Career

Applying for Library Jobs Part 3: The Art of the Cover Letter

Cover Letter Cover letters should be called something else. They're so much more than a simple cover sheet for your application materials. They're the one place you really get to tell your story and the best opportunity to make a positive impression.

Please include with your application materials a resume or CV; a letter that communicates (to an entire committee of overworked interviewers) in two pages or less your essence as a human, your personality as a co-worker, how much you really do or do not want this job, your life goals, your equivalent value as an employee in terms of unicorn sparkle dust; and three references.

Sure, you hope to impress a reviewer with the stellar array of experience in your resume, but if you've ever been involved in hiring you know that only one thing from an application is going to stick in your mind past the time you close the file: a truly amazing cover letter. Short of hiring J.K. Rowling or [insert your favorite master of great prose here] to write your letter for you, what can ya do? Start with these tips!

1. Your cover letter gets you in the door.

Despite the complicated connotations of the job your cover letter has to do, it actually has one purpose: to get the reviewer or search committee to want to meet you. Your supporting documents will explain in great detail your accomplishments and contributions, so the task your letter must accomplish is to talk the reader into liking you and wanting to interview you. Most of the tips listed here contribute to this key function of a cover letter. A successful cover letter will inspire curiosity, and then you can knock the socks off the search committee in your interview.

 2. Confidence.

Talk about yourself confidently. Of all the things I've learned about applying for jobs since I became the person doing the hiring, this is the one that I will focus on the most the next time I apply for a position.

Keyword search your letter for the words "think" and "believe," and get rid of them. You don't believe you're a qualified candidate, you know it. You don't think your skills are a perfect match for the job description, they are a perfect match. Simply omit the qualifiers we're all prone to unconsciously inserting because we're a little bit afraid we're under-qualified in some way. Now is the time to be certain that you're awesome. The readers of your letter won't introduce doubt if you don't.

This is particularly important advice for women. Research shows that women tend to underestimate their abilities and under-sell themselves more than men do. Women won't even apply for jobs they don't think they're a billion percent qualified for. (GIRL. You are QUALIFIED.) So at the risk of sounding awkwardly sexist, lady-type-people: write your cover letter in the most dudely way you can.

3. Give examples. Tell stories.

This is the secret of the cover letter: everyone wants to hear stories. People remember stories.

You can tell me what you're good at. You can tell me what you value - and you should! You can make connections between your skills and aspects of the job description - although I could probably make those connections myself. What you absolutely must do is illustrate your abilities and proclivities in the form of at least one story. The story should not begin with the words "once upon a time." That's not what I mean when I say tell stories. I mean give extended examples that explain a project, a process, or an experience in detail, including the conclusion, using specific nouns and pronouns. I would tell a story about an accomplishment I'm particularly proud of to show the kind of work I value doing.

Now I will tell a story. I recently read a cover letter that was impressive in a surprising way. The applicant met all the required qualifications but I only knew that from the resume, which was nice and well-organized. I remember the cover letter because the applicant selected their most interesting, impactful projects and used them to illustrate their skills and abilities. I read three or four short paragraphs that each explained a project, what the applicant contributed, and why it was a formative experience for them. The candidate talked about why they enjoyed each experience as part of their work. One of the examples detailed a teaching project, described the particular student group and the candidate's personal connection to them, summarized the main ideas of the project, and concluded with how the team turned the project into a published work and a presentation. By the end of the letter I hadn't noticed that there wasn't a standard listing of qualifications because I was pleased with reading those stories. I felt like I had a good understanding of what the candidate was capable of accomplishing, and of their competence with written communication. #NailedIt

Telling these stories is a way to show a little bit of your personality. Your writing style will do that, too. This is important because unless the applications are being reviewed by a robot, you really need the reader to like you, or think that they could like you if they met you. A hiring manager is almost always looking for a new person to join the team they work with, and they want a colleague they can get along with. Even if the hiring manager is external to the team they're looking for a good fit for the organizational culture. You don't have to state your place of birth, your Converse vs. Vans preference, your favorite Broadway musical, or share an embarrassing story about your adolescence. Use work examples to show some things about who you are as a person. Allowing glimpses of your personality will also help you to show that you understand and are a good fit for the company culture.

If it's appropriate to the field in which you're applying for jobs and you're comfortable with this approach you can include something that's funny, or a little bit cheeky. (Although, you have to know you can get it right. You have to be sure that you're funny.) It can be refreshing for the reviewer to read something surprisingly human amid the wash of 80s-computer-beige that standard cover letters can blend into.

One more story. Jess once wrote a cover letter in the form of a giant to-do list because the job posting specified "Must like to-do lists." The final, unchecked item on the list was "Get an interview." Clever. And obviously gimmicky. However, Jess tempered the novelty of the format with solid, professional, well-constructed examples of her expertise and experience (and got an interview). If you're brave, and careful, this kind of thing can work. At best, the reviewer is intrigued by your risk-taking and you get an interview to explain your damn self. At worst, you won't get an interview and you'll wonder if the letter was the reason but you'll never know.

4. Be succinct and specific.

Yep.

5. Get help.

Writing is hard. Professional writing is hard, and writing about yourself is hard. Even for good writers, the cover letter can be a wince-worthy exercise in the alchemical transformation of your insecurities into magic words that will convince readers of your confidence and competence - balanced perfectly with the appropriate level of humility, of course.

If you're not a great writer call in a favor from someone who is. Make a deal with them - that you'll get down on paper your main ideas, qualifications, and some of those great examples you're using to punctuate your pitch, and that they'll help you with the prose. (And that you'll buy them a case of beer, obviously.) It's not cheating to have someone else help you with something simultaneously difficult and high-stakes. In the end it will still be your writing. A good writing coach should be able to help you rearrange your ideas, adjust the flow, and tweak the language while retaining your voice. You can lean on a friend, seek out a mentor, or hire a professional.

6. Know the conventions and follow instructions.

  • Keep it to less than two pages. Limiting it to one page isn't important when you're applying for a professional position.
  • Format your letter properly.
    • You can finally use the business letter style you learned in high school composition!
    • Include a matching header across all your application materials (resume, cover letter, references page, etc.).
    • Follow the instructions in the posting. If format isn't specified, always submit PDFs. Create one PDF of all your documents unless the application system requires you to upload them separately.
  • Find the correct person to whom you should address the cover letter. People overlook this shockingly often. It's not that hard. You're a librarian...librarian it.
  • Make an electronic signature. This will impress old-school readers, and insure that reviewers who value technological ability highly don't knock you for not having one.

7. A formula for cover letter success.

A librarian I admire gave me this formula for cover letters. It's simple, easy to follow, and it clearly works - my library hired this librarian, I was on the search committee, and I specifically remember her cover letter! That's the goal, isn't it? If you like formulas and instructions, take this advice.

Paragraph 1: What you’re applying for.

Paragraph 2: Illustrate as briefly as possible how you fulfill every single one of the listed job requirements.

Paragraph 3: Illustrate how you fulfill the preferred job qualifications.

Paragraph 4: Anything you think is important that you didn’t get to talk about previously.

8. Write a meaningful conclusion, or skip it.

Can't come up with anything good? You've reached the end of letter-writing process and the well is dry? Write something that's worth reading in your final paragraph, or have mercy on your audience and go Spartan on the conclusion. They're at the point where they're skimming anything that isn't riveting, anyway, right? Keep your concluding statement ultra-short and simple, rather than wasting three sentences on generic form-letter copy. Forgettable writing is a waste of space, especially here. This isn't an introduction/three main points/conclusion essay and a summary isn't necessary, so simply write a nice salutation and sign your name.

Recommended resources for cover letter writing:

  • Open Cover Letters
    • A collection of self-submitted, real letters from librarians who got hired. Read for inspiration. Ignore the gimmicky ones (trust me).
  • ineedaresume
    • Our favorite tool for creating beautiful resumes does cover letters, too!

More from us on constructing a resume for library jobs, polishing up your personal brand, and killin' it in the interview.

Applying for Library Jobs Part 2: Get Ready for Internet Stalking

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All librarians are really top-notch at one special, particular task: researching the hell out of anything. Duh. That includes library job candidates! Why wouldn't it?

The first thing I do when I receive an application for a job I'm hiring or on the search committee for is immediately and thoroughly Internet-stalk the candidate. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Goodreads, Google images, personal websites, blogs, nameplate sites...all of it. If it exists in cyberspace, I will find it. I don't engage in cyber detective work as a way to dig up dirt on potential hires, to find out if there's anything important about a person that's not likely to be shared in an interview, or even to prevent making a potentially disastrous hire. I actually do all of this digital legwork to learn more about the candidate as a person because I want to be excited about the people we're hiring to work with side-by-side, day in and day out. I'm looking for evidence that the candidate is smart and qualified, of course, but I'm also looking for clues about their hobbies and their sideline rescuing three-legged cats and their Etsy store where they sell handmade replicas of Harry Potter wands.

The point here is this: be a real person on the Internet.

This is absolutely important in librarianship - a field with a focus on public service, that supports scholarly communication and dissemination of information in its core functions, and that is heavily communicative in a range of professional avenues. As a community, librarians exhibit a strong tendency to share and this blurs the lines between scholarly/professional/personal communication. You can make your own decisions about how open to be in communicating about your work and your career in librarianship (nobody's going to make you start a librarian lifestyle blog!), but realize that hiring managers will be skeptical about a candidate that can't be found online.

You don't need to have a presence on every social and professional sharing site (who's got the time?!) but here are the most important steps you have to take to make sure your Internet presence is in shape to make you look good.

1. Google yourself every way possible

You don't have to sanitize your Facebook to get ready for Internet stalking, but you should Google yourself thoroughly to see what's findable.

  • Use Incognito (Chrome) or Private (Firefox) browsing, or better yet, go to the public library and log on to a public computer to remove algorithmic and browsing history bias from your search results.
  • Search your name, and search every possible variant.
  • Search: your name + your hometown, your name + your school,  your name + your current employer, your name + library.

2. Get your resume information out there

You can choose how you do this, but make sure your resume information shows up somewhere online. The easiest way to do this is by creating a fully-filled out LinkedIn profile (and making sure it's findable), but there are lots of options.

  • Buy a domain and set up your own website. Use it to blog professionally, to house your full C.V., and definitely include an About Me page.
  • Create a nameplate site using a tool like about.me (here are mine and Jess's).
  • Use your university-provided webspace to create your own site.

3. And your portfolio

A lot of librarian jobs require skills or experience that are best communicated through examples of your work. Even if the job posting doesn't require a portfolio, get yours together in an online location and you've got it ready to go the next time an interviewer says "give me an example of..."

  • Web editing skills. Don't just list "HTML, CSS, and Javascript" on the Skills section of your resume. Go one better and create webpages that demonstrate those skills in action. Showing is better than telling.
  • Digital exhibits.
  • Instructional design. Showcase learning objects or courses you've created for real projects, for class, or on your own to show your capabilities.
  • Catalog records.
  • Finding aids.
  • Proposals, grants, or other professional writing samples.
  • Projects. Even if the area of librarianship you work in doesn't required you to produce tangibles like webpages or guides or tutorials, you can write up projects you've completed and focus on the project outcomes.

4. SEO

Okay, librarian, do some detective-work and figure out how to get your best stuff (like your personal website) to rise to the top of a Google search for your name.

5. LinkedIn. You have to.

Okay, here's the deal. Not everybody likes LinkedIn but you don't really have a choice anymore if you want to be competitive. It has turned into the place employers go to stalk future employees, and recruiters use it heavily as well.

  • Adjust your privacy settings to hide information based on your comfort level, but make sure that at least a limited profile can be found and viewed by anyone.
  • Update your jobs, experience, descriptions and dates.
  • Add projects, publications, and presentations. Link to the full text or slide deck for stuff you're proud of!
  • Follow LinkedIn's profile-building prompts - they make things super easy - and be thorough. We're librarians, we like to see all the fields filled in. We can't help it.
  • Make a few friends. The whole point of LinkedIn is professional networking, so get happy with the Connect button. (I espouse very different criteria for friending on social media than on LinkedIn.)
  • If you're going to use a different platform to really showcase your work make sure your LinkedIn profile exists nonetheless, and that it points clearly to your other professional-profile-thingy.

6. Show a little bit of your personality

We all want to hire and work with people we like. You're likable! So find a way to let a little or a lot of that shine through in your online presence.

  • Goodreads. Totally optional, but especially if you're applying for a public library job or anything that includes readers' advisory, a Goodreads account is a nice way to show off your book knowledge or your obsession with Revolutionary War paranormal romance interests.
  • Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram... No instructions necessary. Okay, I will say this. You don't have to create a separate, professional account where you only post library-related things. You can if you want to, but you can also just, you know, be your regular smart amazing self.
  • Have a resume site, a bio site, a blog, or a personal website? Include tidbits about yourself there, as well.

I recognize that a lot of people have privacy concerns regarding their online information. That's smart and you should definitely only share what you feel comfortable with. If you normally keep your online presence locked down tight, you might have to loosen your privacy settings just a mite while you're job-hunting. Also...librarianship is a very community-centric and collaboration-focused profession, so consider how you want to go about participating in that community while keeping your privacy philosophy intact.

So, there are a lot of options. You don't have to do ALL THE THINGS to be ready for Internet-stalking. Pick the avenues that work best to show off your work and your talents, make sure you're Google-able, and then cross your fingers that your mom won't post any naked bathtub pictures of you for #TBT before you get yourself hired.

Applying for Library Jobs Part 1: What to Actually Put on your Library Resume

Jess and I have served on search committees, and we've seen lots of library resumes. But we also supervise the graduate assistants who work in our library's Learning & Research department. That means we interview and hire them. We train them. We evaluate them. We mentor them and provide professional development as best we can. We also get really, really invested in their lives and their success. We can't help it. We help them get jobs when they (sob!) leave us.

One thing we do is help them curate and develop their online presences, professional portfolios, and their application documents - resumes, CVs, and cover letters. 100% of the students who have held assistantships at our library and graduated from library school have found full-time librarian jobs. It would seem that something is working. So we're going to share with you some of the top advice we give fledgling librarians, starting with what to actuallyinclude on your resume. Everybody knows to put their education information and relevant past job experience. Duh. Here's detailed guidance to choosing what items to include and how to talk about your experience. (Whew, finally, right?!)

1. Basic info: Where to find you on the web

Resume readers are going to Google you. That's a given. Make it easy for them to see what they want: a candidate who is conscious of their career (LinkedIn profile or nameplate site), someone who is comfortable with technology (online portfolio), and someone who's curious and communicative (Twitter handle or blog). You don't need to put all of these things on your resume, but you absolutely should provide a link for one of them. P.S. Part Two of this series covers how to get ready for Internet stalking for more help on this! 

Also critical: hyperlink your email address so that you are only a click away!

2. Don't waste space on an Objective Statement

The Objective Statement is out of fashion in the realm of professional resumes and additionally, if you've sent your resume to the right place and person in a packet of application materials, they know what job you're applying for. Use the space for something else:

  • A resume summary statement, if it adds to the story you're trying to tell in the document

  • A personal/professional bio

  • More of #5, below

  • Special sections that highlight your unique abilities, like an industry-specific skills section

    • In libraries, there are LOTS of special skill sets you could highlight: teaching, cataloging, metadata, electronic resources, readers' advisory, scholarly communication...

    • Something that communicates your "soft skills"

3. Don't delete "irrelevant" jobs or experience

A lot of types of experience are relevant to librarianship or library jobs. Keep your items that show experience, training, or expertise in:

  • Customer service, sales, or retail

  • Teaching or public speaking

  • Leadership or supervision

  • Clerical work

  • Service or cashiering

  • Doing a job nobody else wants to do

Only begin to omit jobs or experience when you have morerelevant experience that you need to make space for.

I was once on a hiring committee that chose a candidate as a finalist because in addition to her "relevant" experience she used to manage a grocery store. The committee chair used to work in retail management and said that she values that particular type of experience highly. Between candidates with similar library experience, the retail job got the candidate an in-person interview.

4. Move from Jobs to Experience

Very basic resume formats will list Education, Jobs, Awards & Honors, Volunteering, and maybe Special Skills as the main section headings. You deserve better. Make the sections on your resume work for you. In particular, by this point you probably need to switch from listing your jobs to listing Work Experience (or just Experience, if some of the things you want to put there were unpaid and you're not comfortable considering them work). As you apply for career-level jobs you need to describe the depth of your experience, not just list job titles.

There are standards for resumes, to be sure, but as long as you keep things clear and organized and don't get TOO crazy you can search around for a set of sections that best showcases what you bring to the table. If you do lots of volunteer work (hopefully related to your field in some way) and want to emphasize that, create a Volunteering and Service section to highlight your many organizational involvements and contributions. By contrast, if you just have one great volunteering experience to list, use it to bolster your amazing Experience section instead of leaving it hanging out by its lonesome as a category of one.

5. Tell a story about each job or experience item

While there's not really space for prose on a resume, use bullet points under each Experience item to tell the story of what you did, how amazing you were at it, and what lasting impact you made on your colleagues or company. Include numbers if you have them.

Under each item in your Experience section, use bullet points to outline your achievements and accomplishments and the impact of your contributions. Don't just list out the duties or responsibilities each job included.

  • Responsible for overseeing Everlasting Gobstopper packaging and meeting daily quotas, direct supervision of 25 Oompa Loompas, and periodic chocolate waterfall maintenance.

  • Innovated a new method for improved chocolate production that was subsequently adopted factory-wide, increasing profits on Wonka Bars by 30%.

  • Implemented Friday dance parties on the chocolate riverboat, resulting in improved employee morale measured by increased Oompa Loompa retention.

6. Include your degrees and possibly relevant coursework

Create an Education section (i.e. degrees earned and where) and then also list experiences related to your education as items in your Work or Experience section if appropriate. If you held any kind of significant position - paid or volunteer - that was a major component of your education, include it and use it to illustrate the extent of what you learned and the importance of your degree. For instance, if you were a graduate teaching assistant, a tutor in your subject area, a regular library volunteer, or the founding president of an academic organization specific to your discipline, list it under Experience and show how much you learned or led through holding the position. In other words, don't roll important experiences in with listing an earned degree if they warrant their own entry under Experience.

Alternatively, you can make a section called Relevant Coursework and list classes there. This is a section I like to see on resumes if it represents important recent experience. Of course, this section gets superseded by paid work experience as soon as you've got it.

7. Be specific about your proficiency level with different technologies

Include all the technologies you have experience working with, and find the right names to use when you talk about them. Know if they're standalone or web-based, open source or proprietary, and industry standards or leading-edge developments.

  • Productivity suites - Microsoft Office, the Google Productivity Suite

  • Operating systems - Microsoft Windows, Mac OS, mobile operating systems

  • Instructional design technologies - Learning Management Systems, softwares to create learning objects

  • Anything you know about editing - photo, video, or web editing and the relevant softwares, protocols, or programming languages

  • Library-specific softwares and systems - ILSs, ERMs, InterLibrary Loan systems, cataloging platforms, or metadata standards

8. The one-page resume is dead

Unless the job posting is specific about one page only, most professional jobs warrant 1.5-2 pages. Make them count. Don't include more stuff just to get to the end of the second page.

A Word on Formatting

  • Always always ALWAYS send your application documents as PDFs. There is no other acceptable option. After you've spent all that time choosing a font that's both professional and suits your personality, perfectly aligning everything, and considering your use of white space you need to submit your resume using a file type that will retain all of that formatting. PDF is the way to go.

  • Use tagging, or the built-in section headings function, to create an accessible document that automated resume screeners can read. If you create your document in Word and then make sure you save it as a PDF using the accessibility options, you'll end up with a nicely formatted file that anyone can open, with machine readable text, and with tagged section headings that software will recognize as metadata.

  • Submit your documents separately if that's what's requested, combine them in to a single PDF if not.

  • File names - If there's no file naming convention specified, create a meaningful file name that includes your name. "Resume.pdf" will be lost in the shuffle.

Tools for Resume Creation

That's all for Part One! Stay tuned for the rest of the series; we'll cover creating your online personal brand, writing cover letters, and how to win the hearts of weirdo librarians during The Interview. In the meantime, check out this super solid advice about both applying and interviewing. I agree with pretty much everything he says: How to Land a Library Job .

Have a question about applying for library jobs or perfecting your resume? Let us know in the comments!