what IS a cover letter, anyway?

A reader writes:

This is a long email to ask a very short question: what is a cover letter?

I know it’s really basic, but that’s why it’s throwing me so much! How would you explain what a cover letter is, to someone who had never heard of one? I just ran into this situation at work and I thought it might be a good post for your blog (so, selfish disclaimer, I can just pull it up for people next time this happens). I actually tried to do this, but I realized that while you have covered writing a good cover letter, they weren’t quite what was needed.

Context: I work in a library, and I had an immigrant student from a very different cultural background asking for help with navigating a job website. I discovered as we were doing this that not only did he not have a cover letter, but had never heard of such of thing. He was South African, and they just don’t have them there (apparently :D ).

I tried to explain what they were — that basically, if someone picked up your resume it should explain why that resume is there (i.e. what they’re applying for), why you’re interested, and any extra information that wasn’t appropriate for the resume itself, and a few other things. I also got him to turn his objective into part of the letter, getting rid of that — but he honestly had no idea what I was talking about, and had trouble believing that it was required here and in a whole bunch of other countries.

While his computer literacy wasn’t ideal (which was why I was helping in the first place) and his English wasn’t perfect, he was definitely not stupid, and could understand me perfectly well. So it was clearly the foreignness of the concept (and/or my explanation) that was the problem.

So, basically, can you help me out with the next one? What IS a cover letter? Why bother to write one? How do you explain it to someone who has quite literally never heard of such a thing and doesn’t understand why you’d need something other than the resume, or why the hiring company would even expect it?

A cover letter is a letter outlining why you’re interested in the job and why you’d excel at it.

And the reason we use them is because people are more than just their work experience. They have personalities, motivations, habits, and all sorts of reasons they’d be great at a particular job that aren’t as easily seen from a resume as they might be from a short letter making the case. Otherwise, employers wouldn’t even need to bother to interview — they could just screen resumes, verify that candidates’ experience and accomplishments were accurate, and then hire the person with the best resume.

But that’s not how it works. Employers aren’t just hiring experience. They’re hiring people, and there’s a lot more to most people than just what their job history shows. And when done well, a cover letter takes a first step at explaining that additional piece of what you’re all about.

The example I always think of is when I was hiring for an assistant job and a candidate mentioned that her friends always teased her about her obsessive organization because she color-coded her closet and used a spreadsheet to organize her CDs. Those aren’t the sorts of things you’d put on a resume — but it instantly gave me a sense of who she was and how she might approach the job. (And I needed an obsessive organizer in that job, so it was hugely effective, and we actually ended up hiring her.) That’s a perfect example of a how a cover letter can flesh you out and explain why you’d be a great fit for the job by addign something new and not just relying on summarizing what’s already on your resume (which is the number one mistake I see with cover letters).

Another way to explain it to your student: Think about what you might say to a friend in explaining why you’re excited about a job and why you think you’d be great at it. Does that explanation add anything that your friend couldn’t get from just looking at your resume? It probably does — and that’s what you want to convey in your cover letter too.

{ 87 comments… read them below }

  1. Yup*

    One way to think about it:

    In the past, resumes were usually snail-mailed or faxed to a prospective employer. It’d be pretty abrupt on the receiving end to just have a resume land on your desk with no further information about this person. So the cover letter was included to introduce yourself, state what position you were applying for, and give a brief explanation about why you’d be a great fit for the job. Then the hiring manager could move into the resume, knowing a little about who you are and where/why you’re applying.

    In the online age, the “cover letter” is what you write in a email to introduce yourself and your qualifications when sending out your resume. Otherwise, the recipient is just getting an email that says “see attached” with a file from a total stranger.

    Think about like you’re inviting someone to party. You don’t just send them an email with “My place. 8 on Saturday.” You include language about who’s the host, what’s the occasion, the address, etc. Those framing elements of an invite are analogous to the “intro” function of a cover letter.

    1. OP*

      To be honest, that helped me a lot more than AAM’s reponse :D – this was the issue I was struggling with, trying to explain how to write a good cover letter is useless if they’re still struggling with what a cover letter *is*.

      But I did get the impression that he handed CVs over in person in his previous culture – so the whole “they will never see you in person so this stands instead of the conversation where you introduce yourself” or “if you just posted this to them, you’d include something about who you were and why you sent this random CV to them”. The online application aspect was really confusing matters, because he was putting his contact details and other info and such in online, so that’s half the point of a cover letter gone.

      I think if I’d put it that way, it would have been more understandable, and we could then have moved on to what to put in it, but I think he was mostly being baffled by the idea of employers wanting to read a random communication on top of the CV.

    2. Dawn*

      Can we just please do away with the cover letters already?

      I think a resume should suffice. If I have a killer resume, and my skills seem like a good match for the position, why do I need to all of a sudden feel phony and come off like Hemingway when I’m not? or spend $ and pay someone to do it? Way. Too. Complicated.

      You can’t really tell if you like someone until you meet them in person anyway. So, why make this process hard on people? and yourselves (yes, HR people, you can have it easy too) And instead of us putting a salary that we have no clue what you’re willing to pay… just put the darn salary that you’re only willing to pay! why play guessing games? Wouldn’t that be easier and simpler for everyone involved?

      Seriously. Why can’t it be that simple? as if finding a job these days isn’t hard enough… there’s the cover letter (which, is supposedly more important than your resume, say what!?), resume, applications online, AND when you get to the interview, fill out a ‘paper’ application. Oh, and let’s not forget about the hundred differing opinions of the ‘do’s and don’ts’ of what to say (or not say) in an interview.

      Now, we have job coaches, why?….because NOW we also need people to teach us how to answer every possible question thrown at us on an interview, Really!? We shouldn’t have to feel like actors, like we’re memorizing lines of a script. Why can’t it be just a laid-back, natural flow of conversation about someone’s experiences, etc.. Wouldn’t that be more realistic and a lot less phony?

      Oh, and you can’t be general about who you address the cover letter to, either (supposedly), you need to play Kojac, and somehow figure out who the HR person is, or the hiring manager and address it to them personally (I have great researching skills, I found you!). How do you do that while applying, let’s say through Indeed? or Monster? there’s no hiring manager’s names listed.

      It’s crazy. Please, for the love of Pete, someone make this whole process real and simple for everyone involved as it should be.

      As for the best cover letter ever, she sounds like a creative, and fun person who obviously didn’t give a ‘bleep’ about how she “should” do it “exactly”. And that’s probably why they liked it and hired her. She didn’t have to be ‘perfect’ about it… good for her!

  2. Sophia*

    Doesn’t the purpose and meaning of a cover letter differ depending on industry? For example, I’m in academia and the cover letters Alison uses as an example would never fly (e.g. informal in tone and using the color-coded analogy). I’m on the job market this fall, and have been told academic cover letters include: position you’re applying for, something tailoring how your interests fit into the departments, your general research interests (which is also described in a research statement), and what you included in the application (e.g. X number of writing samples and where they are from/what they are about).

    Or is academia the only industry where there is this difference?

      1. Sophia*

        Perhaps. But I do want to say that I’ve learned a lot from this blog even in general terms of interacting with colleagues and faculty. I also recommend it to everyone and turned my husband onto it since he’s a newly promoted (a few months) manager in the government :)

    1. Rana*

      Just an addition to the academic job letter – the one you’re describing is more appropriate for a research position at at research-intensive institution. If you’re applying for work at a small liberal arts college, or a community college, where teaching is more important, you’d have a teaching section as well as (or instead of) the research section.

      But yeah, they usually take the form of “I’m So-and-So, and I’m applying for the position of X that I saw advertised on H-Net. Here’s my teaching background and why I’d be a good fit; here’s my research background and why I’d be a good fit.” If you can work in some sense of what you can offer – possible course plans you’ve been itching to try that would work with their current curriculum, future research projects that would build on existing programs, etc. – that helps too. And some places are also really about “service” (committee work, advising, community outreach, etc.) so sometimes you need to bring that in as well.

      It’s not unlike what Alison advises – your job here is to give the hiring committee a sense of what you’d be like as a colleague – only it takes place within a more formal tone and structure.

      1. fposte*

        And a lot of academic jobs aren’t faculty jobs, and those definitely fit the category Alison is talking about. (I would adore a letter from somebody who talked about color-coding her CDs–that’d be an excellent sign of fitting into culture here.)

  3. T-riffic*

    I love that anecdote about the obsessively organized candidate! The problem I always struggle with when writing cover letters is if a detail comes across as “over sharing”. While in the case Allison mentioned, that detail really stood out in a good way. But I could just as easily see another hiring manager saying, “I don’t care how you organize your closet. DELETED.” Though, I guess that’s just the risk we all take when applying for jobs.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Ah, but that would be a manager who doesn’t really know how to hire, and probably doesn’t really manage well. Because when you’re hiring, you want to really think about the profile of the ideal candidate — who are they, not just in work experience, but overall what are their traits? With an assistant, you’d be envisioning someone highly organized, even neurotically so (among other things), so when you read this letter, you’d be all “Aha, potential match!”

      1. T-riffic*

        Haha. I’ve been reading AAM for so long, I imagined that’s what your response would be. And you’re totally right. Doesn’t change the fact that I still agonize over cover letters. I once saw a real cover letter from a real person in which the woman had written something along the lines of “I’m a b*tch from h*ll who doesn’t take no crap from no one.” So, you know, I try to avoid that if I can.

        1. Tina Career Counselor*

          “I once saw a real cover letter from a real person in which the woman had written something along the lines of “I’m a b*tch from h*ll who doesn’t take no crap from no one.” So, you know, I try to avoid that if I can.”

          WOW is about all I can say to that one.

          1. Kristi*

            I find this oddly reassuring. No matter how nervous I am about my letter or writing skills, it can’t be any worse than that.

    2. AP*

      Anal people unite! I have also gotten a job by detailing my closet and kitchen organization schemes in the cover letter. It turned out they were also looking for someone who was compulsively organized and it’s the best job I ever had.

      On the other hand, if you’re the type of person to add that kind of detail, and the hiring manager is the type of person to see it and hit DELETE, you might not be a great cultural fit anyway with them.

      1. Nicole*

        I completely agree. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from reading this site is that it doesn’t make sense to try and mold yourself into the person you think the hiring manager wants. Sure, you need to sell yourself, but your real self; if that’s not appreciated by the hiring manager then you’re probably better off elsewhere anyway.

      2. Apples*

        I can see that.

        However, it also puts a lot of pressure on a single interaction. I’ve had excellent working relationships with people that I didn’t gauge well initially.

        And I still have awkward hugs with some of my best friends.

    3. Jessa*

      But that would be okay. If that manager did NOT want an obsessively detailed person that would make sense. The point of the cover letter is to let that manager screen that person out if they don’t want them. Not every person is suited to every job.

  4. CollegeAdmin*

    I’ve explained the point/goal of cover letters to friends much as Alison did, with the extra of, “Why this job, as opposed to any other?”

    Example: When I was applying to my current job (admin at a women’s college), I noted in my resume that I had attended a women’s college and that gave me a closer viewpoint and appreciation of the unique culture. While I had my alma mater listed on my resume, it was that little extra reminder in the cover letter that (I think) gave me an edge.

  5. the gold digger*

    I sent two cover letters to an old boss who is going to serve as a reference for me. I wanted him to have an idea of the jobs I was applying for.

    He wrote back and said (this was not a compliment!): “They sound like you’re sitting across the table in a conversation over coffee instead of a concise review of the fit with your experience and the posted job listing.”

    I want to tell him, “People have interviewed me for jobs that don’t even exist just because they liked my cover letters so much!”

    And I probably will, because he was a great boss and is still a good friend. But I guess I should also remember that not every style suits every reader.

  6. Chinook*

    I want to add to AAM’s great information that a cover letter is the perfect place to deal with any red flags that pop up in your resume. I had one interviewer, who received my resume through an agency and without a cover letter, ask me if I was on the run from the law because he noticed I had been in 3 different provinces in 3 years. in my cover letter, I always had a paragraph explaining why my resume locations were so varied and explaining how this taught me to be able to adapt quickly to new environments. I would also add that, as far as we new, his current posting would be for 5 years, alleviating the fear of whether or not I would be gone in a year.

    1. AG*

      Yes, definitely.

      I recently moved back to my home area after 11 years across the country. If you looked at my resume, you might be confused as to why all my experience is in another state, and probably think I was absurd to pack up and move to a big expensive city without a job. In my CL I always briefly mention that I’m originally from here and moved back when my husband finished grad school. I think it scratches out any notion that I might be flighty/idealistic/unrealistic for moving here without a job.

  7. kristinyc*

    Can we also talk about the nuance of HOW they’re sent?

    From my understanding, they were originally called cover letters because they were the first page in a packet sent through the mail or fax. Now, they’re mostly sent through email or submitted in an online application.

    I’ve always put the cover letter in the body of the email I’m sending to apply, and attached only my resume. But I’ve seen some people who send a short “Attached are my cover letter and resume for X position.” I HATE that. It seems like it’s calling out the cover letter as a separate piece of the application (which, it is, I suppose), but it means your first chance to grab the employer’s attention is wasted on a boring sentence telling them your documents are attached. I guess I hate it because it feels more like an “I’m sending this because someone told me to send it” and not an actual introduction.

    What does everyone else think about it?

    1. JoAnna*

      I think it’s more useful for hiring managers to have both the cover letter and resume in individual documents so they can be saved to a specific folder on their computer for easier organization, with both documents in the same place for easy sharing/printing — otherwise, a hiring manager has to take the extra step of copying/pasting the cover letter e-mail into a Word document, or doing a save-as to a Word document and taking out the extraneous header info, etc.

      1. Anonymous*

        That assumes the hiring manager wants to keep the cover letter and resume separate. When I’ve done hiring, I’ve wanted to keep them together.

      2. Nicole*

        I agree. I always attach my cover letter because I assume it’s easier for the hiring manager should they want to save it along with my resume.

    2. Tina Career Counselor*

      I vote for putting the letter in the text of the email. It seems like a waste of space, and unnecessary to me, to say “Please see my attached letter” in the email and the full letter in an attachment.

    3. Rana*

      Why not do both? That way it works with both the people who track using email, and those who like to print things out. (Obviously, you’d want the text to be identical.)

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I don’t like it when people do both, because I have to spend extra time looking at the email and the attachment to see if they’re different or the same. Really, attaching the document or putting in the body of the email is fine (people have preferences, but they’re certainly not rules), but I’d pick just one.

        1. Rose*

          I usually add “I have attached a copy of this cover letter and my resume.” Would that work for you, or would you still feel you had to check?

    4. Recent Diabetic*

      I hate the cover letter in the text of the email. I prefer the candidate using the email as an extra space to introduce themselves. I want cover letters and resume as one document, preferably in pdf. This allows me to pull everything up from the same file. The following is what I write in my email with the application attached:

      Dear Hiring Manager (or the name of person if specified),

      I am genuinely excited to be applying for (insert title) position as advertised on your company website (or a job board). Please find my resume and cover letter (as one document) attached with this email.

      If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me via email or phone (insert digits).

      Thank you for considering my application and I look forward to speaking with you.

      Kind Regards,

    5. Anonymously Anonymous*

      I’ve contemplated over this for a while. But now I confidently, leave my cover letter and resume all one attachment. It makes no sense to me to include the cover letter in the email, nor does it makes since to attach separate documents. *I figure that it will saves the person from having to print out the email and the attachment separately. * The ones who will appreciate the conservation of time will do just that and hopefully call!

  8. Anonymous*

    Idk why this jumped out at me, but I wonder why the admin needed a spreadsheet to organize her CDs. Once they’re shelved in the order you prefer…do you need a spreadsheet to confirm the order?

    Maybe there’s a whole world of organization I never thought of for my stuff?

    1. Anonymous*

      that’s what I was wondering as well! If I would’ve read that statement, I would’ve thought she made things unnecessarily complicated and would’ve disqualified her.

    2. CollegeAdmin*

      I’ve thought of making a list of my CDs to avoid duplicates and to keep track of which ones I’ve lent to friends – maybe that’s what the spreadsheet is for? I’m laughing at “Maybe there’s a whole world of organization I never thought of for my stuff?” though, I’ve definitely though that before too. :)

      1. Judy*

        My husband keeps a list, to avoid duplicating things. He (now) has the spreadsheet on his smartphone, so it’s with him whenever he’s out and about.

      2. Anonymous*

        I’m reminded of that commercial parody on SNL where the financial manager at a board meeting said in a solemn voice: “We should make a list of all our customers and how much money they have with us. If we have time, we could make a copy of the list and put it somewhere safe.” I’m paraphrashing from memory here.

    3. T-riffic*

      As an inveterate messy person, this detail also jumped out at me. Must be a doozy of a CD collection.

    4. JC*

      Great point!

      Maybe she had different locations for her CDs? Some soothing music for the bedroom, new releases in the car, old favorites in the living room, and oldies archived in the basement.

    5. Susan A.*

      You can enter the artists and then titles into Excel and have it automatically alphabetize the whole list for you- sure, you SHOULD be able to do it on your own (especially if you’re only adding in one or two at a time after they’re initially organized) but if you have CD’s in multiple bookcases or you have them organized differently (my CD’s, husband’s, son’s, etc.) then you might need extra help.

      That seems to be going to the extreme though if none of those situations apply to you. Mine are strictly alphabetized, but hot damn, you won’t see me spreadsheeting them- especially after inputting them all into iTunes. There isn’t enough alcohol/valerian in the world to go through all that again.

    6. Rana*

      I have a LibraryThing account for my books, and sometimes I’ll use the spreadsheet it generates to sort my books into things like “incomplete series” for when I go to the bookstore. It saves me from having three copies of volume 2 of a trilogy, for example.

    7. Calibrachoa*

      My CD collection (in the low four figures) is somewhat organized physically by artist in alphabetical order and by release date within artist. But if I had a spreadsheet.. hmm. Off the top of my head, I would love to be able to sort it by album title, record label, release year, genre, commercial print vs. bought online, is it duplicate of vinyl….

      Damn it. I hate excel. This gives me ideas.

    8. Kou*

      If you’re someone who has a toooon of something, it makes sense so you can see what you have. I don’t do it but I have some friends who do this for their makeup/nail polish to prevent them from buying dupes of things they already have (but have forgotten about) or computer parts. I guess they just find it easier to look at that than look through their stuff.

      1. Loquaciousaych*

        My husband and I have a collection of over 1500 CDs. We have a spreadsheet (organized alphabetically by artist, and then in chronological order) for 3 reasons:

        1) INSURANCE. Many of them were imports/special order/expensive.
        2) Avoiding duplicates. We buy “lots” (as in 20-50 at a time) at garage sales and so forth, and it helps to know what we have already
        3) Belief. Tons of people don’t believe we have that many. The list helps, a lot.

    9. justmary*

      Having a spreadsheet could also be used to track what CDs may have been lent out and not yet returned.

  9. Liz T*

    Though to be fair, I’m sure there are hordes of AMERICAN students who have no idea what a cover letter is and have trouble believing they need one.

    1. Susan A.*

      The newest feature of Careerbuilder is Insider Hire (or something very similarly named) and it shows the number of resumes sent to an employer- and how many included a cover letter. I don’t think I’ve clicked on one where the percentage of cover letters sent has hit 20% (I think it hovers closer to 15%). I just can’t understand that- Careerbuilder even asks you if you want to include one; why wouldn’t you at that point?

  10. Piggle*

    I struggle with finding the balance in a cover letter between professionalism and familiarity. I am a bit quirky (in a good way!) and I almost think I’m hiding this. Playing it too safe. I think my personality is one of my stronger selling points– for the right job, I guess.

  11. Pussyfooter*

    Where do you fall on the “in the body” or “attachment” issue? I’m leaning toward Rana’s idea above.

  12. Chloe*

    There are some industries/countries where a cover letter is regarded as an annoyance.

    My husband is in IT, in a country that is not the US, and he has never, in his life, written cover letter.

    Not saying its right or wrong, but you should be sensitive to the market you are in.

    1. OP*

      This was probably also a factor – he was in a VERY technical industry, and I can easily see that they just didn’t care about the cover letter. Which I’m hoping for, honestly, as it means it won’t count against him (and may mean he stands out simply by having one, especially as it’s apparently a common problem!).

      But they’d still expect it – NZ’s very big on ‘who you know’ (getting in because of who you know is a *compliment* here, not a put down/sign of corruption!) – and the cover letter is the only real chance someone has to be ‘known’ as an outsider.

  13. Fd*

    Hi, I have to say I still struggle with cover letters. I understand what you’re saying but it all sounds terribly arbitrary! How do you expect it not to become a personality contest, driven by the hirer’s tastes and preferences? You say a person is more than his/her job, but it is also more than his or her cover letter.

    A few years back we were hiring an IT person. We interviewed a gentleman with a very good resumé, after which a few colleagues labelled the poor guy “weird” and were inclined against. We went on with the hiring even with some reservations and you know what? This guy became a key person for our organisation and outperformed most of people who judged him that way.

    So, I think the point is, the South African guy probably has a point.

    1. Lindsay J*

      Personality is also a key point in hiring in many positions, however. Given the choice between two people with similar qualifications I would 100% of the time take a person with slightly less experience or slightly less prestigious former roles who seemed pleasant, kind, and coachable over somebody with superior qualifications who came off as rude, surly, or snobbish.

      1. Fd*

        The problem is that things are not so black-and-white. No one really goes for a job interview or writes a cover letter being 100% him or herself. Maybe a less pleasant person is perceived so because she has the integrity and courage to be herself, who knows? Can it be judged over a letter or a 30 min interview?

        I’m not saying it is easy, but if hirers admit outrightly that they want to be pleased and entertained rather than try to imagine other qualities (way more important) like integrity, what work environment will they be creating? I’m pretty sure psychopaths seem very pleasant at first, no wonder they are proportionally overrepresented in executive positions if that’s the way people think about hiring.

  14. Arts*

    I wonder if the South African student has the same confusion as some Indian friends I’ve had this discussion with – about the whole American concept of introducing your “personality” to the employer.

    In some cultures, the hiring process is entirely merit-based in terms of technical knowledge i.e. plenty of standardized exams as barriers to the application process, interviews where applicants are quizzed on their technical knowledge (verbally or in written exams) etc. Applicants advance to the next stages of hiring by how well they scored on the exam, or the group interview etc.

    If this student is coming from such a technical-knowledge-based hiring system, the idea of talking about who he is and why specific aspects of his personality better qualify him for a position may seem utterly confusing.

    1. OP*

      Yes! This would have been a very large part. He was in a very technical field, applying for a … I want to say “minion” job ^_^

      I’m guessing that lack of access to computers/the internet was also a factor (i.e. submitting cover letters is a luxury, and you generally apply in person, where you can introduce yourself anyway). (Specifically based on this one student).

  15. Anonymous*

    I prefer cover letter as body of email, resume as attachment. It’s okay when they’re both attached. I HATE when they’re both in the email. I’ve gotten a lot of resumes in the email. I don’t know if candidates don’t have a word processor or they got advice somewhere that “people don’t like attachments” but it’s super annoying.

  16. Anonymous*

    Yeah but companies are realizing that “cultural fit” is really important. I work at a small tech startup and part of what we look for is someone who we actually want to spend all day with, 5 days a week. When you have 10 people in an office, one person who doesn’t fit really sticks out.

  17. Anonymous*

    As someone who just finished hiring for an entry-level position, I would like to emphasize that it’s really great when a candidate mentions in the cover letter why they want to work at the company or why the job in particular looked interesting.
    1) It shows actual interest in the position
    2) It shows that you took the time to read the job description and actually look at our website to see what we’re all about, and you’re not just spamming your resume to every admin job on Craigslist
    3) It makes you come across as a human being

    1. Marie*

      It’s not true, though – unless you are looking for a job doing manual labour. There are two entirely different job markets going on here for skilled and unskilled workers, and skilled workers need to follow the UK rules of full(ish) CV of several pages including details of references, plus cover letter.

    2. South African*

      I’m South African and I have written many cover letters for job postings. I found this site because I am writing a cover letter right now.

      I am also a little baffled as to why this student doesn’t speak English well. Sure in South Africa people speak Zulu, Xhosa and Afrikaans at home, but every where else you communicate in English. If he is a student, he is probably taking classes in English.

      1. Ruthan*

        Late to this party, but most Americans certainly don’t speak (or write) very good English. And there are usage differences depending on where you are (I think LW was in NZ?)

  18. Ruffingit*

    The differing standards of applications in various countries is interesting to me. In Germany, you submit a folder with your cover letter on one side and your resume on the other. The resume includes where and when you were born plus a photograph. US hiring managers would think you were insane if you submitted that, while German hiring managers would be wondering where your picture was if you submitted the US version of application materials.

    1. beckythetechie*

      Unless you’re in the arts. Headshots are required in performance positions, and as a technician/designer in that field, I was frequently expected to have a photo as well. Why? I’ve no idea. What your scenic designer looks like should rank far below her or his realized designs and communication examples, but *shrug*, that’s how it was.

  19. GeekChic*

    OP: One reason the student might have been puzzled is because a lot of what cover letters do in North American is already covered by the style of resume used in some parts of South Africa (as well as other parts of the world).

    When I did consulting and had foreign clients we used to talk about hiring norms and practices. My foreign clients from South Africa and India found the North American style of resume to be “boring and stultifying” and didn’t understand why the cover letter existed when the same information could be conveyed in a resume (they called them CVs – but I quickly learned that they were different from academic style CVs that I had seen in North America).

    When I looked at their CVs – they did indeed cover all of the things a cover letter would address: why this job, hints of personality, why you would excel at it. They also covered a lot of other things that made me uncomfortable (number of children, name of spouse, pictures in some cases) but were common in their countries.

    Anyway, I think its interesting to see how things work in other cultures and I hope this helps you OP.

    1. Manda*

      They also covered a lot of other things that made me uncomfortable (number of children, name of spouse, pictures in some cases) but were common in their countries.

      I’m guessing that countries where this is common don’t have laws protecting people from discrimination during the hiring process.

      1. GeekChic*

        All the laws in the world won’t protect someone (even in North America) from discrimination on the part of a company or a hiring manager. This is just practical reality and also due to the costs of trying to address discrimination as an individual.

        For example, there is a lot of talk in HR circles and amongst managers about the importance of “fit”. And it is indeed important. However, the “fit” argument can also be used to justify not hiring someone that is different from the hiring manager / company culture in some way that is frankly not relevant to the work.

        Ask someone with visible disabilities how often the employer was enthusiastic about them over the phone or via email – and then the employer saw the candidate and suddenly the enthusiasm vanishes. And that’s just one example.

        Discrimination is alive and thriving in North America. It’s just sometimes more subtle.

        1. Manda*

          I didn’t say discrimination was nonexistent here. But it’s generally unacceptable to base a hiring decision on something like race, religion, appearance (unless it’s modelling or performing arts), sexual orientation, or marital status. I don’t doubt that it still happens and is just covered up with the reasoning that someone else was more qualified or a better fit. They won’t always say why they rejected a candidate and if an illegal reason is suspected, it can be difficult or impossible to prove it. But that’s why you avoid making certain information known to a potential employer – so they can’t use it against you. Laws are a deterrent but people still break them and sometimes they get away with it. All I meant was that it’s unlikely (and maybe I’m wrong – it’s just a guess) that some of these countries have laws discouraging this sort of behaviour when it’s normal to provide unnecessary personal information. It’s too easy for an employer to rule someone out because they’ll likely need time off to care for their six kids, or whatever. Maybe that’s considered acceptable in some countries. When it comes to fit, there’s a difference between judging someone by their personality, and judging someone by their personal information.

    2. OP*

      Possibly, but from the quick skim of his CV, it looked perfectly straightforward. I’m not saying he hadn’t snuck any personality stuff in there, but it certainly didn’t jump out at me (it’s not my job to hand hold people through their CVs, but I try and point out obvious issues for them – like missing cover letters!).

      But he could definitely have been thinking of it that way, and that does help – I’ll keep an eye out next time (we get plenty of immigrants, so I’m bound to run into this at some point). And it’s much easier to tell people to separate “personal stuff” and “facts” than it is to explain why they need to write personal stuff in the first place.

      1. Marie*

        Yeah, in SA we are also not supposed to put any ‘personality stuff’ into our CVs. It is more common to apply for a lower-level job without a formal cover letter, though, so I guess if this was his first professional job he might not have known what it was.

        I think the main trouble is that a lot of professionals in SA are the first to go to university in their extended family (due to apartheid which blocked most people from higher education), so a lot of people just have nobody to ask about how to present themselves in a professional context. It’s a problem, and it definitely enforces the cycle of poverty.

  20. Library Jen*

    Holy moly this is a great question, if only we could send copies of Alison’s great response to universities and career centres across the globe!

    I cringe now when I think about it, but when I graduated from my undergrad I had never written a cover letter before and only had the basic info from my careers advisor about making myself ‘stand out’. So when applying for an internship with a local PR company, I looked at their website which had kind of a laid back vibe wherein the staff had jokey bios and mentioned they had a ‘daily fact’. This made me write a similarly jokey cover letter filled with useless facts! I even included one in the email header and one as a post script. I cannot believe they replied to me and said they would bear me in mind for the future! I have no real memory of what the facts were but it was things like ‘wow did you know the yellow Amazon frog can sleep for two whole months under water…’ (not true).

    Oh the shame

    1. Ruffingit*

      You are not alone. We’ve all done some pretty cringe worthy, crawl in a hole stuff when it comes to job seeking. When I was first out of college, the Internet did not exist in its present form so we were pretty much on our own (or at the mercy of crappy career centers) to figure things out. So glad that’s no longer the case.

  21. Anonymous*

    All of this cover letter talk is making me anxious! Should I include both my resume and cover letter in one document? Separate attachments? In the e-mail?

    So much stuff I never really thought about before!

  22. marty*

    Any ideas on the company that does not have specific openings posted – just the generic “If you are interested in opportunities with us…” and asks for a cover letter and resume via e-mail?

  23. Emma*

    I cannot thank you enough for your tireless exploration of this subject. After so much time spent puzzling over how to craft a great cover letter, reading your many posts on the matter helped me to finally realize what was needed to make one that is great. I’m extremely charismatic in person, and not an ounce of that was shining through in my cover letters, and there are so many things that I’ve accomplished professionally that my succinct little resume cannot convey. I have just now submitted the first cover letter that I am absolutely thrilled with, and your advice is absolutely the reason it all finally clicked for me.

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