Knowing how a resume and cover letter work together can increase your chances of standing out

A resume and cover letter are essential job marketing tools that allow you to grab the attention of prospective employers and make a solid first impression. Where a resume provides an objective and concise overview of your work history, knowledge, skills, and overall qualifications, a cover letter formally introduces you to the employer and summarizes your work experiences related to your resume. It also discusses why you're interested in the position and why you're a suitable candidate. 

These two complementary documents are similar in a few ways and very different in others. In this post, we'll cover the following to provide clarity around cover letters vs resumes:

  • Cover letter vs resume: what are the similarities?

  • Cover letter vs resume: what are the differences?

  • What can a cover letter convey that a resume can't?

  • What's the difference between a cover letter, a resume, and an application letter? 

Cover letter vs resume: what are the similarities? 

As noted, a cover letter and resume are both career marketing tools, provided to prospective employers, that give the opportunity to make a strong first impression. Here are a few additional similarities between the two:

  • Both are meant to sell your skills and experience to entice employers to bring you in for an interview

  • The heading and contact information provided in a cover letter should match what's provided in a resume

  • When both a cover letter and resume are submitted as part of a job application, they're submitted together

  • Each document should use a similar style in terms of colors, font type, and font size to provide a cohesive package

  • Both documents should be tailored to each job you apply to

  • Both your cover letter and resume should include keywords from the job description.

These few points are where the similarities between a cover letter and a resume end. 

Cover letter vs resume: what are the differences?

When considering a cover letter vs resume, there are five significant differences between them. They are

  • Necessity

  • Purpose

  • Layout and structure

  • Tonality 

  • Tense and orientation


A resume is a requirement and necessity for virtually all job applications. A cover letter, on the other hand, is highly recommended but isn't necessarily required unless the job application specifically requests the inclusion of a cover letter. It's also possible to come across some job postings that specifically ask you not to include a cover letter. If you come across such an instance, even if you're tempted, don't include it unless you want to risk immediately going into the “no” pile. 

Unless specifically asked not to, in most instances it's in your best interest to include a cover letter with your resume. It shows you care about the position and can help to make your application stand out from the competition. 


The purpose of a resume is to provide the employer with a concise overview of your relevant work history, skills, and other qualifications. It focuses on your past and how it applies to your potential to succeed in a new job. 

Your cover letter should focus only on the job you're applying to - it serves as an introduction to you and your resume. With your cover letter, you have the opportunity to showcase a bit of your personality, further summarize your resume, and emphasize why you're interested in, and the right fit for, the job. 

In a nutshell, a resume shows the employer how your experience fits the role and a cover letter tells them why it does. 

Layout and structure

Another main difference between a cover letter vs resume is the layout and structure of each. A resume typically uses bullet points without paragraphs or large chunks of text. There are also standard resume formats to choose from. A cover letter is written in paragraph form, with a layout similar to any professional business letter you might write.

Resume layout and structure

A resume uses one of three resume formats - reverse chronological, functional, or hybrid - with specific sections that are required within each format. The most commonly used is the chronological format, which includes the following sections:

  • Contact Information

  • Resume Headline

  • Resume Summary

  • Core Competencies

  • Work Experience 

  • Education

Additional optional sections sometimes included on a resume are IT Skills, Volunteer Experience, Special Projects, Certifications, Training, Awards, Publications, and Hobbies & Interests. 

For more tips on how to write an effective resume with several resume examples to review, refer to “How to Make a Resume: Beginner's Writing Guide with Examples.”

Cover letter layout and structure

A cover letter ranges from 300 to 500 words and should be written using the same format as any professional business letter. The key sections of a cover letter include:

  • The header with the date, the employer's address, and your contact information

  • A salutation directed to a specific individual when possible

  • An introduction paragraph where you introduce yourself, share why you're interested, and emphasize why you're an ideal candidate

  • The body paragraphs - the most crucial section of your cover letter - where you summarize your qualifications and how they make you an ideal candidate to meet the job requirements and demands, in one to two paragraphs

  • A conclusion paragraph, where you'll conclude with appreciation and a call to action

  • The closing, with a professional closing salutation and your name

For more detailed information on how to write a cover letter with a cover letter example, refer to “How to Write a Cover Letter (With Example).” 


Your cover letter, unlike your resume, addresses the employer directly and with a tone that's more personable than a resume. The exact tone you go with for your cover letter should reflect the industry and organization to which you're applying, though it's still good to showcase some personality. When doing so, ensure you still keep it professional and don't be too personal to the point that it distracts from the letter's overall goal and ability to leave a positive impression. 

The tone of a resume is straightforward and objective. It offers the reader specific details about your past work history, key qualifications, and skills. 

Tense and orientation

A resume is mostly past-oriented, meaning that it focuses largely on your past work history and experiences. Much of a resume is written in the past tense, as well. 

A cover letter is written primarily in the present tense. The focus of a cover letter is more on the present and future, including mentioning current and future objectives. 

What can a cover letter explain that a resume cannot?

As noted, where a resume shows how you're a good fit for the job, a cover letter can discuss why you're a good fit. Also, a cover letter can explain details about your resume that you might not have had space for on the resume. For example, if you listed a work experience bullet point with a great accomplishment, yet you weren't able to highlight the challenges you overcame for that significant achievement, that might be something to include in the cover letter if it adds value and is relevant. 

Cover letter vs resume vs application letter

In addition to a cover letter and resume being part of your arsenal of career marketing tools, you might also be wondering where an application letter fits in - especially since some confuse an application letter with a cover letter. 

What is the difference between a resume and an application letter?

As mentioned, a resume is a document required for job applications and provides a succinct overview of your work history and credentials. An application letter provides a detailed overview of your work history and credentials in a letter format and is typically not used in conjunction with a resume.

What is the difference between a cover letter and an application letter?

Though a cover letter and application letter share similar features, they're different in content and purpose. A cover letter complements a resume and provides an introduction to yourself and an overview as to why your qualifications make you a good fit for the job. It's sent with the resume as part of the application process. 

An application letter is more detailed and dives deeper into an applicant's work history and qualifications. It's common to send an application letter to an employer of interest, even if they don't have any job openings at the time. In other words, it's sent outside of the application process and often expresses interest in working for the organization. 

The structure is similar to a cover letter, because they're both professional business letters. However, since the intent of a cover letter and application letter differs, the content focus is different between the two. 

Cover letter vs resume: yes, you need both (with rare exceptions)

Now you know the similarities and differences between a cover letter vs resume and the purpose of each. You also know that, in most instances, it's best to submit a cover letter with your resume when applying for jobs. Including both helps you to set yourself apart from others in a tough job market and make a positive first impression on hiring teams! 

Wondering if your resume and cover letter complement each other the way they should? Our team of TopResume experts can help you to ensure that both showcase the correct elements to help you land the interviews you desire. You can even submit your resume for a free review to get started!

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