Resume v. Cover Letter: How to Know What Goes Where

A cover letter and resume are two essential documents for any job applicant. They both have their place in the hiring process, but it can be hard to determine what goes where! Here we will break down the difference between a cover letter and a resume, point out which one has more detail than the other, and provide guidance on how to use each document in your job search.

What they Are - Resume and Cover Letter

Fundamentally, a resume is a marketing piece. It is intended to outline the details of your experience in a way that positions you as a fit for the open job. The resume will contain all the salient details about your professional experience, credentials, and timeline. However, it is not a historical report that outlines everything you have ever done. Instead, it is typically a 1 - 3 page document that is focused on your relevant information for the types of jobs you are pursuing. Nearly 100% of all Fortune 100 companies use an applicant tracking system (ATS) and nearly 70% of all other employers are using an ATS of some form. Thus, most employers in the US are using systems that scan the resume for keywords, job titles, and preset commands to make determinations on your qualifications before a person reviews the resume.

Alternatively, the cover letter is a brief summary of your experience that tells your story. It should tell the person (not the ATS) your story and why you are qualified and interested in the position. The cover letter typically goes in a different place in the ATS where it is not scanned for keywords. However, the cover letter will often include the keywords to answer the question "Why Hire Me for this Role?"

What Goes in a Resume

The resume is the meat and potatoes of your experience. It should include all of the details about your experience.  Specifics should include what you did, where you did it, when it occurred and your responsibilities.

Most companies will parse the resume through the ATS. This means that the resume should be ATS friendly in order to avoid rejection. Thus, you will want to minimize the graphics and focus on the words on the page. This also means that the keywords on the resume are the most important to get through the bots. However, you cannot simply keyword pack your resume as the goal is to have a person ultimately read your resume in order to get the interview. (Want to know how to beat the ATS? Check out this blog)

The details that SHOULD go in the resume are:

*Your contact information

*Job Titles, Companies Where You Worked, Time in the Roles

*Education Details

*Certifications, Licenses, and Additional Training

*Software or Technical Skills

*Language Abilities



*Anything else that is helpful to the audience to show that you are qualified for the job that you are applying to

What Goes in a Cover Letter

A cover letter is much, much shorter than a resume. It is typically no more than a single page. A cover letter should tell your story and it should not merely repeat the details in your resume. Instead, the cover letter should answer the big Why questions:

*Why are you applying?

*Why are you interested in this job?

*Why do you think that you are qualified for this job?

*Why should we hire you?

That's a lot to cover on a single page. So, focus on covering the highlights and think about it in terms of a written interview. Give enough information to peak the person's interest (not the ATS as cover letters are hardly parsed for keywords), but don't cover everything. Keep your cover letter focused on the salient details to grab the person's attention without boring them.

Cover letters aren't as important as they used to be. But, you can find more details on how to make that cover letter stand out here.

When a Resume and Cover Letter CAN Overlap

Neither document is built in a vacuum. Meaning that they are both parts of a whole and you should expect that the same person will read both documents. People don't always read (or even see) the cover letter. However, you should prepare both documents with the expectation that they will be viewed together. Thus, you should create a similar aesthetic so that the person skimming both will quickly see that they come from the same person.

You should also expect that the documents will be separated from each other in the hiring process. Thus, the documents should be able to stand on their own and be built with the ability to proceed through the hiring process accordingly. This means that you have your contact details on both documents so they can be tied back together if needed. On the cover letter, you will reference your resume and specific examples from it to illustrate your answers to those big why questions. You will also want to tie those skills together with results from the resume to show how you have demonstrated them in the past.

The resume and cover letter should never be complete mirrors of each other. However, it is ok (and expected) that they will overlap because they both convey information about your personal experience. They should both be consistent, reference details, and provide a cohesive message as to your qualifications for the job that you are pursuing.

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