The Importance of Being Earnest… in Cover Letters

As I prepare to leave my job, I’m thinking more and more about my experience back on the job market after 5+ years in one place. I’ve also been talking to a number of library school students about to embark on their own job searches, and it’s had me reflecting what I’ve learned from experience and from time spent on search committees.

Try to imagine yourself on a search committee. You’re in a group of about 4-8 people who already have a lot of work to do, and must add a job search and these search committee meetings to their already-packed schedule. Because it’s a committee, there will be a number of meetings, most of which will feel very long and frustrating. There will be arguments. You will read lots and lots of cover letters and resumes. Your eyes and mind will be tired: you want the job candidates to make this easy for you.

For you as the job candidate, there are two ways to make it easy on the search committee. First, relay the important information very clearly by using the cover letter to explain and highlight your resume, as well as to personalize yourself with a friendly tone. Explain anything potentially odd or confusing on your resume with a sentence or two. For instance, address a gap in your employment–the prospective employer probably won’t notice you were enrolled in a full time graduate program at the same time unless you point out. Point out specific aspects of the potential position that interest you, and mention how they correlate to specific skills from another job that the committee may not realize will directly translate. If you’ve worked in any customer service position at all–fast food, retail, whatnot–that’s important experience to list when applying for a position involving reference or other service desk activities (like circulation).

Imagine you’re talking directly to the person doing the hiring, in a casual conversation, telling them why you’re interested in the job, why you’d be a good choice, and what specific skills/experience you have that would make you a good fit. If you are applying because you’re specifically interested in working at the company as a whole or the department, versus just the position–what specifically attracts you to work in that environment? What stands out about the company that you like? This shows not only that you did your homework on the institution, but that you have a genuine interest in it, its organizational culture, and that you will probably be a more enjoyable employee for it. But don’t do this formulaic-ly–if you can’t be genuine, leave it out.

Don’t be too wordy in the letter–be brief, informational, and direct. Clearly organize your paragraphs by subject and try to keep it under 1 page if at all possible, under 1.5 if absolutely necessary. I guarantee you, if you write a 2-page or longer (!) cover letter, I won’t read it–I will skim it and move on. 

Second, use clear formatting and design to help their tired eyes literally focus on the information. Personally, I like to use a sans-serif font because it looks modern, clean, it’s easier to read, and it looks a little “friendlier” and less formally stiff than, say, the traditional Times New Roman. (Don’t take this as gospel, that’s just my personal preference for sans serif fonts.) Don’t use more than two fonts, and do so judiciously–they should compliment each other and use the second font sparingly. If you have your name and contact information at the top of the letter and/or resume like a letterhead, perhaps use one font there and another for the entire body of text. Don’t ever, ever, ever use Comic Sans or any similar “handwriting” font. This may be snobbish, but I guarantee you: if you make even just your letterhead in Comic Sans or a similar font, I will assume that you’re not a professional. (Unless perhaps you’re a baker or provide some other semi-domestic service, in which case I question why you’re applying for an academic job.) Despite my harping on professionalism I love humor and creativity and inventiveness, really. But believe me, you’re not showing any of that when you use those fonts. You show that you know just enough about MS Word to be dangerous, and that you’re probably behind the times technologically. That may not be true, but that’s the instant assumption I (and many others) make.

You can easily help out the search committee in your resume by making sure your education, experience, and service are all listed out in reverse chronological order (duh) and with the years, organizations, and locations listed in the same place for each entry. That may seem silly to mention, but I have seen many resumes from great professionals that just weren’t formatted or templated correctly. It takes time and proof-reading–get a good friend to check over it for you. In MS Word, it can be easier to format everything by using tables, and then set the border lines to “none” so they are invisible.

As far as formatting, I am a big fan of bolding degree names and position titles (if you have the space, perhaps making it one font size larger, too). This helps emphasize the “big picture” of your history and clearly displays how your resume is organized. Include the category labels Education, Experience, and Service (if applicable) in fonts that are 1-2 sizes larger than the body text of your resume, potentially bold them as well–anything so that they aren’t “screaming” at the reader but so that they clearly divide up the information.

When listing duties for a specific position, make them as brief and simple as possible. Even if you’re describing library duties and applying for another library job, try to break jargon down into actual functions–many times, jargon doesn’t cross library types of even specific institutions. There’s a fine line here–collection development and cataloging are pretty standard terms, and it’s not a bad idea to tweak your word to use any specific terms in the job description for which you’re applying. But if you’re applying for a traditional cataloging job and you’re listing a graduate assistantship where you created metadata for digital collections–just go ahead and say either “cataloged digital collections” or “created metadata records for digital collections.”

Use the correct type of resume according to the institution and position for which you’re applying, of course. Curriculum vitas  (CVs) are typically loooong documents that include not only standard resume fair, but also publications, presentations, posters, professional development, teaching record, and/or academic service, and are prevalent at academic libraries where librarians are faculty or faculty-status. However, smaller academic libraries and of course public libraries may request a resume (1-2 pages). You may not have room for all your past positions or all your duties on a standard resume, which is why it’s important to tailor your resume for each job to which you apply–use the most relevant positions and list the most relevant duties for that job application.

What’s the most interesting and/or useful thing you’re learned about applying for jobs?

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4 thoughts on “The Importance of Being Earnest… in Cover Letters

  1. Colleen S. Harris says:

    If the job ad lists required and desired qualifications, bullet point how you meet each of those in your cover letter. I (and the search committees that have hired me over the years) care less about the length of your cover letter than what your score is on the rubric we use to cull out candidates who don’t have the required qualifications. It may sound uncreative, but the search committee members will thank you for it, and you’ll be putting yourself ahead of many others with garbled letters or who do not make it crystal clear how they meet those standards.

  2. Susannah Cleveland says:

    Excellent post, Starr! These details often don’t get covered in library education, but they’re really important.

    One of the things that surprised me the first time I served on a search committee was that the chair had prepared a chart of the requirements and desired qualifications, and we, as a committee, filled in the chart with each applicant, marking how fully they met each qualification. This isn’t a universal approach, by any means, but I think knowing that it sometimes happens can help people think about how they’re accounting for those qualifications in their documentation — your skills really might be reduced to a check mark or a 1-5 rating scale on a page based on what you’ve documented in your application materials. I always try to think of the cover letter as a crosswalk between the CV and the job advertisement and encourage job seekers to use that document to describe – succinctly, as you note – the relationship between their skills and the institution’s needs and to fill in any details that aren’t clear from the CV.

    • Starr Hoffman says:

      Thanks, Susannah! *waves*

      Yes, the grid of qualities according to the job description surprised me, too. It certainly makes the process of narrowing applicants more efficient, though I sometimes wonder if we’re overlooking great candidates because they don’t look good on the grid. Being transparent about these hiring practices with future librarians/academics is helpful, and I’m glad you point out that it’s another example of current shortcomings in education–not just LIS education, but grad school in general. We have TONS of discussions in my Higher Ed program about how doctoral student socialization into faculty life isn’t communicated adequately, students don’t understand a lot of academic procedures, and aren’t adequately prepared for the practicalities of most faculty positions they’ll be seeking.

      Example: most doctoral students are prepared to be researchers, to think that research faculty is the pinnacle, ideal, and the norm. In actuality, the majority of faculty in the US are primarily teaching faculty. And they aren’t trained much (if at all) in how to teach–just how to research. *ARG.*

      ahem. Maybe I should save all that Opinionated-Ness for another post. 😉

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