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Interviewing – Cover Letters

This set of posts (there will be a whole series–at least three, though I’m thinking of splitting it out further) was written while I was applying and interviewing for positions. It seemed gauche and unwise to post information about my interviewing experiences and lessons learned, even as I was learning them, but I feel like it’s probably reasonable to share now. Better to share than not, right? I wouldn’t have bothered writing it up if I didn’t think I had potentially beneficial advice to share, and, having been on the other side of the table, albeit in an entirely different field, I feel like I bring a different perspective to the discussion. Argue with me in the comments if you think I’m off base. :) But I hope this helps somebody.

Advice for any former engineers, consultants, or business people: librarians seem to take cover letters really seriously. I felt some culture shock at this revelation–I mean, I more or less believed the people who said so and really tried to do a good job on mine, but I’ve definitely had to learn the cover letter writing skill from scratch. I know when I was applying to engineering jobs, I always included one as a courtesy (so they could data-mine it and determine the best place to advertise positions, mostly), with proper grammar and everything, but I didn’t expect it to be read by the hiring manager. When I was interviewing candidates for consulting jobs, there were rarely cover letters, and when they existed, I usually ignored them; they all said the same thing, anyway.

The library world isn’t like that. I didn’t get calls back on my first few applications, but, although I’ve changed very little in my vitae or references, I am getting some calls, now (not for every application–I’m no rockstar–but for an acceptable number of them, something I’ll get back to momentarily); the only thing that’s really changed/improved is my cover letter phrasing. Although I still try to address the bulk of the job requirements, I have definitely shortened it, on average, and gotten to the point much faster. In responding to the job advertisements with long lists of requirements, I still have a long letter, but I try to address multiple requirements in a single sentence, where I can. I do my best to find the one thing I can say, related to the job, that will most impress them or catch their eye, even if it means not addressing one of the less meaningful requirements (bad example: “If you like this letter, clearly I can communicate well in writing”). If I have a punchy one-line anecdote that sounds awesome, it goes in. “I wrote a paper on [a relevant topic], which I am considering submitting for publication,” was one pretty successful statement–it told them, immediately, that I have ambition and that I know–or think I know–a fair bit about the topic at hand.

I say “my cover letter,” but, although it follows the same general form, it is very different for each job I apply to. I reuse a little bit, job to job, especially in jobs that are similar–all the techy ones have similar requirements, all the referency ones have similar requirements, etc.–but I end up writing a fair bit from scratch, as well.

I have a really important piece of advice, here, which I think is the key to my not having received a truly demoralizing number* of pre-phone-interview rejections. I don’t know whether this advice seems obvious or absurd to the general reader, but I stand by it: Don’t apply to a job that you can’t get excited about. I know we all have bills to pay, but if you aren’t psyched about a job–if you know you’ll hate the location, or it’s not the kind of librarianship you want to go into–writing the cover letter is even harder. And even if you somehow manage to cobble together a good cover letter, the lack of enthusiasm will catch up with you on the phone interview. Interviewers know. And for every person who “just wants a job,” there are so many who really want this job. Besides, having been through the interview process, I can tell you that the research you end up having to do and the time you end up having to put into each phone interview–let alone an in-person interview–is significant. If you aren’t excited, the preparations will be torture.

The other important (and hopefully obvious) advice I have is to have someone look at your cover letter and CV. Mine went through several revisions, with the help of several kind and generous people. Each time, it came out better. If you don’t know any librarians (ideally with hiring experience) whom you’d be comfortable asking, your school probably has an alumni group, and, definitely, the New Members’ Round Table of ALA has a fantastic resume review service–I suspect they can be talked into looking at cover letters, as well.

*This is two-sided, right? I’m also sending out significantly fewer applications than most people I know, so there are also fewer rejections to receive.

(The next post is about Phone Interviews.)

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