Putting the issue into perspective
In some countries, it is still common to use a cover sheet as the first page of the CV / résumé. It usually features an oversized portrait photograph, the name and contact details of the applicant, and a lot of white space. 🙁 My general recommendation, however, is: Leave it out, even if a lot of others are still sticking to the tradition. Otherwise, you would only be wasting valuable advertising space!
Before I explain the reasons for it in more detail, I would like to put this message into perspective. It may be possible in individual cases that a cover sheet is explicitly requested or needed in a specific context. In such cases, you should of course use a cover sheet and design it according to the specifications. But this exception to the rule only applies in cases where you have factual information that such a requirement exists and what it looks like. Just the fact that many others use a cover sheet is not a satisfactory reason.
Make better use of this valuable advertising space
Here are the reasons for my recommendation. Of course, using a cover sheet does not hurt your chances directly. But you are wasting the most valuable advertising space in your CV / résumé: the first page. Yes, I am deliberately talking about advertising. Because applying for a job always means marketing yourself. In terms of your CV / résumé, it requires advertising for yourself. That is why the same basic principles as for other print ads apply.
Take a closer look at the presentation of successful examples. Now, how do you find out which examples of printed advertising can be considered successful? Simply put, it’s all the ads etc. that effortlessly (for you) attracted your attention recently. This can be a catalog from a mail-order company, a flier with a special offer from your car dealership, or an advertisement in a print magazine. No matter what you consider a successful example in your case, its success will always be based on the same basic psychological principles that you should follow for your applications as well.
Two insights from advertising psychology
Advertising psychology is a broad field, but at this point, we only need two important insights from it. The first one: The presentation and placement of your message should be chosen in such a way that the recipient (in marketing jargon the representative of your “target group”) notices it as effortlessly as possible. Imagine that ads for Coca-Cola were always on the backside of the large billboards and that the front was neutral and only stated that there was an advertisement for a well-known beverage on its back. Would you have the desire and the time to walk around the board and take a look? That would be absurd and that’s why Coca-Cola spends a lot of money on advertising in places where as many people as possible will see it without the slightest efforts on their part.
The second insight is that good advertising usually makes people curious to learn more about what is being offered. In the clear majority of cases, the first presentation of an advertising message is not enough to get someone to make a purchase. Almost always additional steps on the part of the potential customers are necessary before the purchasing decision. They will only be willing to do so when their interest has been sparked enough.
Both these aspects are also relevant to the design of perfect application documents. A cover sheet creates unnecessary effort for the recipient to obtain the really interesting information in your CV / résumé. And that’s also why the most important information about your career should always be on the first page. Your contact information and a professional(!) headshot can easily be placed there too.
The second aspect mentioned above can be taken into account by writing a meaningful summary about yourself and placing it right under your current and concrete “overall” job title as the document heading at the top of the very first page of your CV / résumé. Below, you should continue with the presentation of your current or most recent position in a way that, again, makes the reader really curious to get to know you in person.
A positive side effect
Finally, I would like to mention one possible positive side effect that you can achieve by omitting the cover page. If you don’t conceal the first page of your CV / résumé containing powerful arguments that make you stand out of the crowd, chances are relatively high that your CV / résumé will convey this message to the recipient more often than you might think. This has to do with the practical handling of application documents on the part of the hiring company. As a general rule, the documents are in the hiring manager’s hands before and after the interview several times: when applications are received, printed out, discussed with colleagues, prepared for the interviews, etc.
The more convincing your profile on the first page of your CV / résumé is, the greater the chance that this first page will deliver your message even in situations where the recipient is not actively looking at it. This is especially likely if your last name begins with a letter at the top of the alphabet or if you happen to be the first applicant to be interviewed. In these cases, there is a high chance that your CV / résumé will be at the top of the stack causing the hiring manager to accidentally glance over it from time to time.