The Difference Between a Cover Letter and the Email You Send With Your Application

When it comes to making a job change, getting it right truly matters. You need to get the keywords right, the messaging right, the formatting right. You’ve got to find the right people to endear yourself to, and the right words for your cover letter and follow-up correspondence.

And, for the love of it all, you’ve got to nail the approach.

But, my oh my, there are so many considerations—so many things we all second guess ourselves on when applying for a job.

Should you make the cover letter the body of the email, or attach it separately? (Or both?) Do you address the person by first name, or go with Mr. / Ms. So-and-So? (And, does same rule apply for both?) How casual or formal do you need to be? Is there a right or wrong format for cover letters and emails? Does the cover letter need to be a page or less? How long should the intro email be?

Holy Hannah—it’s enough to make the coolest cucumbers among us start to feel like crazy people. And that’s even before you’ve made an introduction.

Deep breaths, everyone. Deep breaths. Let’s break this cover letter stuff down into manageable chunks. Here’s what you need to know:

Should the Cover Letter Be an Attachment or Just the Body of Email?

The short answer is: either. Not both, either.

If you ask 10 recruiters of hiring managers which they prefer, you’ll probably get five who say attachment and five who say email. But here’s the good news: Nearly all will report that it’s not going to make or break you either way. So, don’t let this topic unravel you.

I happen to be a proponent of “cover letter as body of the email,” and here’s why: It gives you the opportunity to make a strong, memorable first impression the millisecond that reviewer’s eyes open their inbox. You can draw someone in with an incredible opening line, and then showcase the ways in which you could contribute to the team.

If, instead, you decide to go with cover letter as attachment, you should be brief and point the reader to the attachments.

I’ve learned you are seeking a senior project manager with e-commerce experience and knowledge of Jira. That’s me. My attached resume and cover letter outline my qualifications for the role. Thank you very much for your consideration. I hope to hear from you soon!

Keep it brief if you go this route. Those on the receiving end won’t appreciate having to plow through a super long email and all your attachments.

Lastly, don’t even think about replicating the cover letter in both the email and the attachment. That’s just ridiculous (and, makes you look totally indecisive).

Now that we got that figured out, let’s answer the other questions that are probably eating at you:

Do I Use a First Name Salutation—or a More Formal One?

This is best answered with, “It depends”—for both the cover letter and the accompanying email. (I know, just doing my part to make things simple here.)

In all seriousness, it’s best to evaluate the tone and style of the organization you’re attempting to join, and then guess which salutation would be most would the appropriate and appreciated. You can do this pretty easily by reviewing the company’s website and social media presence.

Remember, you’re going to be hired for that next role if (and only if) you’re a “yes” to these three questions

  1. Do we think she can do this job?
  2. Do we like her?
  3. Do we think she’ll fit in around here?

That said, if you can introduce yourself in a way that implies right out of the gates that you’re a triple yes, you’re in business.

Is a Conversational Style Allowed?

In general, I think that job seekers get a bit too revved up about “proper” and end up losing sight of the fact that there’s an actual person at the receiving end of this (assuming you’re emailing your application directly).

Guess what? People like engaging, conversational reading. They notice when an applicant seems genuine, personable, and interesting. They appreciate when plowing through their pile of candidates doesn’t feel like total drudgery.

That being the case, unless you’re applying for a role within an extremely conservative or structured industry or organization, heck yes, a conversational style is allowed. Certainly, this is not your time to bust out a bunch of slang or (gasp) use language that could offend, but it’s a-ok to make your cover letter or intro email read like you’re a real person.

Just be sure and make it clear—in both cases—why you want to work for that company and what, specifically, you can walk through their doors and deliver.