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What is a Cover Letter? Definition, Structure, Purpose, Types & Meaning

What is a Cover Letter? Definition, Structure, Purpose, Types & Meaning

Asking yourself, “What is a cover letter?”

In this article, we break down for you the basics about cover letters, their purpose, and what to include in yours.

When you’re applying for a job, a cover letter is just as important as your resume in a lot of ways.  You always want to include a cover letter when you’re submitting your resume, to personalize the facts about your work history and to tailor your application to the job.

But if you haven’t written a cover letter before, it can be intimidating to figure out what to include. Don’t worry, this expert guide boils it all down into a quick read that gives you an overview and points you in the right direction to find everything you need to know about them.

In this post, we’re going to cover:

  • What is a Cover Letter?
  • What is the Purpose of a Cover Letter in a Job Application?
  • What to Include in A Cover Letter

We also describe how you can lay out your cover letter to amp its impact, and we’ve even made it dead simple for you by including some perfect cover letter examples for you to check out.

What is a cover letter?

A cover letter is a one-page document that you include with your resume as part of your application for a job. A good cover letter grabs a Hiring Manager’s attention and gets you to the next step of the hiring process.

While every job you apply for will have either a specific application form or will ask for a resume, not every one will ask for a cover letter.  But you should always include one – it’s a game changer.

The upshot is that a resume is a summary of your work and education experience, while your cover letter adds relevant context to that experience for the specific job.

A cover letter is tailored to a specific job you’re applying for, and it highlights what your qualifications are and how they relate to that role and company. You can use it to give examples of how your experiences relate to the role and show how you’re the best person for the job.

Just as its name implies, a cover letter is written in a letter format, including a greeting, three or four body paragraphs, and a closing. Unlike a resume, your cover letter should be written in full sentences, and you want to use the first-person – “I’m writing to you today to…”.

You don’t want to just rhyme off the same things that are in your resume, though.  Use your cover letter to give real life examples of how your experience, skills, or interests make you perfect for the job.

Head to our full article on the differences between a resume and a cover letter to learn more on this.

What is the purpose of a cover letter in a job application?

Put simply, it’s your chance to make a great first impression. It’s a tool you use to grab a hiring manager’s attention long enough that they look over your resume a bit closer and call you in for an interview.

A cover letter may not be something a job posting asks you to include, but don’t think that means you shouldn’t.  A good cover letter is always a good idea, here’s why:

  • You can tell a story in a cover letter that dives deeper into your qualifications,
  • experience, and interests to show why you’re the best candidate for the job.
  • A lot of candidates skip writing a cover letter, so by including one you immediately put yourself ahead of the competition!
  • You can introduce yourself in a more personalized way and tailor your application specifically for the job.
  • You can add a bit of flair or personality that gets a hiring manager to ask you in for an interview
  • It shows that you put effort into your application, which again, puts you ahead of most of the competition.

This is just a snapshot of how a cover letter can help you. We’ve got a great article for you to look over if you want to know more about the purpose of a cover letter.

Should you send a cover letter for a job?

There is no question, yes, you should absolutely include a cover letter with your application.

We’ve done our homework on this and can tell you: a majority of hiring managers need or expect a cover letter, even if it’s not specified in the job posting.

Not only are they expected, but they’re a great tool for you too:

  • Explain the reasons for any work gaps
  • Clarify how the experience you have from other jobs applies
  • Show how you fit their company culture
  • Let them know why you’re changing jobs or fields

So, while a cover letter may not absolutely be necessary, they’re extremely useful, and always something you should take the time to write and include with your application.

What to include in a cover letter

Cover letters should usually include some of the same basic elements. We’ve put together a quick list below, but head over to our complete guide on what to include in your cover letter for a full explanation.

  • A header – This is where you’re going to include all the contact info the hiring manager is going to expect to see.  You want to be sure to give them what theyère looking for.
  • Opening statement – You can get right to it here and make sure this is an attention grabber.  Summarize your skills or experience and give them one good reason why it’s important for the job you’re applying to.
  • Body – This paragraph should give some more details about you personally.  Employers often hire someone for who they are, not what they know; this is your time to show them you’d be a great fit on their team.
  • Closing and Call to Action – You want to close your cover letter with a thanks for the time they’ve taken and a professional sign-off.  You should also let them know you’re eager to hear from them, and let them know to contact you to follow up.

Try to end with a great impression. It’s key that you know how to close your cover letter well to hit all the right notes.

Cover Letter Format and Layout

A hiring manager takes about 7.4 seconds to look at each resume that comes across their desk, and there may be hundreds of those. A strong cover letter design can grab their attention long enough for them to set you into the callback pile instead of in the recycling bin.

We’ve put together the details on how you can really grab a recruiter’s attention with your cover letter design, but here’s the basics:

  • Font - Always use a standard, easy-to-read font like Times New Roman or Arial. It should be 12pt or slightly bigger.
  • Heading – Always use a professional format of heading, which includes your name and contact info, the date of writing, and the contact info for the person you’re writing to.
  • Spacing – You want to single space the body of your cover letter, but leave spaces between the heading, the greeting, each paragraph, and your sign-off.
  • Length – We know that it’s tempting to try to fit in as much as possible in the cover letter, but this is definitely a case of less is more.  You want the content to be about half a page, so shoot for between 250-400 words.

Keeping your cover letter lean can be hard the first few times you write one. Check out our article on ideal cover letter length to get more tips on how to hit the sweet spot.

Should you use a cover letter template or example

If you’re already a pro, maybe you can go it on your own and write a killer cover letter.  But if this is your first cover letter, or you have any doubts, use our Cover Letter Examples to get some great ideas on how to write and format yours – we’ve got a few samples below.

Our examples cover different industries and positions, so you can fine tune the fit of your letter for exactly the job you’re applying to without trying to reinvent the wheel!  Plus, these are cover letters that work to get interviews, so you can be sure you’ve got a great start.

If you want a real head start, we’ve even got a Cover Letter Templates page where you can head to get all the basics covered for you. Head there, input your specifics, and you’ll have a winning cover letter, easy-peasy.

What is a Cover Letter - Takeaways

  • A cover letter is a one-pager you include with a job application to dive deeper into exactly why you are the best fit for the job.
  • You always want to include a cover letter, even if it’s not specified in the job posting.
  • Hiring managers get hundreds of resumes, and they fly through them - your cover letter can and should be designed to grab their attention.
  • Personalize your cover letter and tailor it to the specific job you’re sending it in to, this includes relating specific skills, letting your personality shine, and getting the hiring manager’s name.
  • Make sure it’s in perfect shape to get great results.  Use our Cover Letter Checklist to make sure you’ve covered all the bases and haven’t overlooked any little mistakes that could cost you the job.

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Kevin Roy
After a successful career in the corporate and non-profit worlds hunting for and hiring great candidates for my and others' teams, I spend my time writing on the subjects I love and know most about.
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