I was happy to see this Career Couch article in the NY Times reminding us that the cover letter is not expendable when applying for a job:
Cover letters are a graceful way to introduce yourself, to convey your personality and to impress a hiring manager with your experience and your writing skill.
They are also the perfect vehicle for telling your story. One of the most common mistakes in a cover letter (other than sending out a poorly-formatted, typo-laden, and/or generic letter—always, always, ALWAYS tailor every letter for every job you apply for—form letters will get you nowhere) is simply repeating what is in your resume in paragraph form. Don’t just repeat the jobs, internships, and other experiences you’ve had—that’s all right there in your resume. Rather, draw your experiences together for the person reading your resume. Don’t leave it to the hiring committee to make conclusions about you and your experience and your suitability for the job—do it for them. Tell your story and show them how the things you’ve done and the person you are make you an ideal candidate for this particular position.
One further point for international career seekers: when attempting to convey in a cover letter why you want to work for that particular organization, simply pointing out that you are interested in international stuff and they do international stuff is not enough. I can’t count the number of times, as NCIV’s internship coordinator, I was put off by cover letters that reeked of the obvious truth that the person was only applying for a position with us because we had the word “international” in our org name.
Rather, make a compelling case in each cover letter why this organization and its mission, and then this specific position within the organization, are particularly suited to your international interests. The more you can show that, yes, you are an internationalist but that you are also extremely drawn to this particular organization and its cause, the more likely your cover letter will be noticed.