I have now had a couple friends ask me to help them prepare job applications, so I pulled together some personal advice on what I feel is the most important part of applying for a job: the cover letter.
As someone who has applied for many jobs, and also reviews about 200-300 job applications every year, I believe that crafting a strong and compelling cover letter—having researched positions you have a fair chance (or a strong argument) of filling, of course—gives the best return on investment; more so than agonizing over your resume itself!
When I review applications, my primary job is to weed applicants out of the process as quickly as possible. I’m quickly scanning. At this level, the resume matters, but that’s only because I’m checking to see if you are severely under (or over, which will draw scrutiny) qualified, have any gaps (no job experience) and if there is any glaring deficiencies like misspelled words (they jump out at you) or just poor aesthetics (this is supposed to be a synthesis of your professional experience boiled down to just 2 pages; it had better be vertically balanced—not as an aesthetic judgement, but as evidence of your attention to detail and level of perfectionism).
This cursory scan is also seeking out things I recognize: names of schools or businesses, places, specific brand names or techniques, turns of phrase. These will raise my interest, but not necessarily make me weight your resume any better. These mostly are due to chance, so unless you know something that wasn’t mentioned in the ad (maybe you know from a friend who is also an employee that the company loves a specific management technique), don’t worry about this.
You should not worry about being weeded out if you’ve done your homework: at this point, I’m not looking for the best applicant, I’m getting rid of the applicants who clearly are not even in the top 50% (or better, depending on what I’m filling). I’m looking for an applicant that “looks” like the best applicant
So now that I’ve judged appearances, I judge personality and character, and that’s where the cover letter comes in.
The cover letter does more than demonstrate you can competently communicate; it shows you know what you are applying for (I don’t want to receive your scattergun blast); that you have critical thinking skills and can synthesize important details from the posted ad and relate them to your own self; and that you are a human being who is confident in their abilities and wants me to benefit from them (I receive a surprising amount of whining).
The cover letter is your chance to make a compelling argument as to why I should hire you (or at least give you an interview). The fact is, you will probably have worked hardest—throughout your entire potential employment—on getting the job in the first place. So if this is your best, it had better be good.
So that’s my spiel on why you should agonize over your cover letter, not your resume. Your cover letter is your thesis, the resume is just the primary source.