Mastering Job Apps: Understanding ‘CV vs Cover Letter

Smiling man holding a CV

As you set out on your job search journey, you’ll quickly come to realize that two documents become your closest allies: your CV, also known as Curriculum Vitae, and your cover letter. They’re like your professional billboard, displaying your skills, experience, and what makes you the perfect fit for the role you seek. But it’s easy to get lost in all the advice on how to create them.

I’ve been in your shoes. I know how daunting it can be to present yourself professionally on paper, to appear capable, experienced, and most importantly, employable. That’s why I’d like to demystify these two elements that are vital to your job hunt.

In this article, we’ll explore everything you need to know about CVs and cover letters. We’ll dig deep to understand what they are, how they’re similar yet different, and when to use each. We’ll also uncover the secrets to choosing the appropriate document for the appropriate application, along with some useful tips on how to write an alluring CV and a compelling cover letter. 

What is a CV?

Let’s start with the basics — what even is a CV? A CV, or Curriculum Vitae, is Latin for “course of life.” These two words aptly define what a CV encompasses—a detailed overview of your career journey thus far. 

Unlike a resume, a CV is detailed and extensive, containing all your achievements and experiences. It reads like a biography rather than a snapshot and showcases not just where you’ve been but also where you’re headed in your professional journey.

Typically, a CV includes the following:

  • Your Contact Information: Including your full name, residential address, email, and phone number.
  • Educational Background: This goes beyond just your degree! You should also include any relevant courses, dissertations or thesis.
  • Work Experience: Unlike a resume, which often limits details to the last 10 years or so, your CV should include details of your entire career, appropriately categorized under different job roles.
  • Skills: A list of both hard and soft skills, demonstrating both technical knowledge and inter-personal abilities.
  • Achievements and Awards: Here also, feel free to elaborate and include context for each accolade.
  • Publications: If you’ve been published or featured in any articles, books, or other publications, don’t hesitate to highlight that.

Remember, your CV is an evolving document that should be updated with every new career move, degree earned, or any other significant professional accomplishment. And let’s be frank, it can take some time and effort to prepare. That being said, it’s a vital tool to have, and the reward definitely outweighs the work!

What is a Cover Letter?

Now that we’ve talked about what a CV is, let’s dive into a cover letter. 

A cover letter is your chance to tell a compelling story of who you are and why you’re the right fit for a specific job. Unlike a CV, which is a factual record of your skills, education, and experiences, a cover letter is more personal and subjective. It’s an introduction to you as a professional and should captivate the reader right off the bat.

Your cover letter is your opportunity to make a great first impression. Instead of rehashing your CV, use this space to expand on the experiences that are especially relevant to the job you are applying for. Use the cover letter to translate your skills into value for the company. 

Remember, ultimately, the goal of your cover letter is to make the recruiter want to read your CV and meet you for an interview. Therefore, it should be specifically tailored to the job and company, show authenticity, demonstrate your value, and be meticulously proofread. 

Similarities Between a CV and a Cover Letter

If we consider a job application as a story we want to tell potential employers, both the CV and the cover letter are two different means by which we can convey our narrative. 

While they differ in format and detail, there are several key similarities between these two documents that, when understood, can help us utilize them more effectively.

Let’s talk about a couple of the similarities between these two documents and how they relate to your career search. 


Both a CV and a cover letter have the same overarching goal—to provide insight into our skills, experiences, and qualifications and demonstrate why we are ideally suited for the job. Whether providing a detailed listing of our accomplishments in a CV or narratively weaving them into the story of our career journey in a cover letter, both of these documents serve as testimonials to our professional selves.

Professional Branding 

A CV and a cover letter also both allow you to market your professional brand. By choosing what to highlight, you determine how you can present yourself in a way that aligns with the company’s values and the job description. 

Introduction to the Employer 

Additionally, both documents can serve as our introduction to potential employers. Often, before we get the chance to meet face-to-face in an interview, the CV and cover letter offer a first impression of our qualifications, our communication style, and even our attention to detail. So, it’s vital to ensure both are clear, concise, and error-free. 

Differences Between a CV and a Cover Letter

Now that you know what makes CVs and cover letters similar, let’s take a look at what makes them different. As it happens, there are a number of key areas that make these documents different, which are broken down in the table below.

FeatureCVCover Letter
FunctionA comprehensive document that contains factual, chronologically ordered data about your credentials. This includes your education, work experiences, skills, academic achievements, publications, and sometimes, even a little bit about your hobbies or interests. A narrative that connects the dots between your CV and the job you’re applying for. It is a means to convey how your qualifications, experiences, and skills make you the best fit for the company and the role. 
FormatTypically, the structure of a CV is a formal, bullet-pointed list that spans 2-4 pages. Depending on your location, it may start with a brief career objective or summary and then include your education history, work experiences, skills, and so on.Often noteworthy for its letter-like format, a cover letter is typically structured into four paragraphs: introduction, why you’re interested in the role, why you’d be a great match for the role, and the closing paragraph where you express appreciation and suggest next steps.
ContentFilled with concrete facts and figures, a CV is your place to display your qualifications in action. The cover letter allows you to tell the story behind those achievements. It’s your chance to explain what you learned from leading that team to success or how you overcame a problem along the way. 

Where Should You Use a CV vs a Cover Letter? 

In my career coaching experience, I’ve often encountered job seekers who aren’t sure when to use a CV or a cover letter, or indeed whether they need either, both, or something else entirely. The truth is, it depends on the situation.

If you’re entering fields like academia, science, or research work, a CV is often expected. Here you list detailed information about your education, research, publications, awards, presentations, and other achievements. It’s comprehensive and designed to highlight your career span and depth. A prime example is a postdoctoral position where your extensive research and published works need to be understood in detail. 

On the other hand, when applying for most jobs outside these domains, especially in the corporate sector, a resume paired with a cover letter is your best bet. Resumes are generally more concise than CVs and are tailored to the specific job you’re pursuing. 

The cover letter is a platform where you can directly address the employer, explaining why you are particularly interested in and suitable for this job. If you’re eyeing an account manager role, your cover letter could express your passion for client relationships and highlight your track record in retaining major clients, even as your resume sets out your career graph.

It’s crucial to read the job posting carefully for any specific application instructions. When in doubt, don’t hesitate to reach out to HR or the hiring manager to clarify.

Special Situations

While these may be the most common situations for using a CV vs cover letter, there are some special circumstances to know about as well. 

In the U.S., for instance, if you are applying for jobs in creative fields, such as art, advertising, or journalism, you might be asked to provide a portfolio of your work. In this case, your CV or resume would typically accompany your portfolio, providing context to your showcased work.

There are also location-specific tendencies. In many European countries, such as France and Germany, a CV is standard for most job applications, irrespective of the field. In the U.K., you’d generally use a CV and a cover letter for most jobs unless you’re asked for a resume. 

Tips for Writing a Good CV 

Crafting an impressive CV is an art, and it does take some practice. If it’s a CV that you’re going to be using, it pays to know how to write a successful one that helps you land a job.

Let me break down a couple of tips for creating a solid CV. 

Customization is Crucial

A generic CV will likely be overlooked. Take the time to tailor your CV according to the specific job you’re applying for. Look closely at the job description. Pull out key skills, experiences, or qualifications that the employer emphasizes and ensure you highlight these in your CV. 

For example, if you’re applying for a marketing role that emphasizes analytical skills, make sure you don’t simply list “analytical skills” under your competencies. Instead, provide solid evidence of when and how you have demonstrated these skills. You might say, “Developed a new data analysis system that improved marketing efficiency by 30%.”

Be Concise yet Comprehensive

A CV is a snapshot of your career, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be war-and-peace. Be brief, clear, and use bullet points to make your CV easier to read. Limit the document to a maximum of two pages. 

Highlight Your Most Relevant Experiences First

If the job you’re applying for values managerial experience, make sure to list your roles as team lead, supervisor, or manager first, regardless of the chronology. This immediately draws the recruiter’s attention to your highest-value experiences. 

Remember: just because something was an important part of your professional history, doesn’t mean it’s relevant to every job. Stick with experiences that most closely align with the role you’re seeking without omitting a time period from your career timelines.

Include Keywords from the Job Description

Many times, companies use application tracking systems (ATS) to filter through CVs, looking for candidates that match the key skills and experiences they need. These systems scan for keywords related to the role, and if these words are present in your CV, you’re more likely to pass this initial screening. 

For example, if the job description mentions project management skills, use this exact phrase in your CV and provide examples.

Tips for Writing a Good Cover Letter

Now that you know a couple of keys for creating a solid CV, let’s go over some for making a strong cover letter in the event that it’s this document that’s called for.  Here are a few of my essential tips to guide you down the path to success.

Telling a Coherent Narrative

Your cover letter is your chance to tell your story. Unlike a CV, which focuses on the facts, a cover letter allows you to weave together your relevant experience and skills in a cohesive and engaging narrative. 

For instance, if you’re applying for a job as a project manager, don’t just list your corresponding experience. Instead, tell them a story about that time you led a struggling project team to achieve a milestone on time and under budget. 

Highlighting Alignment

The next step involves carefully illustrating how your own values and skills align with the company’s mission and the role’s requirements. Before crafting your cover letter, take a good look at the company’s website and jot down its mission and values. How does your own career objective align with theirs? 

For example, if the company’s mission involves taking risks to create innovative products, perhaps you can write about a time when you proposed a ground-breaking idea in a previous role.

Demonstrating Enthusiasm

Remember, your cover letter should emanate your passion and enthusiasm for the position. Employers are looking for individuals who are excited about the opportunity! Include a sentence or two about what makes you genuinely excited about the position or the company. 

For example, “The commitment to sustainability in your production practices defines my own professional ethos, and it would be a great honor to contribute to a company that shares such values.” 

Proofread, Proofread, Proofread

Make sure you always thoroughly proofread. While this may seem obvious, it’s important to remember that even the smallest typo can potentially cost you a job opportunity. A clean, error-free cover letter reflects your attention to detail and professionalism. Don’t just rely on your spell-checker; read it aloud, print it and read it, or have someone else proofread it. 

Know When to Use a CV vs Cover Letter

When it comes to knowing when to use a CV vs cover letter, understanding each document is key. Remember, a CV is your career’s factual record, showcasing your skills, experience, and achievements in a structured, professional format. On the other hand, a cover letter gives you the freedom to tell your own career story and connect deeply with potential employers.

As you tailor your own CV and cover letter, remember to stay authentic and clear. Your goal is not only to secure a job offer but also to land in an environment and role where you can do your best work and continue to thrive in your career.

Armed with these tips, you’re ready to get out there and apply for your next job. And, if you’re not quite ready? Check out our other articles for all the tips and tricks you need to have up your sleeve.

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