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Resume and Cover Letter: Difference & How They Work Together

Resume and Cover Letter: Difference & How They Work Together

A cover letter and a resume are two key documents in job hunting. Confuse them and you’ll ruin your chances of getting hired. Read on to understand the difference once and for all.

Emilia Mucha
Emilia Mucha
Career Expert

A resume and a cover letter are two separate documents.


Whether you’re a first-time job seeker or you already applied for a couple of jobs, you’ve heard about them.


But what’s the exact difference between them? 


And do you always need BOTH?


Fret not.


This guide will show you:

  • The difference between a resume and cover letter explained using definitions.
  • What the purposes of a resume and cover letter are.
  • How a resume and cover letter complement each other.
  • Why neither of the two should be confused with a CV.


Let’s dig in and start with definitions.



What Is a Resume?


A resume is a formal summary of your work experience, education, and skills, divided into sections. It shows your career history in a structured way and provides the recruiter with crucial information about your professional background. It’s usually one or two pages long, and should be targeted to a specific job opening.


What should a resume include?


Look at the list below:


  1. Contact information
  2. Career summary or career objective
  3. Work experience section
  4. Education section
  5. Skills
  6. Extra resume sections (courses, publications, certificates, conferences, languages, etc.)


The goal of a resume is to present you as a job candidate in an itemized, short, and informative way. All resume sections have to be labelled with clear and professional headings.


As a whole, the document should follow the rules of a chosen resume format (usually the reverse-chronological one) and stick to the resume length standards.


Want to learn how to quickly write a job-winning resume? Switch over to: How to Make a Resume for a Job


Need a ready resume sample for a specific job you can copy & use? Check out our 99+ Resume Examples for Every Profession


Want to save time and have your resume ready in 5 minutes? Try our resume builder. It’s fast and easy to use. Plus, you’ll get ready-made content to add with one click. See 20+ resume templates and create your resume here.


sample resume templates

Sample resume made with our builder—See more templates and create your resume here.


Now, what is a cover letter for a resume?


Let’s check.


What is a Cover Letter?


A cover letter is a business letter that you send to a prospective employer to introduce yourself as a candidate. It provides additional professional information about you explains to the recruiter why you’re applying for the position. Cover letters should not repeat the contents of resumes. Their goal is to supplement them.


What should a cover letter include?



Just like resumes, cover letters follow specific formatting rules and have their own length limitations.


Want to write a compelling cover letter? Go to: How to Write a Job-Winning Cover Letter


Need a ready cover letter sample job you can copy & use? Check out our Professional Cover Letter Examples


Want to write your cover letter fast? Use our cover letter builder. Choose from 20+ professional cover letter templates that match your resume. See actionable examples and get expert tips along the way.


medical assistant resume and cover letter set

Sample Cover Letter for a Resume—See more cover letter templates and create your cover letter here.



Cover Letter vs. Resume vs. CV—The Differences


There are three types of differences between cover letters and resumes:


Cover Letters and Resumes Have a Different Purpose


To get the difference between a cover letter and a resume, you need to understand the functions they have:

  • Resume summarizes your work history and qualifications. It gives the hiring manager an overview of your “professional self.”
  • Cover letter sells your qualifications. It’s supposed to provide the recruiter with the answers to why and how questions (Why do you want to work for this company and no other? How can you contribute?)


Cover Letters and Resumes Have a Different Format 


Resumes and cover letters have different formats and formatting rules:

  • A resume is a document divided into specific sections. It shows information in the form of bullet points.
  • A cover letter consists of 3 or 4 paragraphs of text, divided into an opening, body, and closing. You can also add a “PS” line below your signature at the bottom.


Cover Letters and Resumes Have a Different Tone


Resumes are more formal in tone than cover letters. That’s why we always recommend writing resumes in the third person. Instead of writing “I managed a group of 20 people,” we suggest you opt for “managed a group of 20 people.”


A cover letter is your own professional story written in the first person. Hence, using “I” in a cover letter is recommended and expected.


Why is that so?


Before your resume is read by the recruiter, it’s scanned by the Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS). Cover letters are explicitly meant for human (not machine) readers.


Here are some more differences:

  • Resumes are objective; cover letters—subjective.
  • Resumes use a professional tone; cover letters are more conversational. Telling the recruiter who you are, what passions you have, and how you can help the company give your entire application a more personal touch.


Now you know the difference between a resume and a cover letter.


But wait a minute—


There are also CVs. And there’s a lot of confusion about them.


CV vs. Resume vs. Cover Letter


A CV (or Curriculum Vitae, from Latin) is the equivalent of a resume in Europe—and globally, in Academia. However, in each of these contexts, CVs follow different formats. Read more about CV formats in Europe here and compare them with academic CVs here.


What’s the problem?


Jerome Imhoff, a career coach and professional resume writer, says that people tend to confuse cover letters with a CVs:

More and more, I am having potential clients who are asking me to write a resume and a CV. When I ask them if they need a curriculum vitae (CV) in addition to a resume, they become perplexed because they think a CV is a cover letter.
Jerome Imhoffcareer coach and professional resume writer

Europeans often use the terms resume and CV interchangeably, so if a company that is based in Europe or with a strong global presence asks for a CV, what they want is your resume.


Some industries—medicine, academia, law—are starting to ask candidates for CVs because they offer a much more complete work history.


For more in-depth CV and resume comparison, check out our dedicated guide: CV vs. Resume: Difference and Definitions



How Resumes and Cover Letters Complement Each Other


Now that you know the difference between a cover letter and a resume (and a CV), let’s see how they work side by side.


Simply put—


Your resume is an outline for your cover letter story.


In your resume, you list the critical aspects of your professional experience. In a cover letter, you describe them.


Cover letters complement resumes.


They give candidates a chance to elaborate on the basics that the resume covers and explain things only mentioned there. 


So, treat your cover letter as a chance to tell the recruiter something more about yourself and reiterate your value as a candidate. 


Prepare your resume first. Then, to write a great cover letter, ask yourself: 


There’s another reason you need both documents.


As a Career Expert at, Bart Turczyński says:

A cover letter is a brief and to-the-point pitch. It is supposed to make the recruiter or hiring manager read your resume. In real life, however, the resume often determines whether the cover letter is read.
Bart TurczyńskiCareer Expert at

A cover letter is a brief and to-the-point pitch. It is supposed to make the recruiter or hiring manager read your resume. In real life, however, the resume often determines whether the cover letter is read.

Pro Tip: When writing your resume and cover letter always double-check your grammar and spelling. Regardless of the document type, errors look unprofessional and can cost you an interview.

Some say cover letters are a waste of time. Is it really the case? Check out: Are Cover Letters Necessary in 2019? 



Cover Letter for a Resume—Things to Avoid


Ready to write a set of job-winning application documents? Before you send your resume and cover letter to a potential employer, make sure you didn’t make these common mistakes:

  • When writing your cover letter, don’t rewrite your resume. Hiring managers don’t want to read the same thing twice. Use the cover letter to elaborate on your strengths and what makes you unique.
  • Don’t write a novel. Be concise—a cover letter should be short and compelling.
  • Avoid cliches. In both documents, use power words to describe your proudest career moments.
  • Avoid genericity. Be personal—address the HR manager by name and tailor your resume and cover letter to the job description. 
  • Don’t go overboard with the tone. In your cover letter, match the level of formality to the company culture. Traditional industries and global corporations prefer the formal register. Start-ups are okay with less formal tone.


When making a resume in our builder, drag & drop bullet points, skills, and auto-fill the boring stuff. Spell check? Check. Start building your resume here.

When you’re done, Zety’s resume builder will score your resume and tell you exactly how to make it better.


Key Takeaway


Here’s a quick recap of all you need to know about the differences between a cover letter and a resume:

  • A resume is an account of your career history in the form of bullet points, divided into sections.
  • A cover letter gives the recruiter a more in-depth insight into your work history in the form of a letter.
  • Resumes list qualifications—cover letters describe them.
  • A resume is a formalized document; a cover letter has a more personal touch.
  • Cover letters complement resumes and are still expected by most hiring managers.


Do you have any other questions about resume and cover letter differences? How would you define a resume and a cover letter? If you still have doubts, let us know in the comments.

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Emilia Mucha
Emilia Mucha
Emilia is a career expert sharing all kinds of job hunting advice. At Zety, she writes dedicated guides that help readers create job-winning resumes and cover letters.

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