Giving advice about application materials like cover letters and resumes is tricky business because there’s such a wide variety of valid opinions out there, and of course it’s a topic that has been covered (ha) at length all over the place. I’ve chosen to focus on cover letters specifically because they’re so weird and mysterious and horrible to write, though I also share a bit about my resume/CV.
The BEST thing I could have done for myself was get early feedback. In mid-September of my final year, I reached out to several librarians I knew – probably around five or six. I had already asked several of them in person if they wouldn’t mind looking when the time was right so they had some preparation that I would approach them. The only reason I had a cover letter prepared so early was because I was applying for a fellowship that didn’t have an exact job description. I started actually submitting applications the first week of November.
The people I approached knew me well, at least as a collaborator on some type of project but usually as a supervisor. Make sure you have plenty of options: some never got back to me, some sent me a quick “hey this looks good to me,” and only two dug in with really helpful feedback.
so what’d they say?
The cover letter is the most important part of your application. I’d heard this before but it’s different when someone who has been on many search committees for the types of position you want says it. It was also pointed out to me that “two solid pages” is standard fare for an academic cover letter. I definitely needed to hear this because I was feeling awkward about going over one page – for so long don’t waste their time by writing more than a page is drilled into your head.
Address every single qualification clearly, mirroring the language in the job ad. One person’s feedback was to “strongly couple” the cover letter and job description, which I like (even though it now reminds me of conscious uncoupling). If there are things you do not have experience with, be sure to address them anyway: how your experience doing x for y will prepare you for handling z as described in the job post. Avoiding the sore spots is not a good plan.
Don’t forget to address soft skills. Including but not limited to: ability to work in a collaborative environment, evidence of leadership, project management skills, potential for research, scholarly work, and professional achievement. It’s likely that some of these things will be listed as qualifications but if they’re not and you can slide them in there that’s a positive thing.
Use strong, direct language. In my initial drafts, I was hedging, using watered-down terms, softening my statements. As soon as this was pointed out, I got it, and from that point on I couldn’t unsee it. It made my writing clearer and stronger. I no longer felt like I was being arrogant or fake when I wrote about the things I had done.
The feedback I got changed my outlook; it’s like it gave me permission to fully own my bid at being a professional. I’m not sure I would have grasped that on my own because there’s that fateful moment in every cover letter where you’re sure someone on the search committee will read it and laugh audibly at how ridiculous you are to think of yourself so highly. In case you haven’t heard this yet: This is a made-up thing in your brain. Be direct about your experiences. It is not conceited. It’s just how cover letters work.
I think another exceptionally important thing to point out is that if you go out seeking feedback you will regularly receive feedback that is not only different but at times in direct opposition to the things you heard five minutes ago from another awesome person in your life. Don’t twist your brain into knots trying to reconcile this. Some advice you take and some advice you don’t take. Or maybe you take 60% here and 15% there. At a certain point you’ll start to develop the flavor of cover letter that works for you and it will feel right. Stay open to new ideas but make your own choices. Don’t be paralyzed by the fear that you’re not doing it right.
finding mental space to write
Cover letters are a strange beast because they demand that you sound impressive and pulled together. In contrast, I found the act of writing cover letters to be demoralizing beyond belief. If you’re tired and drained and already feel like you have no chance of getting the job it doesn’t bring out your best.
Step one is recognizing that it’s not imperative to feel awesome to write a good cover letter. Sometimes I find that admitting I feel wretched about something actually helps me just do the thing that is making me feel like a loser.
Step two is making sure you give yourself enough time to stretch the draft out over a few days. The worst possible situation is to know you have a deadline and have to submit something you’re not totally delighted with. You’ll want to have enough time to look at it with fresh eyes a few times.
the hybrid resume/CV
I was utterly bewildered on how to shape this document to submit it with applications. Some applications ask for a resume. Some ask for a CV. Others still ask for either (thank you, I liked you people). If asked to submit a resume, I was incredibly conflicted when it came to figuring out what the boundaries were for this document. Similar to the cover letter situation, my idea of a resume was a strict 1-2 pages… and when a job application asked for that, I became frustrated at the thought of leaving out things that were crucial to my qualification for the job at hand – namely my presentations. Don’t get me wrong: I was all about condensing and including only selected jobs and presentations as they related to the application. I didn’t need to have my complete CV. However, to me it was just too worrisome to submit a two-page document that didn’t show anywhere near the full picture of the things I had been engaged with.
I asked my mentors about this and they supported a hybrid resume/CV, around four pages, that I ended up adapting for the jobs that asked for a resume. I also asked for feedback through INALJ’s LinkedIn group, explaining that I was torn between following the job application directions strictly and including relevant experience to support my application. I don’t recall the responses entirely but I do remember a number of people saying: “Don’t do anything to deviate from the application directions.” So there’s a good example of conflicting advice. And really what all of it comes down to is the definition of resume, which I am sure varies from person to person. In the end, my hybrid resume/CV was a risk I decided to take.
my application materials
Last but not least, I wanted to make sure I shared my application materials so you could see how they play off each other. I think the main problem with most job app advice is that it’s so decontextualized. I hope by sharing all the materials together you can get a better idea of how I applied the ideas I talked about in this post.
Oh, and I submitted my cover letter to Open Cover Letters this summer but the site doesn’t appear to be updated any more – a shame since it’s such a useful resource.
Your turn. What are your best cover letter and resume tips?