Further Questions: All About Cover Letters

Each week (or thereabouts) I ask a question to a group of people who hire library and LIS workers. If you have a question to ask or if you’d like to be part of the group that answers, shoot me an email at hiringlibrariansATgmail.

This week’s question is a multipart one again, with bullets.

Does your organization ask for cover letters?

  • Do you ask for cover letters explicitly in the job ad or do you just expect to receive them?
  • In one brief sentence, what is the purpose of a cover letter?
  • How many pages should a cover letter be?
  • Do you have a preference for format (docx, pdf, etc)?
  • If you receive job applications by email, should the cover letter be included in the body of the email, as an attachment, or both?
  • Do you expect that a cover letter will be tailored to your job opening?
  • Does the Cover letter receive more, equal, or less weight than other parts of the application?
  • If your organization has automated application screening, is the automated screening also applied to cover letters?
  • What information do you want to see included in the cover letter (and is this specified in the job ad)?
  • What kinds of things make cover letters stand out (in good or bad ways)?
  • Anything else you want to tell us about cover letters?

Answers are below, but I also created a new mini-survey! If you have hired at least one LIS worker and would like to share your views on cover letters, please take it at this link. I am trying something new with this survey and will be letting folks view responses directly, rather than posting here on the blog. So, please don’t share information that you consider private.


Christian Zabriskie, Executive Director, Onondaga County Public Library: I see people put a lot of stress and worry into cover letters and I have a formula that I think everyone should follow, it’s useful and makes the process less stressful.

Paragraph 1 where did you hear about the job from

Paragraph 2 what specific skills that are listed in the ad can you speak to

Paragraph 3 what instances in your career have allowed you to display these traits

Closing “I look forward to discussing how I could benefit your organization” because you always want to imply that of COURSE you are the answer to the problem. 

and that is it. 

I promise you that employers spend less time reading the cover letter than you spent writing it. Stick to the facts and speak to the job ad. 


Anonymous:

Do you ask for cover letters explicitly in the job ad or do you just expect to receive them? I ask for them in job ads.

In one brief sentence, what is the purpose of a cover letter? To give the applicant the ability to expand upon their skillset and how that skillset matches up with the posted position.

How many pages should a cover letter be? One. (I would prefer it to be one page, but it’s not a deal breaker if it extends into a second page. However, if its one giant wall of text that extends into multiple pages, I will think less of the candidate.)

Do you have a preference for format (docx, pdf, etc)? PDF, but docx is okay. I’ve had issues with docx files showing markup/track changes in personal files. To eliminate that, I personally use PDFs. 

If you receive job applications by email, should the cover letter be included in the body of the email, as an attachment, or both? Attachment.

Do you expect that a cover letter will be tailored to your job opening? Yes! Use it as an opportunity to shine and show off (but in a succinct way).

Does the Cover letter receive more, equal, or less weight than other parts of the application? Equal.

If your organization has automated application screening, is the automated screening also applied to cover letters? We do not have automatic screening.

What information do you want to see included in the cover letter (and is this specified in the job ad)? Cover letter is the first look I have at someone’s communication skills. Having the ability to communicate well is specified in our job ads.

What kinds of things make cover letters stand out (in good or bad ways)? Poor grammar and punctuation- not good!

Anything else you want to tell us about cover letters? This is the place to show/expand upon things in your resume and how they connect to and enhance the requested job skills. It’s a great tool, use it!


Donna Pierce, Library Director, Krum Public Library: 

For City Department Heads I would think all applications would have a cover letter. 

For my staff positions – I am just grateful if their resume is readable and doesn’t have spelling errors!  (My favorite: list your degrees – BS in Education!)


Laurie Phillips, Interim Dean of Libraries, J. Edgar & Louise S. Monroe Library, Loyola University New Orleans: 

Does your organization ask for Cover Letters? Yes, although we call it a letter of application. 

Do you ask for cover letters explicitly in the job ad or do you just expect to receive them? We ask for a letter of application in the ad. 

In one brief sentence, what is the purpose of a cover letter? You should use the letter of application/cover letter to explain how your credentials fit the job as posted and the qualifications. A little more explanation than what’s in the resume is very helpful. Too often, people who are applying think these things should be obvious in their resume, but they often aren’t and it’s very helpful to us when you pull out aspects of those positions and experiences that directly apply to the position. I guess that wasn’t one brief sentence, right? 

How many pages should a cover letter be? As long as it takes. Don’t detail everything on your resume. Just cover what’s being asked for in the ad. 

Do you have a preference for format (docx, pdf, etc)? We’re okay with .docx but you’re running the risk that formatting and fonts may not translate. We will probably create a pdf from your Word document if you don’t send it as a pdf. Creating a pdf locks in the look of your letter and other information. 

If you receive job applications by email, should the cover letter be included in the body of the email, as an attachment, or both? No. it’s unnecessary. The committee doesn’t even see the email. The documents (which should be named so it’s clear from whom and what they are, or we have to do that for you) are saved to a shared folder/drive for the committee. 

Do you expect that a cover letter will be tailored to your job opening? Absolutely. To my mind, that’s the point of the letter of application. You’re addressing the ad. 

Does the Cover letter receive more, equal, or less weight than other parts of the application? Probably equal or more. If we have to pick through your resume to determine if you’re qualified, then you haven’t done your job. The letter is your opportunity to show your communication skills and to show how the job is a great fit for your skills and experience. 

If your organization has automated application screening, is the automated screening also applied to cover letters? We don’t have automated screening.

What information do you want to see included in the cover letter (and is this specified in the job ad)? Again, addressing the qualifications. Let’s say you don’t have academic library experience, but you have other higher ed experience. Talk about how that’s relevant. Or it’s a public-facing position and you have retail experience (especially retail management). If you’re trying to shift from one type of librarianship to another, address that in your letter. 

What kinds of things make cover letters stand out (in good or bad ways)? I actually like it when someone shows me that they fit the qualifications even if they don’t have direct experience. Being enthusiastic about the type of position, showing that you know something about it and would fit with the institution and the work is really important. If someone doesn’t write well, or doesn’t use the letter in ways that they could/should, it weighs against them. 

Anything else you want to tell us about cover letters? Address the ad!


Celia Rabinowitz, Dean of Mason Library, Keene State College: My institution does require a cover letter and I am personally a huge fan. That said, I have learned to develop different expectations among cover letter expectations for part-time positions, full-time hourly paid staff, professional staff, and library faculty. Here are some thoughts:

  • All applications are managed through an online system. Job ads indicate that a cover letter, resume/CV, and the names of references are required and each piece is uploaded into the application system.
  • A cover letter’s goal is to provide information about who a candidate is and why the job they are seeking is the right one for them and the employer.
  • Cover length depends. For many part-time or hourly positions cover letters are usually around ½ to ¾ page. For other positions, including library faculty, I prefer not more than two.
  • I don’t have a format preference but I do prefer narrative/text over bulleted lists.
  • I only see the application in our online system and it also requires completing a long form with lots of questions and information about previous employers, eligibility to work, etc., I see the cover letter and other items as attachments at the bottom of the online form. In the old days I preferred the cover letter and resume as attachments.
  • I do prefer that people give an indication that they know which job they are applying for. Forgetting to remove the name of the last place the person applied is not a good look. And I’ll admit to being a bit picky and expecting applicants to refer to my institution as a “college” and not a university.
  • Again this really depends. Cover letters for some positions look very generic and don’t include much that contributes to making a decision unless the applicant is very careless and has proof read well, or submits an unusually detailed letter. For library faculty positions the letter carries (for me) at least as much weight as a CV because I expect each of those items to do different things (they don’t always, but I always hope they will).
  • Automatic screening – this is a very interesting question. My sense is that the only screening is to verify that it is part of the submitted package. I don’t think anyone in HR is reading the letters before they are posted for review. The form that applicants complete is intended to verify minimum qualifications which is really as far as HR will go in assessing candidates.
  • I am going to combine my responses to these last three bullets. Nothing is specified about the cover letter. Certainly, for library faculty, I expect applicants to address the three main components of the position (teaching, scholarship, service) and also to say why they are interested in the specific job available at our specific library/college. A letter that stands out does just this. One of the things I find most frustrating is a cover letter that reads like a CV with complete sentences and transitions. I want a cover letter to provide an example or two, tell me something about the candidate that I won’t learn in the CV, or tell me about the candidate’s ideas about how they will contribute to a new work place. A really good cover letter makes me want to have a conversation with the person applying.

Last thoughts: I know it is increasingly likely that people are applying for multiple jobs which is time consuming. So it is tempting to craft a cover letter than can be repurposed. I think you can do that and still be sure you leave yourself the time to make sure your potential future colleagues see that you are applying for this specific job at this specific library.


Elizabeth “Beth” Cox, Director, Cataloging, Metadata & Digitization Dept., University of Iowa Libraries:

Does your organization ask for Cover Letters? Yes.

Do you ask for cover letters explicitly in the job ad or do you just expect to receive them? We specifically ask for a cover letter “that clearly addresses how you meet the listed required and desired qualifications of this position.” [Quoted from our job ads]

In one brief sentence, what is the purpose of a cover letter? For me personally, to respond to items in the job ad not already covered in your resume or CV.

How many pages should a cover letter be? 1-2 pages

Do you have a preference for format (docx, pdf, etc)? No.

If you receive job applications by email, should the cover letter be included in the body of the email, as an attachment, or both? Applications cannot be submitted via e-mail. They can only be submitted by our online system.

Do you expect that a cover letter will be tailored to your job opening? Absolutely.

Does the Cover letter receive more, equal, or less weight than other parts of the application? Equal. The cover letter shows me that you can adequately communicate in writing and that you have read the job ad and are responding to it directly.

What information do you want to see included in the cover letter (and is this specified in the job ad)? I want to see items from the job ad addressed that you cannot include in a resume or CV, such as more detail about how you meet a specific qualification or an example from previous experience that aligns with an item within the listed job responsibilities.

What kinds of things make cover letters stand out (in good or bad ways)? Bad ways: Spelling errors, poor grammar, incorrect position title or institution name (yep, I’ve seen both). Good ways: Concrete examples of how you are a good fit for this position; addressing every point in the required quals.

Anything else you want to tell us about cover letters? While you don’t have to re-write your cover letter from scratch for each job you’re applying to, make sure that your letter is applicable. Triple check that you have addressed all of the qualifications, that you have entered the correct position title and institution name, then have someone else check it. If you’re not sure how to address something from the ad, ask someone!


Gregg Currie, College Librarian, Selkirk College: My organization asks for cover letters.  

The purpose of a cover letter is to tell us why you want to work for my organization, and why we should hire you. (Resume shows us your qualifications, cover letter shows us why those will fit with our job posting).

Cover letters should be one page, a separate attachment, and a pdf format.

Cover letter absolutely has to be tailored to the job posting.  And if you attach the wrong cover letter you automatically are on the reject pile. (I’ve seen this a few times, so pro tip – name it something more than ‘cover letter’)

 A cover letter that stands out is one that really shows why you want to work for my organization and why your skills & experience match with the position. It needs to be upbeat and enthusiastic!  Also if you are applying to a position in a different city from where you are located, mention why you would like to relocate.  I run a library in rural BC, and if someone is applying for the position from a big city far away, say Toronto, I want to see something about why you would want to make the move. (Often big city people struggle relocating to rural areas, and I want to hire someone who seems like they will stay.)

Cover letter is very important, so spend time tailoring it to the specific posting, and if it requires you to move, mention why you would like to relocate.

Sincerely hoping to never see another applicant attach the wrong cover letter,

Gregg


Hilary Kraus, Research Services Librarian, UConn Library: My organization asks for cover letters, and in my experience that’s typical across academic libraries. While I recognize that it’s a lot to ask for folks on the market who are applying to many jobs, you really do need to customize it to the specific position. A cover letter’s purpose is to tell us why you want the job and why you’d be a great candidate; this should build on, not replace or repeat, what’s on your resume/CV. Everyone has their own opinions on length, but I’d say one page is sufficient for early career folks, two for mid-career and above, and maybe a little longer than 2 if it’s for an administrative role. Workplaces attempting to evaluate candidates equitably will generally use a matrix. They’ll look at a combination of the information in your resume/CV and cover letter to complete the matrix. If you fail to demonstrate that you meet the minimums, they can’t interview you. That said, just meeting the minimums isn’t enough to stand out. You’re also trying to demonstrate your interest in, and ability to perform, the responsibilities of the job. At the very least, hit the highlights, showing how your qualifications prepare you to do the work of the position. If they mention something a couple of times, be sure you address it. I realize it’s hard to pack all that information into 1-2 pages, but do the best you can! Finally, some folks are sticklers for grammar and spelling, so be sure you’ve spell-checked it, read the letter aloud to yourself and, if possible, had a friend give it a quick copy-edit. And make sure you’ve got the right institution name at the top!


Anonymous Federal Librarian: There is no expectation of a cover letter for federal jobs that I have ever seen. I don’t recall seeing any in any of the hiring actions I have lead, nor have I read any cover letters. Another bonus of applying for federal jobs.


Ellen Mehling, Job Search Advisor/Instructor and Brooklyn Public Library’s Job Information Resource Librarian: 

  • Cover letters are requested with resumes (former employer).
  • The purpose of a cover letter is for the applicant to convey, in their own words, why they are applying and why they feel they are a strong candidate for the position, and to persuade the reader to contact them for an interview.
  • Cover letters should always be tailored to the job description.
  • A cover letter should be one page maximum – those who read them appreciate it if applicants get to the point and stay on topic re: the job requirements. No unnecessary/unrelated info, please! When in doubt, read the job description again and ask yourself, “Is including this going to help me get the interview?” Think of what the reader is likely to be looking for.
  • Some Applicant Tracking Systems work better with a Word doc, some are fine with pdf or Word. When in doubt, a Word doc may not be the applicant’s preference, but is a safer choice. If the employer specifies a format, follow their instructions.
  • Whether the cover letter carries as much weight, or more, or less weight, than the resume, depends on the reader. One person on a hiring committee may read them carefully while another person on the same committee may focus only on the resumes. As an applicant, you cannot know how important it is to those who will be reading it, so your best bet is to put effort and care into it.
  • The applicant should address the duties and responsibilities of the job and how well they match the requirements, and also explain anything that might require explanation (such as a significant recent gap in employment, or a current address that is far from the location of the job they are applying for).
  • A general, one-size-fits-all cover letter will stand out in a bad way; it conveys that the applicant is giving the least effort possible. Any errors – spelling, grammar, punctuation, capitalization, etc., and/or sloppy formatting, leave a bad impression. Customized cover letters that convey confidence and enthusiasm re: the job, and that show that the applicant has done their homework re: the employer, stand out in a good way.

Julie Todaro, Dean, Library Services, Austin Community College: 

Does your organization ask for Cover Letters?
To my knowledge, the college has never required cover letters. In addition – now – a “cover letter” is not among the pieces or sections required for completing submission of our online application packet.

Do you ask for cover letters explicitly in the job ad or do you just expect to receive them?
I expect to receive some type of introductory information…and the more “fill in the blank” the process is – the more you need to add a touch of yourself or “selling yourself.” I should also add, if you had asked me that even a year ago, I would have said that I can’t imagine anyone submitting an application without one; however, since our new application packet does NOT require one, we do now and will continue to get people applying who do not include one (and there IS space for one in the packet format.)

In one brief sentence, what is the purpose of a cover letter?
The cover letter serves to introduce the applicant to the organization (the hiring team, the manager, a screening committee, etc.,) illustrate the “match” of the applicant to the open position and identify that the applicant has all of the requirements needed to be a successful candidate – or at least qualify for an interview.

How many pages should a cover letter be?
While I don’t think there is a magic number of words or pages suggested or required for – actually – any part of application sections, I think a cover letter should be fewer than two pages.

Do you have a preference for format (docx, pdf, etc)?
While this answer outlines something that is certainly our own problem with our software package used for the application process, the reality is that unless a pdf is uploaded, other formats often upload but then exhibit problems with odd spacing, extraneous characters, images lost, etc. Luckily, I think most application packages do allow pdfs and I suggest that – if they don’t allow pdfs – applicants should be careful about cutting and pasting and should avoid uploading word documents (any version) and – as a more successful fallback, upload pdfs. Also – a recommended but certainly time-consuming approach is to take the time and enter text directly into the package,

If you receive job applications by email, should the cover letter be included in the body of the email, as an attachment, or both?
There is no harm in doing both unless the organization has instructions and they say otherwise.

Do you expect that a cover letter will be tailored to your job opening?
Tailored introductory letters are the most effective cover letters, so I advise that applicants do tailor their content, but if you can’t (ex. you have someone else doing it for you, etc.) be sure your generic cover letter does not – for example – speak to your interest in or commitment to an area that is not part of the job …example “I am excited about the profession and the direction of archival management….” but the position I am offering has nothing to do with archives.

Does the Cover letter receive more, equal, or less weight than other parts of the application?
While introductory information is important to those assessing applicant packets for interviews, not every committee member sees every packet. That is – if I have 125 applicants – I might split the committee up and have each member – using a rubric – assess only portions of the pool (a-k, and so on.) But even then – rather than the cover letter being assessed, the information delivered in the letter would be assessed and most of those elements should be in the application packet anyway.

If your organization has automated application screening, is the automated screening also applied to cover letters?
We don’t have an “automated screening” that relates to content. That is, the software HR uses scans to make sure all the “boxes are checked” and the blanks are filled in but most automated checks – if not all – are not quality driven.

What information do you want to see included in the cover letter (and is this specified in the job ad)?
I do want a cover letter to illustrate the “match” of the candidate to the open position and identify that the applicant has all of the requirements needed to be a successful candidate – but our job ads only direct people to the online application process.

What kinds of things make cover letters stand out (in good or bad ways)?

  • Directions – It sounds simple but applicants should follow the directions.
  • Writing – One would think it would be obvious, but spelling, punctuation and grammar should be perfect.
  • Terminology – Be sure you have referred to the organization correctly…the level within the educational setting, the type of library, etc. In addition, any titles referred to should be current, accurate, etc.
  • A Match – The cover letter should provide a simple cross walk from credentials possessed to required (and if someone can) preferred areas. Don’t bury the headline…and – if you are in a position that IS comparable – but your title isn’t – spell it out…let the reviewer or committee know you HAVE what you need and you match what they need, it just may be identified differently in your current or past job descriptions.
  • Additional Information – if you want to apply for a position because you have always wanted to live somewhere or your partner is moving there or your parents or children are there, avoid mentioning that. That is, there is no need to make something up as to why you want to apply/come to work there, just don’t refer to the “real” reason at all.

Anything else you want to tell us about cover letters?
I always advise people to write cover letters after you do your homework on the community, the location, the organization and the position itself. I think creating an introductory letter – when you focus on your own needs – should give you insight as to whether or not you should apply at all. If you don’t focus and do your homework and get the interview, become a finalist or possibly offered the job and then decide it isn’t for you because of something you should already have known, you will seldom get a second chance, and it is possible that word of how you handled the application might not be the impression you want to leave with people. It is a very small profession!


We’d love to hear your thoughts here in the comments, on Twitter @HiringLib, or written on the menu at the Grubstake Diner . If you have a question to ask people who hire library workers, or if you’d like to be part of the group that answers them, shoot me an email at hiringlibrariansATgmail.

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