A Book by Its Cover

In screening applicants for a job, one can never read too much about what to look for in an applicant’s cover letter and application packet. I have included information on this human resource issue for both applicants and managers in articles in some form or another these past years, but a recent wave of retirements as well as new positions prompted me to revisit my list of “what I must see” and what “I would like to see” in cover letters and application packets from applicants who are finalists and/or make it to the interviewing stage.

Obviously, reading about what managers look for in an applicant’s first paperwork provides a guide for applicants of what to include in the “perfect cover letter and application.” The age-old problem of designing cover letters, of course, is that we never know who first gets applicant packets, how they assess them and why packets make it into finalist and/or interview lists. When applying for a position, what should you include in your cover letter and resume? I hope the tips below will help you present your skills and achievements appropriately and professionally, convincing prospective employers that you are a book worth reading.

  1. Seek out a copy of the complete job description. A variety of job ads and job descriptions should exist for just one job. The person who writes the job ad may not be the person who writes job description and quite often what is included in job ads is driven by the amount of money the organization has to spend on the hiring/advertising process. The good news is finding a more complete job description is more easily done given the web and the growing number of human resources materials placed on the web for job seekers. The bad news is that a growing number of institutions have more generic job descriptions for positions and often job seekers can identify requirements and basic information, but the more generic job ad doesn’t have preferred categories nor any unique aspects of a job that could assist an applicant is identifying why he or she is the more perfect match.

  2. Study institutional information. Applicants who learn, process and apply information about the institution stand out from those who don’t. Finding out about the bigger picture including populations served; vision, mission and goals; special projects and resources and services, tangible and intangible benefits, etc., allows applicants to make decisions about seeking employment as well as giving them guidance on who on staff they should be keeping in mind as they prepare application information.

  3. Always use basic letter writing guidelines. Choosing appropriate salutations and titles, correct addresse, and “housekeeping” concerns such as formatting should always be considered when writing any letters, but especially cover letters. Please note that resume and cover letter should match the envelope in font, color and paper weight, if possible. Also, envelopes should not be addressed by hand or with a label; the address should be typed or printed through a word processor.

  4. Follow the rules. Read the application information very carefully and note all timelines, forms or paperwork and any other elements of the process. These elements could include: how to complete an online application; whether or not a resume is needed; how to identify references; how to address the packet; who to apply “to;” and distinguishing personal from professional references.

  5. Include institutional information. Let your potential employer know you know something about them, whether it is related to their overall institution or environment or something specific to the library. Indicate what interests you in that setting and how you think you might contribute to the environment.

  6. Match “you” to required job elements. Note all required elements of the job and indicate one-by-one how your experience or education, etc. fits each requirement. Indicate a basic match and when you match more than basic job requirements, include preferred match areas (see the next entry). Be specific, be thorough and “order” the information as it is listed or ordered on the job ad/job description. Use the same words and phrases that the institution uses even though that may not be what you typically call an area of expertise on your resume. Example: The organization may require advanced competencies in office productivity software. Even though your resume may indicate your abilities in Microsoft Office, in your cover letter you should first indicate your advanced expertise in “office productivity software–Microsoft Office.”

  7. Match “you” to preferred job elements. Note all preferred elements of the job and indicate one-by-one how your experience or education, etc., fits each preferred job elements. Indicate a basic match and when you match more than basic job preferences, indicate as such. As with required elements, be specific, be thorough, and “order” the information as it is listed or ordered on the job ad/job description.

  8. Include what is unique to you. Identify what unique skills, experience and/or education you possess and state how those contribute to your application being the successful application. Unique competency “attitudes” should be included as well; for example, enthusiasm, commitment and willingness.

In addition, please consider the following points of etiquette when preparing application and cover letter:

  1. Better applications don’t state any other reason for applying for the position outside the job or institution itself. Do not include personal or family reasons, or hobbies, likes and dislikes.

  2. Applications should be filled out completely. Avoid stating “see resume” on the application form, even if the process is redundant.

  3. Applicants should carefully review online application information and practice before transmitting content. Online applications are often limited in space and character fields and sections may need to be revised and rewritten several times to fit a space while answering a question thoroughly. They may also require you to create a text-only version of your resume and/or cover letter, which removes formatting. Print out your text-only versions to be sure they will be easy to read in the way you intended, even without formatting.

  4. Applicants should prepare packets specific to each job. It should be clear to employers which jobs applicants want. Applications should include the specificity needed to determine the best job match.

  5. Applicants should consider–depending on the profession and the nature of the position–using media to deliver their application message including: creating resumes and portfolios on CDs or DVD; creating resumes or applicant websites.

  6. Unusual or different job histories will need to be addressed. These explanations could be included in cover letters, applications, interview question and answer and include:

    1. ‘Missing’ years of experience

    2. Employment gaps

    3. Educational institutions that once were accredited but are no longer

    4. Experience in other environments (related or not)

    5. Translating profit sector experiences to non-profit/not-for-profit

    6. Previous positions that are higher, lower, or lateral in level

    7. Salaries that do not keep pace with positions/taking positions that pay less

While cover letters and application packets aren’t the only aspect of choosing finalists and/or applicants for interviews, they remain –in the vast majority of instances–the primary way to assess potential employees for finalist and/or interview status. While performance in the interview is always the most critical piece of the hiring process, “the perfect applicant” will not get to the interview stage unless their preliminary materials present them in the best possible light and as the best possible match for the organization.

Julie Beth Todaro, Ph.D, is currently serving as ACRL’s 2007-2008 president. She is also Dean of Library Services at Austin Community College in Austin, TX. Contact Dr. Todaro at jtodaro@austincc.edu.