What is the Purpose of a Cover Letter?

Apr 29, 2022 | Cover Letters

purpose of a cover letter

A great cover letter will set you apart from the pack. Read on to find out the purpose of a cover letter … and how to make yours shine.

By: Shyene Joubert | Contributor for Let’s Eat, Grandma

There are so many factors to think about when on the hunt for a new job, especially concerning what kind of documents to include and how to create them. As a resume writer, I talk to so many people in all stages of life who genuinely don’t know what potential employers are looking for in job application documents.

If you’ve arrived at this blog, you probably already understand the basics of writing a great resume. Now you’re ready to apply and looking into new jobs – but you’re finding many of them require a cover letter. 

Tired of not landing interviews?

Get our free 3-step guide to writing better resume bullet points, featuring 70 ideas for metrics you can use!

Initially, it seems like an almost tedious extra step in the process of applying, but we promise it’s important. Understanding the purpose of a cover letter might just be the difference that gets you hired!

First Thing’s First: What is a Cover Letter?

cover letter with envelope

It may seem old fashioned or tedious, but a well-written cover letter is a huge bonus to a job seeker. Photo by Kate Macate on Unsplash.

It’s a one-page document meant to complement your resume that illustrates an overarching picture of your career and your key achievements.

A cover letter starts with an introduction paragraph, then you’ll list specific examples from your recent positions that demonstrate how you’d be a perfect match for the role you’re applying to.

Another way to think about these experiences is considering moments from your career that you’re proudest of. A great way to format a cover letter is to break it down into bullet points with different core points, such as leadership and project management, with bolded headings or leads. This makes it easy for a hiring manager to read quickly.

If you don’t like the bullet point style, you can write two to three paragraphs in something called “story format.” It should still contain the same information.

Many job listings ask for a cover letter because it serves a greater purpose than you might think. It provides potential employers more insight into you as a candidate and as a person than a resume alone can.

Pro tip: Always submit a cover letter, even if the job posting doesn’t specifically ask for one. Thank us later.

The Main Purpose of a Cover Letter: Why You Should Include One

man looking at two apples

A stellar cover letter will help you stand out in a sea of similarly qualified candidates. Photo by Raquel Martínez on Unsplash

Cover letters have gotten a bad rap. No one seems to like writing them, and many people don’t understand why they’re still around.

It’s true that cover letters aren’t meant to be scanned in as much detail as your resume in the initial recruiter scan, but they are helpful once you get further up the chain.

When it comes to these documents, the first question I get from my clients is if they even need a cover letter in this era. “Do people actually check those things?” they ask. The short answer is yes.

The longer answer goes like this: I worked with an HR Manager early in my career at Let’s Eat, Grandma, and she confirmed the main purpose of a cover letter is to supplement your resume to convince a hiring manager who’s on the fence about your resume. 

Since these individuals are the first decision makers who truly have a say in who gets hired, it’s their job to identify how you’d fit into the bigger picture of the role they’re hiring for. For instance, you might have a terrific technical skillset, but if you aren’t big on collaboration (or can’t prove that you are), you might disrupt the company culture.

Fleshing out those additional details in a well-written cover letter to help the hiring manager decide between you and other qualified candidates could be the factor that earns you an interview.  

Everything included in a job application serves as a marketing tool for your personal brand. A good cover letter shows a potential employer how you’ve developed your robust skillset and succeeded at the core functions of the job. It also demonstrates that you understand and align with the company’s mission and values.

Again, though, you should keep it to one short page, so be sure to focus on details not already explained in your resume.

Additional Purposes of a Cover Letter

If what I just wrote about the main purpose of a cover letter didn’t convince you to draft one, here are four more reasons:

It gives recruiters a more complete picture of your career than a resume can by itself

person in a suit

A cover letter shows the hiring manager there’s a real person behind the accomplishments listed on the resume. Photo by Hunters Race on Unsplash

Resumes should be concise and straightforward about your top accomplishments throughout your career. That means you have less space to tell the entire background of say, how you worked cross-functionally as a Property Manager (if that’s one of the biggest skills called for in the job description.) 

Your cover letter gives you (a little) more room to more fully explain the context for your biggest, most relevant achievements.

Let me elaborate on that same example. As a Property Manager, you were able to successfully complete a project that required cross-functional teamwork by communicating with realtors, contractors, architects, and city officials to remodel a two-story home. During the process, you even leveraged your own ability to take initiative and learned how to install hardwood flooring! You sold that property for five times the amount of its purchasing price. 

That anecdote certainly gives you some edge over the competition in my opinion, and it contains more than you could fit in a concise bullet point about the accomplishment on your resume (though you should still write one of those.)

That’s fun to read about right? The hiring manager will think so, too. Think of a few of your proudest moments in the last 10 years of your career that relate to the job you’re applying for now, write them down with key details (such as results and metrics), and consider including a couple in your cover letter.

To show your personality and your communication style

While cover letters are frequently required in corporate roles, it’s a good idea to attach one to every job application – and infuse some of your personality into it! The full sentences of a cover letter can show more of who you are as a person than the short bullets on a resume.

For example, I’ve had several clients who are chess players. Their skillsets often revolve around adaptability and analysis, which were great qualities to mention in their cover letter because they aligned with the job listings. I used their hobby of chess as a way to tell a compelling story about what kind of people they are both in and outside of work.

You want to express who you are in both your resume and cover letter, but remember to match the tone of both the job role and industry you’re applying to. Tone will vary based on industry and the level of position.

  • If you’re an executive, I’d recommend using language that conveys how mature, powerful, and driven you are. Use a professional tone as you detail your key achievements in an interesting way.
  • If you’re a recent graduate or pivoting to a new industry in your early career, we have a few tips for how to make the most of your experiences. Capture your reader’s attention by focusing on extracurricular activities or leadership positions you’ve held and building strong narratives out of how they have prepared you for this entry-level position.

To address potential red flags

red flag

Your cover letter is a great place to get ahead of any potential red flags in your resume. Photo by Carson Masterson on Unsplash

Honesty is the best policy when it comes to creating job application documents (and to everything else in life). Many things might appear as a red flag to recruiters or hiring managers, such as gaps or industry transitions. If you have one of these in your resume, you can get ahead of the question by mentioning the potential red flags in your cover letter.

For example, unexplained career gaps on a resume are commonly considered a red flag that can raise questions for recruiters. But if you have a gap in your work experience because you took time away to pursue higher education or focus on parenthood, that’s great! It demonstrates to potential employers that you’re always looking to improve. You can explain this information in your cover letter to paint your own narrative about your work gap instead of letting the reader fill in the blank on their own.

Another potential red flag is a sudden, dramatic shift in your career path. If you possess expertise and experience in IT and are now applying for a position in education, you’ll want to discuss that decision in your cover letter, since you’ll need to make a case for why you’re a better hire than people with education experience

To make the most of your career change in your cover letter, you should focus on transferable skills that make you a stellar candidate, which are qualities you possess that can be applied across various industries. These include things like how great you are at mentoring others, how you think outside of the box, and how your attention to detail helps you complete projects. This information can help you appear in searches in a  recruiter’s Applicant Tracking System (ATS) as well.

To make it clear that you align with the company’s mission, vision, and values

Since the Covid-19 pandemic, people have started caring more about their company culture; it’s one of the biggest reasons why people are seeking new work. It can be challenging for people to stay connected in a world that grows increasingly digital. Companies want to hire individuals who are on top of their work as much as they are willing to play. 

Remember, cover letters play a big part in hiring managers determining if you’re the right person to join their culture.

We recommend researching a company before you apply to see if you even like their culture. How do you know what their mission or values are? Many organizations describe their pillars on their “About” page. You can flex this knowledge in your cover letter by defining how your values  at work and in life relate to what the company cares about.

I have collaborated with many clients who are customer-focused and drive forward teams with servant leadership. These attributes are valued at some companies, such as in the healthcare or nonprofit industries, which makes it easy for the clients to align with company culture.

Consider what you care about as an individual and find an organization that meshes with that. Be sure to write about how those ideals connect in the cover letter to make it obvious why you’re the right person for the job.

One Page, Endless Possibilities

This might seem like a lot to fit into a single page. Keep in mind that these are best practices for writing a cover letter, not the only way to do it! You don’t have to include everything if you, for instance, don’t have any red flags in your career or if certain information isn’t readily available to you (e.g., company values).

I’m often impressed with clients’ old cover letters or ones that other writers at the company produce. Each document truly feels as unique as the individual it’s about – and that’s the point. 

The main purpose of a cover letter is to show off your skillset, your enthusiasm for the role, and your personality. Remember that, and you’ll write a cover letter that can really help you get hired! And if you need more help, that’s what  professional resume writers like me are here for, and we’d be happy to help.

Ready for more job search help?

Sign up for a free Senior Writer Resume Critique to see what's holding you back from landing interviews. One of our top professional resume writers will give you personalized feedback on the top 3 items you can improve based on our expert practices!