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Career Strategies for Librarians
Making Your Cover Letter Work For You
by Tiffany Eatman Allen and Richard A. Murray

You’re all set to make the next big move in your career.  Your resume is a work of art.  You’ve been
scouring all the right journals, mailing lists, and websites for job postings, and now you’ve found a job
you want so much you can taste it.  So now you stick on a cover letter that hits the highlights of your
resume, drop it in the mail, and you’re in the money, right?

Think again.  While a good resume is absolutely essential, many job seekers make the mistake of
treating their cover letter as an afterthought.  That letter, though, is going to be the first thing your potential
new employer sees, so you want to make a good impression.  Before you put that envelope in the mail,
read this list of tips to make sure your cover letter is really working for you.

Cover letters should ...

  • Include the name of the position and where you saw it advertised.  In the first paragraph of your
    letter, your potential employers should know what you’re applying for and how you found out
    about it.  Larger institutions usually have multiple searches going on simultaneously and don’t
    want to guess at what you’re applying for.  Telling them where you saw their position serves two
    purposes: it shows them where they’re getting the most bang for their advertising buck, and it
    demonstrates that you’re familiar with professional journals, know how to search the Web,
    subscribe to professional discussion lists, or at least can read a classified ad.
  • Add value to the resume.  Don’t just repeat or rephrase information that they’re going to see
    again in your resume.  Your resume should be more or less standard no matter what job you’re
    applying for – though some tinkering can be a good thing – but your cover letter needs to be a
    bridge between your resume and the position announcement.  In other words, it should bridge
    the gap between your background and this job.
  • Preview things to come.  Doesn’t that contradict the last point?  No.  Use the cover letter to make
    them want to continue on to your resume.  Give them some teasers of what they’re about to see
    so they’ll want to learn more.
  • Be tailored to the position.  This can’t be stressed enough: directors or search committees don’t
    want to feel like they’re reading a generic cover letter.  Even though you know you’re applying for
    several jobs, and they probably know you’re applying for several jobs – especially if you’re right
    out of school – make it look like you’ve given some thought to this position and not just changed
    the name and address from your five other cover letters.  Search committees want to see that you
    are the best person for their position, not just that you’re a great person in general; your letter
    should say, “Here’s why I’m right for this job,” not just “Here’s who I am and what I know.”  Do a
    little research into the organization and work it into your letter as appropriate.
  • Be positive.  This is not the place to say bad things about your current or past employers. Your
    cover letter is the first time these people are meeting you, and if you immediately start out by
    badmouthing others, it’ll make them wonder what you’ll say about them behind their backs if they
    hire you.  And keep in mind that the library world is deceptively small: your potential employers
    may know the people you’re criticizing, especially if you’re coming from a nearby institution.  Your
    cover letter shouldn’t say, “I want to work at your place because they don’t know what they’re
    doing over here.”
  • Be professional in tone, not casual.  You’re introducing yourself to people you want to work for
    and with, so approach it as you would an actual interview.  This isn’t the place to wow them with
    your GRE vocabulary, though – try to sound natural but professional.  Write directly and concisely,
    so your letter is easy to read.  This isn’t to say that your letter should read like a telegraph (“Need
    job. Send money”) – just don’t confuse your audience by using bizarre sentence constructions
    and flowery prose.  Rather than being dazzled by your literary skills, they’ll wonder what you’re
    trying to hide behind the smoke and mirrors.  Don’t write more than a page or a page and a half,
    and leave out personal information such as hobbies or family status that aren't relevant to the
    position.
  • Be conservative in formatting and presentation.  Look at style manuals and other professional
    correspondence.  Don’t be whimsical or show your artsy side.  It may be boring, but this is the
    place for a classic font, not Comic Sans Serif.  Use a good quality laser printer on white paper.  
    Also, use standard paper as employed in business correspondence: crazy paper is a huge
    frustration for the potential employer.  Very thick paper or paper with an odd pattern doesn’t
    photocopy well for search packets.  It may sound petty, but you don’t want to immediately irritate
    them by jamming their photocopier.
  • Be checked by you and several others you trust for typos.  It sounds obvious, but it’s amazing how
    many cover letters arrive full of typos and grammatical errors.  Librarians tend to be very literate
    people, and for better or for worse, search committees often pounce on silly errors like it's
    feeding time at the shark tank.  A cover letter with errors shows one of two things: either you’re
    unable to communicate in writing, or you’re careless.  Either one could cost you the job.  To go a
    step further, it’s a good idea to put your letter aside for a day or two and then come back to it with
    fresh eyes.  You’re more likely to catch errors if time has passed, and it’s easier to imagine how
    people who are seeing your letter for the first time will perceive it.  If something makes sense to
    you now it will probably make sense to you thirty seconds from now, but you might read it
    differently in a couple of days.  
  • Close with a positive statement regarding future action.  Something like “I look forward to
    speaking with you,” not “If you don’t find anybody better than I am and are really desperate, I’ll be
    here.”

Clearly there’s a lot to keep in mind when you’re writing your cover letter, so take some time and put a lot
of thought into it.  Think of your cover letter like your grand entrance into a ballroom in an old movie: you
want heads to turn because you look stunning and elegant, not because you’re falling down the stairs.

About the Authors

Tiffany Eatman Allen is Assistant Personnel Librarian at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  
Richard A. Murray is Catalog Librarian for Spanish & Portuguese Languages at Duke University.

Article submitted March 2002

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