Search & Screen, or Search & SCREAM? Cover Letters and Resumes

After being on the interviewing side of things last year, it was nice to be on the hiring side this year. I recently reviewed cover letters and resumes for a search and screen committee at my academic library. At times, I wanted to do a “cover letter intervention” (perhaps, a new reality TV show?)!

This spring, I blogged about cover letters, resumes, and interviews. Also, Jenica Rogers on her Attempting Elegance blog had a must-read post on The Torment of Terrible Cover Letters. I would also encourage anyone applying for librarian positions to look at Stephen X. Flynn’s Open Cover Letters website for ideas.

Throughout the process of reading cover letters and resumes, here is the most disconcerting thing I observed:

You write well. I can tell you are intelligent. You may even have an advanced degree beyond the MLS. But your cover letter does not address the points highlighted in the job ad. Therefore, you will not make the cut.

It’s a simple as that. For all the advice out there on tailoring your cover letter, there are plenty of applicants that do not. Don’t set yourself up for failure. Tailor your cover letter!

Cover letter & resume advice:

  • If applying via email, do not write your cover letter in the body of the email. Use attachments. Or more to the point: you should follow the directions stated in the job ad.
  • Am I the only one that doesn’t like cover letters in bullet point format? I need to asses your communication skills through your cover letter. To me, a bullet point cover letter is a cop-out. I want paragraphs!
  • In regards to paragraphs: Your cover letter should not be just one short paragraph.
  • Don’t rattle off your job duties in your cover letter. That’s what the resume is for. Instead, use the cover letter to provide examples and anecdotes that relate to the position that you are applying for:

Case in point: if you’re applying for a  children’s librarian position, your resume might list doing “story times” as one of your responsibilities. However, you could use the cover letter to highlight some sort of innovative program you did with story time. Or if you are an academic instruction librarian, your resume might list “assessment” as one of your activities. You could then use the resume to spotlight a special assessment technique you implemented with students.

  • Don’t shoot yourself in the foot by writing: “I don’t have experience in…” Instead, turn it around and explain how you have transferable or related experience.
  • Appearance: pick a standard font. I would stay away from Courier–it looks like a typewriter–and it’s 2011, folks!
  • It’s OK if the cover letter goes onto a second page (which is sometimes a no-no in the business world). I prefer this over an 9-point font cover letter with half-inch margins! But if you go over 2 pages, I tend to wonder if you have problems “getting to the point.” 🙂
  • Make sure your cover letter and resume looks “clean” in overall appearance – I’ve seen some that look like they have been scanned in and saved electronically. They can be difficult to read.
  • I know you are wonderful, amazing, etc… But I always appreciate a cover letter that addresses my library and its needs/mission. Do your homework. Look over the library website and any parent website (university, school, local government, etc…).
  • Use common sense: Do not write, “I have experience with personal computers.” You are a librarian; having experience with personal computers is UNDERSTOOD!
  • Use “action” words on your resume (e.g., designed, implemented, initiated, managed). Google it! You’re a librarian.
  • Remember: There’s a fine line between promoting your abilities and overstating your qualifications. Be careful! Overstating your qualifications will become apparent in a subsequent interview.

So what do we do with all of these cover letters and resumes? At my place of work–a state institution (and I’m sure it’s the same with most private institutions, too), we have a strict set of protocols to follow. We use an Application Review Form that lists all of the criteria that were included in the job posting. The search and screen committee then rates each cover letter/resume based on EACH of the criterion using a scale: below average – average – above average – can’t assess.

The applicants who rank the highest are the ones that make it to the next stage of the interview process. This is why it’s so vital to use your cover letter and resume to address the various points highlighted in a job ad. So what other cover letter and resume advice would you suggest? Let me know!

Cover Letters, Resumes, and Interviews, Oh My!

Recently I served as a reference for a friend and former co-worker of mine. After extolling the virtues of my friend over the phone with the hiring committee, I thought: “Gee, I’m now a reference! Where did the time go?” After 8 years of being a librarian, serving on hiring committees, and watching countless candidate interviews, I decided to put together a list of some tips for composing cover letters & resumes, as well as preparing for interviews. If you have something you’d like to add, please leave a comment below.

Cover Letters & Resumes:

  • Strategy: Your cover letter & resume should address your experience/knowledge with the requirements/qualifications that are in the job announcement.  Even an “awesome” cover letter & resume that does not address any of the bullet points in the job announcement will NOT get you called in on an interview. When I’m on a hiring committee, this is what I do: I make a spreadsheet listing our various requirements/qualifications and columns with the names of applicants. Then I go down the rows and check off if you have addressed each of the requirements/qualifications based on your cover letter & resume content. The applicants with the most checkmarks are the ones who get called for interviews. Example: I can’t GUESS if you have experience or knowledge working with a diverse group of library users. You need to TELL me in your cover letter & resume!
  • Yes, I know YOU are wonderful. But I want to know HOW your wonderfulness is applicable to this job! Please explain it in the cover letter.
  • Generic cover letters ALWAYS go to the bottom of the pile. Each job is different. Each requires a different cover letter. And yes, I have seen a cover letter mistakenly addressed to the “wrong” library. No one said getting a job is easy. See the “Strategy” section above.
  • I don’t need to see an “objective” listed on your resume. Your objective is to get the job 🙂 and I know and understand that! Don’t waste the precious space.
  • Length of cover letter & resume: People OBSESS about this. For me, it’s not a big deal as long as you are following the instructions/guidelines. For cover letters: I think it’s OK to go over one page–but generally 2 pages tops. Be careful with font size and margins. Once I read a one-page cover letter in 8-point font with quarter-inch margins! It would have been OK to bump up the font size and go onto the second page. As for resumes, you DO NOT have to follow the business standard of a one-page resume. It’s OK to have multiple pages.
  • I prefer a simple chronological resume, but as long as I am able to determine your skills, experience, and knowledge, I’m not too picky.
  • Don’t overwhelm me with too many fonts, please.
  • Include your references on your resume, or on an additional page (see below).
  • Include a website address on your cover letter and/or resume to your online portfolio.
  • Proofread, proofread, and then consider proofreading some more. Read your cover letter and resume aloud! Have a friend, colleague, or mentor read it, too. I have overlooked a small typo on resumes/cover letters (and am guilty of doing it myself at some point), but not everyone is as forgiving. If “good verbal and written communication skills” are a requirement for the job, then you must not mess up here.
  • Job Hunting Tips and Links

Application Process:

  • Follow the instructions explicitly. If the job announcement says to send your materials via “snail” mail, then do it! Yes, I know you can look up our library’s email address and send it in electronically, but that’s not following the directions. Some libraries/institutions have very specific policies on the hiring process and you will want to follow the directions as they are stated. Anyone with an “attention to detail” will follow the directions. Don’t throw yourself out of the running on something small like this.
  • If you are allowed to submit your materials via email, remember this: your email message should not count as your cover letter (e.g., “Please accept my resume in consideration…”). No! We want an actual cover letter and resume attached to your email.
  • Make sure any electronic attachments can easily be opened by your potential employers. PDF is always great (and follow the library’s instructions on file types–if they give you any).
  • Any electronic attachments should have a helpful file name (e.g. “YourLastName_Resume” or “YourLastName_CoverLetter”).
  • Oh and about that email address: use an email handle that sounds professional.
  • References: If the job announcement says to include references, then do it! I’ve served on hiring committees where we asked for references and some applicants didn’t provide them upfront (again, not following directions!). So, it creates more time on our end trying to track applicants down and asking for their references. On most of the hiring searches I’ve been involved with, we only contact your references if you are a serious candidate.
  • Cold-calling: I know some people in “libraryland” encourage you to call and speak with the library director/supervisor about a job opening that has been posted. You’ll want to tread carefully here. Personally, I would avoid calling, but that’s my personality style. Once someone called me after I had posted a job and asked, “I was thinking about applying, but I wanted to know if you’re able to raise the salary amount by $5,000.” Eeeek. I treat all applicants equally and will spend a good deal of time reading your cover letter and resume. For me, a phone call does not place you ahead of the pack.

Preliminary Interview:

  • For preliminary interviews, such as a phone interview: schedule yourself enough time to get where you need to be (e.g., home). If at all possible, do the interview in a quiet place, door shut, pets away, TV off, etc.
  • Confirm the date/time, and if needed, the correct time zone.
  • Before the preliminary interview, think about some questions that might be asked of you. See: Sample interview questions.
  • Generally, you will be given a few minutes to ask the hiring committee questions. Please do! We are excited to be interviewing you, and we hope you are excited in return. See: Sample questions to ask.
  • At the end of a preliminary interview, make sure and ask about the time line and process for any in-person interviews and start date, etc.

In-Person Interview:

  • It’s ALWAYS ok to dress conservatively for an interview. No jeans, no t-shirts, no sneakers. As you probably have seen, librarians as a group, aren’t known for their fashion sense, but please dress professionally. For a male: I’d at least want to see shirt/tie/trousers (I’ll admit, I don’t own a suit!),  for a female (you have more options): business suit, skirt/blouse, trousers/blouse–or throw in a cardigan/sweater w/ the combo. In reality, I only wear a tie at work when I absolutely have to, and jeans on Fridays or in the summer are the norm. But not on an interview day. Dress for success–that’s what they say.
  • Arrive on time, or a few minutes early–especially if it’s a large library and you need to be at a specific office.
  • If the interview day is long, be prepared to answer the same question multiple times by different groups or individuals. Pretend you’re answering it for the first time (with enthusiasm) because the person you are telling it to is hearing it for the first time.
  • Come prepared with a list of questions that you would like to ask your potential supervisor, hiring committee, co-workers, etc. Failure to ask questions is a BIG negative in my book! See: Sample questions to ask.
  • Emphasize the key points as to why you are the BEST person for this job. You will generally be able to emphasize this in your responses to questions asked of you (e.g., “What is it about this job that interests you?”)
  • Remember, even in quieter moments of the interview day, you still need to be “on” – avoid sharing anything that might be considered unprofessional.
  • Presentations: If required to give a presentation make sure you have multiple options if your tech fails (e.g., have presentation on a flash drive and also email it to yourself). If using handouts, bring plenty. Follow any instructions given on presentation topic, etc. Clear up any questions about the presentation before the interview day.
  • A good library will factor in bathroom breaks, etc… If you need to use the restroom or get a drink of water, by all means ask!
  • Don’t forget to smile 🙂 , shake hands, demonstrate good body language, etc…
  • Remember to ask about the time line for the interview process, when a decision will be made, etc…
  • After the interview, sending a thank you card or thank you email to the potential supervisor or hiring committee is always appreciated.
  • See: Interview Pitfalls to Avoid

Nailing the Library Interview

In keeping with the spirit of moving into this WordPress thing, I’ve folded the Nailing the Library Interview site into my WordPress blog. Originally, it was on PBWorks, but this will allow me to more easily update it. Also, it allows for easier feedback from readers.

Nailing the Library Interview is divided into four sections:

I’m always looking for suggestions of questions to add, etc.. so feel free to comment!