How to Write the Perfect Cover Letter
Photo courtesy Creative Commons copyright, flickr user ~ Phil Moore.
I was giving a friend cover letter advice for a librarian position and she suggested I go public with it.
My admittedly limited credentials: I have written cover letters that were ignored, I’ve written cover letters that got me interviews, and I wrote the cover letter that got me my job. I’ve been on hiring committees where I have read dozens of cover letters for both full time and part time librarian positions, and I remember what made some stand out while others headed straight to the circular file. I’m not an expert; the following are just my own opinions. Feel free to agree, disagree, or add your own perspective in the comments.
My headline suggests an unobtainable goal. It is absolutely impossible to write the perfect cover letter. The fact is, every hiring manager, library director, potential boss, or hiring committee will have different criteria and a different perspective. Some institutions have an expectation of formality, while others have a preference for informality, and unless you know personally the person who will read your cover letter, you’ll never know which is the perfect approach.
However, you can do a bit of research to improve your odds. Read the job ad. Read any ancillary posts about the position (such as the library director’s blog, if s/he has one). Try and get a sense of the library’s personality from their website and current outreach methods: are they formal and fussy? Are they casual and fun? Try and match your style to what you can tell about their institutional personality.
Once you’ve done your research, focus on the objectives of your letter. First up, and I feel this is the most important point:
Your cover letter is not a recitation of your experiences.
That’s what your résumé is for.
The goal of your cover letter is to paint a picture: you want to the reader to envision you, in their available position, solving their problems.
The cover letter is a narrative. You are telling a story in which you are the protagonist — a problem-solving, enthusiasm-generating, can-do person who has the skills they are looking for and directly addresses all the areas in which they need help. They should get a sense of who you are and your personality, because that is what sets you apart.
The side benefit of conveying your personality in your cover letter is that if they don’t hire you because of your personality, then they were unlikely to be a good fit for you!
Now for a hail of bulleted advice:
- Instead of listing your experiences, you are relating your experiences to their job.
- If their job ad mentions three main areas of responsibilities for their new position, you better mention all three in your cover letter, and how your skills, attitude or experiences specifically prepare you to fulfill those responsibilities.
- If you’ve been working in a different type of library than the one for which you’re applying, address that in your cover letter. Make it clear that the type of position they are offering is genuinely your career goal, and your experience at other types of institutions just brings you perspective from (x) field that will help you in (y) field.
- If you live far away, make it clear you are willing (and in fact excited!) to move.
- If you’ve had a gap in employment or other red flag, address it.
- This might sound obvious, but…no typos, no grammatical errors, and no spelling mistakes.
- Formatting matters. Put together a clean, attractive page, not just a standard Word template (also true for your résumé).
- Have a responsible friend read it and give you unfettered criticism.
- Always throw away your first draft.
Another question that comes up a lot when discussing library applications: yes, both your cover letter and your résumé can be over a page. This is a professional-level position you are applying for. There are different standards!
Questions? Thoughts? Replies? Rebuttals?
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