What's the Difference Between a Letter of Interest and a Cover Letter?

Updated January 11, 2017 |
What's the Difference Between a Letter of Interest and a Cover Letter?
Letters of interest and cover letters are frequently used interchangeably even though they have different purposes.
Depending on the instructions you read on a private school's employment page, you may be directed to send a letter of interest or a cover letter. Some people think that a letter of interest is the same as a cover letter. But they really are not the same. What then exactly is the difference between these two letters and how do you compose them?
What is a letter of interest?
Strictly speaking, you compose and send a letter of interest when a prospective employer requests that you do so. In the sense that a letter of interest is a letter written to accompany your resume and other required documentation it functions almost the same as a cover letter. But there is a major difference. The letter of interest is written to give a snapshot of you and what makes you worth interviewing.
Remember the mechanics involved here. A staff member is charged with reading all those applications which have been submitted for the advertised position. Depending on circumstances there could be dozens of applications to review. The school wants the best candidate for the vacant position after all. So, there sits the member of staff who has to open all the envelopes and review them. Is he going to have time to read each one in detail? Probably not. But he will scan that letter of interest which you have written looking for a couple of features which set you apart from the other applicants.
One of the goals of the letter of interest is to help you make the first cut. That gets your application into a much smaller pile of applications. That group of applications most likely will be reviewed in detail by several people. Depending on how the school has set up its hiring process the group of applications which made the first cut will be further reduced to perhaps 3 to 5 applicants which they would like to interview.
Interviewing for any job can be very time-consuming for all concerned. Interviewing professionals for positions in a private school is even more time-consuming because the school is hiring somebody who will be working with children. There are background checks and references to be spoken with. The school administrators need to be absolutely sure that they have the right candidate for the position.
Consequently if your letter of interest gives any hint that you may not fit their requirements, you will not make that first cut. You will never get the interview which you so very much want.
Here are some of the things you have to do to craft the perfect, interview-getting letter of interest:
1. No typos. No mistakes. None.
2. Use a plain business font such as Arial or Courier New. 12 point is fine. Nothing larger. The ink color is black. Nothing else is acceptable.
3. Use plain white paper. 20 or 24 pound. Whenever possible print your letter of interest and supporting documentation with a laser printer. Ink jet printer ink can smudge easily.
4. Include a sentence or two which becomes that written picture of you and why you are one of the best candidates out of all the applications which they have received.
5. The letter of interest is one page. No longer.
There are hundreds of examples of letters of interest and cover letters online. The authority on such matters is Alison Doyle, the Job Search Guide at About.com. Follow her instructions and suggestions closely.
Other uses for a letter of interest
Often a letter of interest is what is called in the trade a 'prospecting letter'. No specific job has been advertised at the school to which we plan to send a letter of interest. It just happens to be an institution in which you are very interested. You also feel that your credentials and experience might be a good match for the school's requirements. So you are writing a letter of interest which is unsolicited. The same rules of the road apply: include a sentence or two which become the snapshot of you and your skills to make them stand out from all the other applications. Even though the school may have no immediate opening, if they like what they see, they might just keep your application on file.
When do you use a cover letter?
A cover letter is the letter which you send along with your application, resume and whatever supporting materials the school has specified. Think of the cover letter as the first impression which a prospective employer has of you. It is a general impression as opposed to the detailed, data-driven impression which your resume will give.
Why do the two letters seem to be the same thing and have the same use? Often employers don't always know which one to ask for or they will use the terms interchangeably. Consequently they will ask for a letter of interest when they really mean a cover letter. 
The distinction between letters of interest and cover letters blurs when a school asks you to send a letter of interest. What they probably meant was to send a cover letter. Try to understand what they are really asking for.
Cover letter 'must haves'
You write a cover letter to accompany your formal application for a position. The school has specifically instructed you to send them letters of reference, a resume and copies of your academic transcripts. This is the first thing whoever opens the envelope will see. A cover letter must be perfect. It must be well-written and fit one page.
As with the letter of interest, perfection is a must. Use sample cover letters as models. But do not copy and paste. Customize your cover letter to fit your specific requirements.
More tips and strategies
Producing a cover letter or letter of interest which will increase your chances of making the first cut takes time. Be prepared to write and rewrite your letter several times. Don't simply copy and paste letters which you see on the web. Always edit and customize your finished letter so that it fits the school to which you are planning to send it.
Make sure that your letter is the perfect business letter. No typos. No mispellings. Plain white paper. Standard business fonts. Perfect in every aspect. After all, this is the first impression a prospective employer will have of you. Make it your best impression. If your materials are not flawless, be assured that your competitors' materials will be.
Don't lie. If you imply that you have certain credentials or experience, then you better have them. Schools do their due diligence very carefully. They will include a review of your degrees and transcripts as well as conversations with the referees which you have listed.
Don't give personal information in a letter of interest or cover letter. Things like age, social security number, marital staus, hobbies and social activities never go in cover letters or letters of interest.
The most important advice which I can give you is to read the instructions for submitting the application carefully. Follow them to the letter. This is even more important if you are asked to submit your application on line. Why? Because you will not have a chance to correct anything after you click the Save and Submit buttons. If the online application asks you to write a few sentences about why you would be the ideal candidate for the position, treat it just like the letter of interest. Create that snapshot of you and why you are the best candidate for the job.
Proof read. Always proof read. Better yet have another trusted pair of eyes proof read your letters. Impressions are so important in cover letters and letters of interest.

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