By Leslie Engelson
Library Journal’s 2011 Placements & Salaries Survey) indicated that there are too many applicants for the number of available positions. Suffice it to say, the job market is extremely competitive. Your application package will likely be one of dozens (at least) to be quickly perused (maybe read) and just as quickly determined to be in or out of contention.
Job seekers, pay attention! I have some advice for you from the perspective of someone who has served on a variety of search committees and has recently had my own successful job search. This advice will help you get a job or, at least, an interview. What I have to say is not new, but surprisingly, very few job seekers follow it.
I cannot over emphasize the importance of your cover letter. It is your first, and sometimes only, opportunity to convince the members of the search committee to read your curriculum vitae (CV) or resume. Should they choose to do so, make sure they can find the information that they need to determine whether or not you get an interview. Here are some important points to keep in mind:
Send your cover letter to the correct person or steering committee at the correct institution. No matter how busy you are, take the time to ensure that you get the right letter and application package in the right envelope. If it is sent to the wrong institution, it’s a quick trip to the circular file (seriously) for your application package no matter how qualified you are.
Know the difference between a resume and a CV and send the appropriate document. A concise summary of your education, experience, and skills that fits within a one to two page resume is all that is required for a non-academic position. A CV is more appropriate for an academic position where a listing of things such as publications, memberships, and professional development experiences is important. Format this document to draw attention to information instead of obscuring it.
In that regard, bullet points are much easier to read than paragraphs. Despite the fact that your BA was in creative writing and you enjoy crafting a paragraph, I have a deadline for a paper looming, a project to finish, an evaluation to perform, and a class to prep. Unless the job requires a budding novelist, just give me bullet points. Clear and concise bullet points.
Customize each letter, as well as the CV, to the position description so the search committee can see that you’re qualified. It’s easier and quicker to send out multiple copies of the same CV and cover letter, but easier doesn’t mean better. The particular education, experience, and skill set that suit one position might not apply to another, and as a reader of your CV, I don’t want to waste my time reading irrelevancies. The point of the cover letter and CV is to sell yourself! The best way to do that is to highlight, quickly and clearly, your qualifications. Match up your experience and education (library related or not) with the specific qualities the potential employer is seeking. For instance, if you learned program design by planning story time at a public library or demonstrated organizational skills by creating a database of donations for your sorority fund-raising auction, make that connection to the job you’re applying for explicit. The more your education, experience, and skills set correlate, the better your chances for an interview.
Along this same line, address all the required as well as desired or preferred qualifications in the cover letter. I want to know from your cover letter if you qualify for this job before I spend additional time on your CV. Don’t go into detail here; you can save the detail for the CV. It is important to note that the person hired must possess the required qualifications or the person hiring could make the institution vulnerable to legal action. Desired or preferred qualifications are optional to have but should still be addressed in the cover letter. As an example, the position advertisement states that experience with grant writing is preferred and your only experience is a grant writing workshop. Make note of that in the cover letter, otherwise, that information might get lost in your CV. An excellent resource for examples of cover letters is Stephen X. Flynn’s blog, Open Cover Letters. Flynn, an emerging technologies librarian at the College of Wooster, shares examples of successful cover letters. You might think you know how to write a cover letter or compose a CV or resume but, trust me, you probably don’t, and looking at current, successful examples could give you some job winning ideas.
On a pragmatic note, make sure your grammar, punctuation, and spelling are correct. It is difficult to consider the reliability of other claims in your cover letter or CV if you indicate that you communicate effectively in writing but, at the same time, misuse commas and/or apostrophes or write incomplete or grammatically incorrect sentences.
Speaking of writing skills, be thoughtful and careful about word choice in order to reflect your normal professional communication style. Using adjectives in a way that strains the credibility of your description may make your application package memorable but not in a good way. For instance, describing a small, rural library as “prestigious” or the location of that library as “enchanting” bring to mind the idiom: “Flattery will get you nowhere.” Use a thesaurus to prevent redundancy and select words that are precise and simple.
Always have someone else read both the cover letter and the CV or resume. Someone with a fresh eye has a better chance of discovering errors, miscommunications, or missing elements. They can help your application package become the best representation of what you want the members of the search committee to know about you.
Finally, read tips for how to succeed at other parts of the job hunting process such as researching the institution, getting quality references, and interviewing. An excellent place to start is Mary Jane Kelsey’s article “How to Help Your Job Hunt (and Make Life Easier for the Search Committee at the Same Time)” (AALL Spectrum. v. 15 no. 6, April 2001. pg. 26-27).
Leslie Engelson is a technical services librarian at Murray State University in Kentucky. Submissions for Backtalk should be 850 to 900 words and sent to Michael Kelley at firstname.lastname@example.org