Some job positions request a cover letter while others request an application letter. Others might not request any type of letter, while others might specifically request that you not submit a letter at all. If you are tempted to pull your hair out, don't sweat it. Job applications that ask for a cover letter or application letter are essentially requesting the same item. The differences in meaning are very subtle.
A cover letter is essentially like the book cover for the rest of your job application. Like a book cover, it should capture the reader's attention and convince him that it's worth taking the time to turn the page. When it comes to applying for jobs, cover letters can fall into two categories: Letters of application -- for open positions -- and letters of inquiry, which express interest in an organization when you're not sure if there are any openings.
Uses for Cover Letters
Cover letters aren't just for job applications, although this is the context many people think of when they hear the term. Cover letters can be used on any collection of documents or media for the purpose of describing reasons for sending them. You may put a cover letter on a fax, on a proposal or anything that needs an explanation. Cover letters don't always need to be very long. For example, if you're sending a fax to a familiar recipient who knows the documents are coming, you really only need a sentence or two explanation along with the sender and recipient information.
An application letter is a specific type of cover letter that is -- you guessed it -- used on an application. Application letters can accompany job applications, but they can also go with applications for admissions to schools, applications for grants or any other types of application materials you can think of. They are usually more detailed than general cover letters. For example, an application letter for a job should contain at least two to three paragraphs explaining why you're interested in the job, highlighting your qualifications, requesting an interview and thanking the reviewer for his time.
Making Sense of the Terms
When someone asks for a cover letter or application letter, don't worry about the differences. Their purposes are the same; they can just apply to different circumstances. An application letter is really only a specific type of cover letter. In the context of applying for a job, the differences in the terms are essentially meaningless.
Gina Poirier has a professional background in nonprofit administration and management, primarily with youth development organizations. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in international studies from the University of Washington and a Master of Public Administration from the University of Alaska Anchorage.