You scan a job posting and everything looks normal (responsibilities and requirements, check, lots of jargon related to your field, check), until you come across the following: Please submit a resume and letter of intent.
Huh. That’s a phrase you’ve never seen before: “letter of intent.” Do they mean like a cover letter, but in a different, slightly confusing way?
Well, yes and no. There are plenty of similarities between the two, and also several differences. Here’s what you need to know about letters of intent.
What Is a Letter of Intent?
To play off the name, a letter of intent is about stating your intentions to work for a particular company. There may be a specific role you (or the employer) has in mind, but more often you’re interested in tossing your name into the hat for any opportunities an organization may offer.
“In my experience, I’ve seen an intent letter used usually when there’s not a specific job that a candidate is interested in applying for,” says Kaila Kea, a career coach on The Muse. So you’d probably write one if you’re submitting a general application to an organization you’re a major fan of that isn’t necessarily hiring for your dream job just yet.
How Does a Letter of Intent Differ From a Cover Letter?
It can be easy to confuse a cover letter with a letter of intent. In her experience working with job seekers, Kea differentiates them this way: “Intent letters tend to be a bit more company focused—you’re talking a little more about the employer than the specific job.” They’re also more general in terms of how you talk about your skill set.
“On the flip side of that, the cover letter can be more job-focused, a little more position-oriented, because there’s a specific job that’s posted that you want to speak to,” she adds.
As a result, each type of letter requires a different approach.
For example, says Kea, with a cover letter you might say, “I’m highly interested in a product manager role at [Company] for the following reasons,” while with a letter of intent you’re more likely to say something along the lines of, “I’m highly interested in a managerial role at [Company] for the following reasons.”
Going broader “gives you more wiggle room into what the employer may align you with in terms of roles,” says Kea. Rather than pigeonhole yourself into one path, you allow the hiring manager to slot you into the best-fit scenario.
Letters of intent can also present themselves in situations outside the application process—for example, if you want to follow up after a job fair or a networking event. “Again, there may not be a specific role listed that you’re interested in or that you can apply for at that time,” Kea says, but emailing a letter of intent is a great way to express interest in working for their organization one day.
Why Do Companies Ask for Letters of Intent?
Companies ask for letters of intent mainly when they’re as torn about what they’re looking for as you might be.
“In some cases, employers might have several jobs posted at once for one department or for one specific project,” says Kea. They may ask for a letter of intent because they’re not entirely sure what kind of person they need to fill the gaps in those departments. Maybe they’ll end up hiring two senior-level managers, or they may be just as satisfied with one mid-level exec and one entry-level employee—depending on which people wow them in the application process.
Letters of intent are also frequently used to hire for contractors or freelancers who aren’t your standard W2 employees, because if, for example, a contract falls through, companies can easily line up the next qualified candidate for the job.
Put simply, a hiring manager most likely wants to widen their candidate pool, so they’re looking for anyone and everyone who shows an eagerness and passion for the company.
The type of letter can also vary across sectors. “In my experience, the more established organizations [and] private companies typically go with a cover letter,” says Kea, while letters of intent might present themselves at startups or nonprofits that are more mission-focused and growing at a greater rate.
“So from a candidate perspective, if you’re asked to submit a letter of intent, that may mean that the company is newer, that they’re trying to source talent in a different way, whereas the cover letter [is] more of a classic go-to,” she explains.
How Do You Go About Writing a Letter of Intent?
First off, you want to express plenty of interest in the company itself. “A lot of people get really wrapped up [in saying] ‘I’m the perfect person for this job, I want this job, I’m great for this job, hire me for this job,’” says Kea. “And there’s nothing wrong with that…but one of the things that makes an intent letter so successful is really showing that you identify with the company’s mission, their values, their goals.”
Letters of intent can also be more current. For example, rather than talk broadly about the company, you may mention something about them in the news or a recent update to their product. You want to include “anything that would grab the attention of the employer and also show that you’re keeping up with what’s happening with that organization or in your industry,” she says. (Of course, you could also reference something current in a cover letter, too, if that’s how you want to grab the reader’s attention to start off.)
And, as with a great opening line to a cover letter, “it helps to capture their interest and encourage them to keep reading; that’s of course the goal,” she adds.
If you’re struggling to come up with something specific about the company to discuss, then talk about something that’s engaging about yourself, says Kea. What makes you stand out? What unique skills, experiences, or passions do you bring to the table? And how do these align with what the company needs, given what you know about them?
Overall, you want to make it general enough that you’re showing interest in the company as a whole, “but also specific enough so that the employer walks away with at least one key takeaway from you and your skill set and what you can bring to this organization,” she says.
Let’s go back to the product manager versus managerial role explanation above. If you were to write a cover letter, says Kea, you’d probably try to speak to a particular product manager position. So you would focus your letter on why you’d be good at that job—the experiences you have working on a product’s lifecycle, managing vendor relationships, and collaborating across teams, to name a few examples. You’d also want to make sure you’re addressing specific points in the job description.
But if you were writing a letter of intent, you’d instead want to focus on how you’d be great for a managerial role—whether it’s as a product manager or something else entirely. In this case, rather than mention your product manager experience, you might talk about how you led a team, managed expectations, or coordinated logistics for meetings. You’re referencing specific skills, sure—and your resume is highlighting both sets of skills—but you’re tailoring your letter to what the hiring manager may be looking for.
A Sample Letter of Intent
Let’s say you’re an experienced designer and product manager looking to join a startup in some capacity. You do some digging to figure out who to address your letter to (please, please don’t use “To Whom It May Concern”), and discover that the head of the product department is named Caroline Coffman.
You might send her the following:
Dear Caroline Coffman,
When I was 10, my brother fainted while waiting to ride a rollercoaster at Six Flags. It was an incredibly hot day, and we’d been in line for an hour.
I don’t remember anything else about that day—what other rides we took, what we ate, even who exactly we were with—but I distinctly remember the feeling of wanting to know why. Why did this happen? Why did we have to wait in such long lines? Why hasn’t anyone come up with a solution to the problem of overcrowded amusement parks?
It’s for this reason that I’m thrilled to apply to work on the product and design team at Rydes. Not only does your mission of revolutionizing and adding efficiency to theme parks spark my curiosity and eagerness to fix things, it also reminds me of the bigger picture: that you should leave an amusement park, or any family outing for that matter, with fonder memories than your sibling passing out. Your latest product update featured in Forbes around waiting times on lines especially spoke to me and further encouraged me to write this letter.
A little bit about me: I majored in design and applied arts because I wanted to be self-sufficient in how I solved problems, and because I enjoyed working with my hands as well as my mind. I took on a role as associate UX designer at a small startup because I was fascinated with making websites that were seamless and free of obstacles, then shifted to a product manager position at a larger company because I realized how much I liked collaborating across departments and working with various experts to brainstorm ideas and solutions. To me, the most rewarding part of my day is helping my team members be productive, feel motivated, and achieve their goals. With this experience and skill set, I’m ready to leap back into the startup world and work for a company whose ambitions align with my own.
I want to thank you for considering me to join this fantastic team of innovators and creatives, and I look forward to hearing from you.
Now that you know the difference between a cover letter and a letter of intent, go tell your friends this new fun fact! And maybe consider this new form of applying the next time you set your eyes on your dream company.
Photo of person on laptop at coffee shop courtesy of Tom Werner/Getty Images.
As Editor for The Muse, Alyse is proud to prove that yes, English majors can change the world. Her work has been featured in Fast Company, Forbes, Inc., Motto, CNBC's Make It, USA Today College, Lifehacker, Mashable, and more. She calls many places home, including Illinois where she grew up and the small town of Hamilton where she attended Colgate University, but she was born to be a New Yorker. In addition to being an avid writer, Alyse loves to dance, both professionally and while waiting for the subway.More from this Author