#184: Resumes vs. Cover Letters — How to Write the Perfect Cover Letter in English

Aug 12, 2020 | Job Interviews in English

“As for resume everything is more or less clear, but a cover letter is not typical for my country at all. So I’m writing to you with a request (maybe it’s a good idea for your new lesson related to a series of  Job Interview) to explain the principal differences between these 2 documents and what people usually should (or shouldn’t) write in a cover letter.”

Great question! I received this question by email at the end of July.

Cover letters confuse native speakers too.

What are they used for? How are they different from a resume? And do you really need one?

The problem with these questions is there are too many answers. It’s difficult to know which answer is right and who to trust.

(I just did a Google search for “cover letters in English” and received about 641,000,000 results in 0.64 seconds. 😳)

So today I want to make this very simple.

In this lesson, I’ll share with you exactly:

  • When you should use a cover letter (and when you shouldn’t)
  • What to do when it’s unclear if you need one
  • Why a cover letter can help you stand out in the job interview process
  • What is the difference between a cover letter vs. a resume

And most importantly, 4 steps to write your perfect cover letter in English.

Cover Letters in English — Full Transcript from Video

How are they different from resumes and 4 steps to writing your perfect cover letter in English.

Hey, it’s Annemarie with Speak Confident English and welcome to this week’s Confident English lesson. This is, of course, exactly where you want to be every week to get the confidence you want for your life and work in English.

If you’ve been following me for a while, then, you know, I love answering specific questions from students and others like you in my Confident English community.

Recently, I received an email from Olga. Olga has been in the Speak Confident English community with me since I began in 2014, she wrote to let me know that she’s decided to switch her career and has started looking for new jobs. One of the things she noticed is many companies require both a resume and cover letter. And here’s the problem.

A resume is more or less clear, but where Olga lives, it’s not common to use a cover letter.

So she wanted to know what are the principle differences between a resume and cover letter and what should or shouldn’t you write in your cover letter?

And this of course brings up the question. Do you really need one?

She also mentioned that, of course, there are many examples or websites that talk about cover letters, but they’re too general. They’re not very specific.

So she wanted to know if I could help. And yes, I absolutely can.

In fact, we are going to do the complete opposite and we’re going to get very specific and detailed on what exactly a cover letter is. When do you need to use it? Why might it be helpful to you to get ahead of your competitors?

And I’ll also share four tips to help you write your perfect cover letter in English.

All right, before we can talk about how to write the perfect cover letter in English, there are three big questions we need to answer.

Number one, when do you need a cover letter? Number two —Why might it be useful to you to write a cover letter, even if it’s not required? And number three, how is it different from a resume?

Once we’ve got all of that figured out, we can get into four steps for writing a perfect cover letter in English.

So question number one. When do you need a cover letter in English?

Well, of course, any time a job description says, send us your resume and cover letter, make sure that you absolutely include a resume and cover letter. If you don’t, if you skip that step, your resume will not be considered.

And if a job description specifically says to not send a cover letter, then don’t. The first step is being very clear about what the company is asking you to send and follow those instructions.

But what if the company doesn’t say anything about writing a cover letter? Should you use one?

Here are a couple of things to think about that might help you decide why you might want to use one.

Number one. Did someone refer you for this position? In other words, do you know someone already working for the company or do you have some connection to the hiring manager? If you do, a cover letter can be a great way to highlight that reference and stand out. We’ll talk more about that when we get to how to write a cover letter.

A second consideration is to include a cover letter any time there is something that might need some explanation on your resume. For example, if you have a large gap in your work history, or if your professional background doesn’t perfectly match the job description, but you know, you’re the right fit for the job.

A cover letter is a perfect way to address any questions that might come up when someone’s looking at your resume.

And finally, a third consideration for when a cover letter could be really useful to you is when you’re making a significant career field change. Your cover letter can be an opportunity to talk about why you’re making that change and how your skills or expertise from your previous profession are transferable into this new one.

So if you’re unclear on whether or not you need a cover letter, use those considerations to help you generally speaking a cover letter can be a fantastic way to help you stand out from the competition, especially when it’s well-written.

All right. So we know when to use a cover letter and why it may be useful to you.

Now let’s talk a little bit about what is the purpose of a cover letter and how exactly is it different from a resume?

One way to think of the difference between these two documents is the words objective and subjective.

A resume is objective. It’s just the facts of your educational and professional background. The work that you’ve done, responsibilities you’ve had, and your accomplishments, there’s no room for subjectivity or opinion on your resume. Instead, you list your skills, you list your educational background and any training that you’ve received past responsibilities, and again, any major accomplishments or achievements, but it is a hundred percent objective.

On the other hand, a cover letter is subjective. Your cover letter answers: Why. Why you think you’re the right fit for the job and how you think your skills will the company.

Now that we’ve got those three questions answered, let’s talk about four tips you can follow to write the perfect cover letter in English.

Step one, write your cover letter like a professional business letter.

One of the most important parts of writing your cover letter is to include a person’s name. Do your homework in advance. And as much as you can try to find the first and last name of the person you’re writing to.

At all costs, avoid to whom it may concern and make sure that you don’t use the wrong title.

A little bit of research will usually lead you to the right person who’s going to review your cover letter and resume. Use their name. And if you absolutely can’t find it, then you could use something like dear hiring manager or dear hiring officer.

Step number two is, do make your cover letter conversational in tone.

A resume is very impersonal. We don’t use pronouns like I, or you instead we focus on leading with power words. This is something I talk a lot about in my Confident Job Interviews course.

On a resume you’ll see something: like led a team of 14 on an award-winning project.

In contrast, your cover letter will be very personal and conversational. You will absolutely use pronouns like I, and you.

So that bullet point that you saw on a resume (led a team of 14 on an award-winning project) becomes: I led a team of 14 on an award-winning project…

And then you would go on and include far more detail about that experience in your cover letter. And with that, let’s move on to step number three, to write your perfect cover letter in English.

Step three is to make sure that you include keywords in your cover letter.

What do I mean by that?

I mentioned earlier the importance of doing a little bit of research to find out who you’re writing to, as you do that research, make sure that you identify keywords in the job description or in anything that you read about the company.

These are words that you’re going to see again and again, related to the kind of person that they’re looking for, the values they have and the skills or expertise they want you to have in the position.

Those words are included in the job description for a reason: because those are the things that are important to the company and the hiring manager. When they quickly review your cover letter, they’re going to be looking for those keywords. If they don’t see any of them, your cover letter is less likely to stand out.

So how and where should you actually include those keywords when you write your cover letter?

That brings me to step number four. Remember you are writing a business letter. So instead of bullet points, you’re more likely to use paragraphs. I recommend using three or four paragraphs in your cover letter.

Your first paragraph is your introduction. Then you have one or two paragraphs to engage the reader, talking about why you’re interested in the position and how you have the right skills that they need. And then your final paragraph is your closing.

We’ll talk much more about what to include in all of those paragraphs in a moment, but very quickly here are two important tips.

Number one, keep your cover letter to one page only. It should not be longer than one page. If it is, you definitely have some editing to do.

The second thing you definitely should not do in your cover letter is to repeat everything in your resume.

This is not a second opportunity to go through all of your skills, your professional background and expertise. Instead, this is an opportunity to focus in on just one or two things. One or two stories you want to tell about why you want to work for this company, why you’re the right choice and how you’re going to use your skills to help you.

Or if we go back to what we talked about at the beginning, you may be using the cover letter to highlight a reference to address a work history gap or a change in your professional career.

So let’s talk about how you’re going to do all of that in just four paragraphs.

Your introduction can be short and simple with just a few sentences that highlight how you found out about the position, what excites you about the position. And if you have someone who referred you to the position, you can include that as well.

One simple sentence starter I love to use is something like: After learning about your company’s work in ____ or after learning about your company’s commitment to______, I became interested in the position because…

And then state why.

After that simple introductory paragraph, you can go on to paragraphs two and three to either explain something that needs to be explained or highlight the value that you bring to the company and use one accomplishment or one story from your background to underscore that value.

Again, this is not about repeating everything on your resume, but instead selecting one thing that really stands out to you that you want the hiring manager to know about. When I talk about highlighting your value, what I mean is explaining the skills and expertise that you’re going to bring with you into this position and how it’s going to help the company achieve its goals.

Here’s a quick example: Due to my high level of empathy and experiences living abroad, I understand the unique challenges of learning a language as an adult and gaining confidence in daily communication. As a result, I’m able to connect easily to students in the classroom and focus on what it is they need the most.

Again, after you’ve highlighted that value or explained why you want to work for this company, you could also include a specific story from an experience or accomplishment you’ve had in your professional background.

Here’s an example of how you might do that.

Again on a resume, you might see a bullet point that says: led team on award-winning brand redesign for a fortune 500 company.

That is a powerful statement on a resume, but there’s no story to it. Your cover letter is a great place to highlight the story, and that could look something like:

In 2019, I led a team of five brand strategists. Not only did the new brand campaign increase company sales by 37%, but our work was also recognized with an award from the Content Marketing Institute. I believe that my strategic vision and creativity would similarly benefit your company.

And finally, after you’ve done that, you can include your closing paragraph.

With this paragraph. It’s important to restate your excitement for the position and include a call to action. What that means is you’re asking the hiring manager to do something specific.

You might ask the hiring manager to review your resume, which is attached, or you may include your contact information and ask them to follow up with you for an interview.

If you follow all four of those steps, you are well on your way to writing the perfect cover letter in English.

Now, if you’re here, I know that you’re in the process of looking for a job in English or you’re planning to do so in the future.

If you have questions about the job interview process or the job application process in English, be sure to leave a question in the comments below.

Also, I have several different lessons on job interviews in English already available to help you.

For example, I have a lesson on 10 common questions that you’ll hear in a job interview in English and how to answer those.

And I have an in-depth free training available on three secrets to confidence for a job interview in English.

I’ll leave a link to both of those below this video.

And as always, if you found this lesson useful to you, I would absolutely love to know. You can tell me in two simple ways, number one, give this lesson a thumbs up here on YouTube and number two, subscribe to this channel so you never miss one of my Confident English lessons. With that have a wonderful week, and I’ll see you next time.

Whew!!! I know that was a lot of information.

I recommend taking your time with this lesson. Learn a little bit today. 

Then come back tomorrow and learn a little more. Bookmark this lesson so it’s easy for you to find.

If this lesson was useful to you or if you have more questions, I’d love to know! You can share your comments, questions, and recommendations with me in the comments section below.

I wish you much success as you navigate looking for a job in English!



P.S. Do you know someone looking for a job in English? Share this lesson with them! They’ll ❤️ you for it!

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