4 Steps to Impress in Your Cover Letters

by Scottie Kapel, former Head Editor, INALJ Oregon
previously published 5/1/13

4 Steps to Impress in Your Cover Letters

scottie kRemember last month when I wrote on and on about how difficult resume writing can be? Well, I lied. Writing a resume is nothing in comparison to writing a cover letter. That said, writing a cover letter provides you with the opportunity to unpack some of those accomplishments that seem a little pale on your resume. There are countless resources available to help you write a brilliant cover letter — a quick Google search will inundate you with information, tips, and taboos. While these are all valuable, eventually you’re going to have to figure out on your own what skills and experiences warrant greater discussion. Here are a few tips to help you along the way:

1. Know your audience!

Nothing reeks of impersonality and weak information gathering skills than a “To whom it may concern.” If a contact name is not provided in the listing, do your best to figure out who will be reviewing your resume, whether that means emailing the institution or making a quick call. What if the name is totally gender-neutral, as mine is? I can’t tell you how many phone calls I’ve received assuming that I am a “Mr.” simply because my name is Scottie. I don’t take offense to the mistake, but it does get old. The last thing you want to do is exasperate your potential interviewer within the first ten seconds of her experience with you. I’ve looked up what to do in this scenario, and I’ve seen a couple of votes for using both the first and last name together. To me “Dear Pat Jones” is too reminiscent of a sweepstakes letter — this greeting should be immediately followed by an excited announcement that the recipient has won $1,000,000! If you’re not giving the person reading your letter riches beyond their wildest dreams (or at the very least a great deal on a 2 year subscription to Us Weekly), a more generic “Dear Hiring Manager” or “Dear Hiring Committee” is a safer choice.

2. Name drop, but sincerely.

Do you have a friend or acquaintance who works at the institution to which you’re applying? Have they clued you in to the position? Refer to them in your cover letter. A simple, “John Doe, who I know from our time volunteering together at the Jacksonville Public Library, informed me of this position as he thought it would be a perfect match for my skills and experiences.” However, there is a caveat to this. Know the person whose name you’re dropping, and by that I mean know them in the sense of the role as an employee. Are they constantly complaining to you about their coworkers or supervisors? Maybe pass on including any mention of your acquaintance. At their last dinner party did they proudly show off their curio case full of filched office supplies? Again, better to distance yourself professionally. On the flip side, do they receive promotions, do they have a respected and visible web-presence, did they just last week save a kitten from a tree that was on fire? By all means, name drop away! Just make sure before doing so that you’ve asked said person’s permission and that you’re confident that he or she will only sing your praises.

3. Align your passions with the position.

Obviously you want the job or else you wouldn’t be applying for it, but what makes you stand out as a natural for the position more so than other candidates? If you’re applying for the catalog librarian position in a herpetology library and you used to have a secret collection of pet snakes that you hid from your mother and know the Latin name for every type of lizard, mention it in your letter. Not only might you get a laugh out of the hiring manager (score!), but moreover, at the very minimum they’ll certainly remember your letter. The same goes if you have a special interest in the history of an area and you’re applying for a job as an archivist at the local historical society. Let it be known that you’re knowledgeable about the area and its inhabitants.

4. Read, reread, and rereread!

If you have a stock cover letter that you tailor to each institution, good for you! Way to make efficient use of your time! But before you send it off, double-, triple-, quadruple-check that you’ve changed any pertinent details. If you’re applying for a position as an archivist for the Springfield Historical Society, make sure you remove any mention of Shelbyville Historical Society. This is one of those mistakes you’ll realize the very second you submit your application, and immediate waves of panic will set in. At this point, there’s not much you can do, so to avoid those panic sweats altogether, take twenty minutes before you think you’re ready to submit your application materials and read everything over, step away, and come back and reread to make sure that you’ve caught every last mention of any other institution.

Writing a cover letter is a deeply individual task. While there are certain aspects of cover letters that are universal, the way they are presented and the supporting evidence given will differ from applicant to applicant. If you’re concerned that your resume doesn’t do your personality and experience justice, make the most of your cover letter by teasing this evidence out with clear, powerful examples. You want to stand out in your cover letter, but make sure you’re not doing so at the expense of conveying the necessary information. With a great cover letter, you bring your resume to life and put a personality to an otherwise impersonal stage of the hiring process. If you get hiring managers to take a personal interest in you before you’ve even met with them, then you are already ahead of the game!

Naomi House

Naomi House, MLIS, is the founder and publisher of the popular webzine and jobs list INALJ.com (formerly I Need a Library Job). Founded in October 2010 with the assistance of her fellow Rutgers classmate, Elizabeth Leonard, INALJ’s social media presence has grown to include Facebook (retired in 2016), Twitter and a LinkedIn group, in addition to the interviews, articles and jobs found on INALJ.com. INALJ has had over 18.5 Million page views and helped thousands of librarians and LIS folk find employment! Through grassroots marketing, word of mouth and a real focus on exploring unconventional resources for job leads, INALJ grew from a subscription base of 20 friends to a website with over 500,000 visits in a month. Naomi believes that well-sourced quantity is quality in this narrow job market and INALJ reflects this many new jobs published daily. She has also written for the 2011, 2012 & 2013 LexisNexis Government Info Pro. She presents whenever she can, most recently thrice at the American Library Association's Annual Conference as well as breakout talk presenter at OCLC EMEA in Cape Town, South Africa and as a keynote speaker at the Virginia Library Association annual meeting, at the National Press Club, McGill University, the University of the Emirates, Dubai, MLIS program and the University of Hawaii at Manoa. She was a 2013 Library Journal Mover & Shaker and has served on the University of Maryland iSchool Board from 2014-2017. Naomi was a Reference, Marketing and Acquisitions Librarian for a contractor at a federal library outside Washington, DC, and has relocated to being nomadic. She runs her husband’s moving labor website, KhanMoving.com, fixes and sells old houses and assists her husband cooking delicious Pakistani food as well. She has heard of spare time but hasn’t encountered it lately. She pronounces INALJ as eye-na-elle-jay. 

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  3 comments for “4 Steps to Impress in Your Cover Letters

  1. Anna
    June 18, 2014 at 10:49 pm

    One trick I’ve used for determining whether to use “Mr.” or “Ms.” in a cover letter is to look for a photo of the person on the organization’s website or on LinkedIn. If there is no name provided in the job ad, however, I just write “Dear Search Committee” (for academic libraries) or “Dear Hiring Manager” (for other types of organizations).

    • Rachel
      June 19, 2014 at 2:45 pm

      I have had two problems with the photo option: 1) no official picture + very common name and 2) still can’t tell from the picture.

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