Question: Even when a job description only asks for a resume, is it important to also include a cover letter and references?”—Stacey B., Chicago

Answer: Absolutely! It’s worth it to take the time to send a complete application—resume and cover letter, with references if applicable. Many times, sending just a resume or a template cover letter with stock phrases indicates that you’re applying for several different jobs at one time, which can make the hiring manager take you less seriously. As a result, you might be eliminated from the running before he or she even looks at your resume. Below, three reasons why the cover letter is critical:

  1. A cover letter tells you what a resume doesn’t. A great one offers insight into a person’s experience, skills and personal life. Given that the information in your resume shouldn’t be repeated in the letter, it’s a fantastic way to share a relevant anecdote about a project you managed or a gift you procured.
  2. You can draw connections across diverse experiences. Have a gap in your employment? Looking to break into the nonprofit sector from the for profit sector? Your letter is a way to expand on these decisions and provide context that just a resume lacks.
  3. It measures writing, editing and overall communications skills. Simply put, a cover letter is a document that can speak volumes about your spelling, grammar and syntax—more so than your resume. Additionally, the hiring manager gets a better sense of your writing and communications skills through how focused (or unfocused), clear (or unclear) and concise you are.

The references are where the hiring manager may provide more leeway. Most positions don’t call your references until the final round of interviews anyways, so it’s up to you whether or not to include the names and contact information of three former employers or professors. Unlike the cover letter, omitting the references does not weigh so heavily in your candidacy.

A renewed job search in the New Year is an exciting venture and one that deserves celebration throughout. Start 2015 strong with a solid resume and cover letter duo and play outstandingly when it’s all said and done (and submitted)!

Nurys Harrigan is president of Careers In Nonprofits, the experts in nonprofit staffing and recruiting with offices in Chicago and Washington, D.C.