, roughly in this order:

  1. A simple greeting
  2. An introduction to you
  3. An expression of interest in the role
  4. A summary of your suitability

A simple greeting

Okay so this doesn't really count as a section, but it is important!

Whenever possible, you should attempt to find out the name of the person who'll be reading your resume & cover letter, and address it to them specifically. A cover letter uniquely addressed to the hiring manager will beat out "To whom it may concern" every time.

This comes with a slight complication: you do actually need to ensure that you're addressing the cover letter to the right person, as if you get this wrong it'll be a touch awkward.

If this information isn't readily available, you shouldn't feel shy about contacting the company to find out who to address it to. Even if you don't find the correct name, this shows initiative, that you're genuinely interested in the position, and are willing to put some effort into putting together the best possible application.

That being said, if theres no reasonable way for you to find out the name of the hiring manger, then don't stress too much if you need to fallback to a generic greeting. While a targeted greeting is preferable, the reality is this is very unlikely to be something that costs you the job.

An introduction to you

As a brief introduction, add a sentence or two introducing yourself, and quickly summarising your employment background.

Remember, this should not be a detailed blow by blow of all your previous jobs. It only really needs to be a few lines providing your name, job title, and any other particularly important details.

An expression of interest

You should include a few sentences demonstrating your genuine interest in the company and the role you're applying for.

I can't tell you exactly what to say here - but you should aim to communicate why you want a to work at this particular company, doing this specific job.

What is it about the company and the role that excites you? How does the work that they're doing align with your passions and worldview? These are the kind of questions you want to answer.

A summary of your suitability

Finally, you need to effectively convince the reader that you're the best candidate for the role, or are at least worth considering.

You should include a couple of sentences highlighting the specific experience you can bring to the table that will make you the candidate able to excel in the role you're applying for.

Again, this shouldn't be a summary of all your previous work experience. Pick out a few, targeted examples. You can then refer the reader to your resume if they would like further details of your employment history.

How long should it be?

Hopefully I've made this obvious with with the frequent uses of the words "brief" and "quick" in the paragraphs above - but i'll say it explicitly anyway: Your cover letter should be short, and to the point.

No one wants, or has the time, to read a multi-essay. Your cover letter is not your resume - it's an introduction. It's an important introduction, but its main purpose is to convince the reader to give your resume the attention it deserves.

The longer your cover letter gets, the less likely it is to be read, and the less effective it will be. Try to keep your cover letter to two or three paragraphs. You should aim for a maximum of half a page in a legibly sized font.

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