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.
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.
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.
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).
- 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.