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August 2016
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How not to apply for a job

Update: Image of letter removed. I’m feeling paranoid.

Folks, I kid you not, this was an actual cover letter I just read, applying for a full-time professional librarian position. I don’t feel safe posting it here since you’ll notice in spite of the fact that it has no identifying information about it at all. It isn’t even signed.

Let me just echo the thoughts of the always eloquent Dorothea. People on search committees are busy, some of us are serving on committees outside our area of expertise, and we are almost always constrained by fair hiring practices (and rightly so) to consider only how closely your cover letter and your CV match the job ad. That means that I cannot say, “Oh, this person mentions open source software, I bet that means they know how to run apache even though they haven’t mentioned apache explicitly.” No, if the job ad says apache, I need to see the literal string “apache” before I can check the box off on my little mandated spreadsheet. Same with “project management,” “interest in continuing education,” “supervisory experience”, and everything else in the job ad. A close second, if you can’t honestly say those things in your CV, is to use your polished and well-written (and signed! Do I even need to say that?) cover letter to explain why “Although I do not have significant experience in X, I do have extensive experience with Y, which is similar, and I have taken Z steps to learn skill X.” Then I can give you partial credit, or maybe even full marks, depending on how well you’ve made your case.

When applying for a job anywhere in academia, please also disregard the terrible advice that someone somewhere keeps spouting, to keep your letter and CV under one page. There’s no need to run on un-necessarily, but I would much rather see a coherent discussion of your skills and experience that needs a paperclip than a truncated bulleted list that can’t possibly address what you’re actually capable of doing.

Please, recent graduates of the world, it is breaking my heart to read CVs of people who are probably talented, and have to give them big fat zeros all the way down that stupid little spreadsheet, for lack of the right buzzwords.


Comment from Steve Lawson
Time: April 4, 2008, 4:22 pm

Please consider this comment for your blog. Thank you.

Comment from tori
Time: April 5, 2008, 11:42 pm

Since the letter was removed I won’t defend those who are lazy or negligent, they likely deserve what they get. But as someone who is involved in a job search I feel compelled to comment on behalf of every applicant who does try and customize their cover letters and CV’s to answer the every employer’s prayers.

Certainly it’s also true that HR managers seem to be looking not for a realistic combination of skills within a reasonable career lifetime, but often post a scatter-shot and unfocused laundry list of fabulous talents that few humans actually possess — and then wonder where all the good applicants are. We call can remember times when we wanted a job we felt we could tackle but lacked the exact experience of a checklist. Even as a former hiring manager I’ve been frustrated by “fill in the box” requirements since I would see great potential in an eager interviewee who would make a great team fit but who I could not justify for lack of “buzzwords.” My but what a terrible way to hire people.
That is just as frustrating for me, as a job seeker, as it is for you as a resume reviewer. Somewhere there has got to be a little sanity and maybe even a better middle ground.

I still hope for the day we reach the point with technology where if I know how to operate a piece of machinery it shouldn’t matter the manufacturer of the machine. It is impossible to keep up with every new release of every new application and pointless to try. It could be naïve of me, but I’d rather hire someone with energy, eagerness and aptitude than someone with the specialization (and focus) of an insect. But then, I probably should have the same paranoia about venting a similar frustration only on the flip side of the coin. It’s a terrible position to be in, a supplicant having a finite set of skills, trying to guess what a hiring manager would like to see while simultaneously appearing unique. With unemployment rising I’m sure both sides will have many stories to tell and much advice to share. Ultimately, like the grading system, resumes and cover letters are rarely an indicator of job success for either party. It’s a gate-keeping system we must learn to maneuver. And maybe that’s the deeper point of your post? Learn the game, get the prize… and I would have to agree.

Comment from Carleen
Time: April 9, 2008, 6:56 pm

I tend to agree with the points Tori made. It’s just as frustrating to be the job seeker in these cases, especially since I’ve read in several resume/cover letter books that repeating the buzz words in a cover letter will count against you. Apparently some employers see this as not being “creative” or a sign that you can’t write. I’ve read a lot recently about how to write a good resume and cover letters and there doesn’t seem to be a consensus anymore on how it’s supposed to be done. I’ve had some managers tell me that they don’t even read resumes, only cover letters. Others only resumes, never cover letters. Some prefer bullet form, and pass over anything that looks too lengthy or goes beyond one page. Even if the trend is to have more than one page, the person reveiwing my CV may be of the old school type that prefers a more traditional format. It’s really hard to know. It’s certainly nerve wrecking to think that the person reading my CV will be someone like you or the Caveat Lector, and may even post it to their blog as a bad example for everyone else to see. I’m glad you decided to take it down. Whether it had any identifying information or not, I would still be mortified for that person, despite how poorly written their cover letter might have been.

Comment from bess
Time: April 9, 2008, 7:23 pm

Hi, Carleen. Well, the “cover letter” was a single sentence on an otherwise blank piece of paper that said “Please consider me for this position.” It actually isn’t that unusual to receive a cover letter like that, which is sad in and of itself.

But to address your and Tori’s comments, I totally hear what you’re saying. I was on the job market a few years ago and I remember feeling the same frustration. But what I found out was that CV review practices tend to be similar within different sub-fields, and you just need to find out what your sub-field does. Unfortunately, most job seeker books and websites are geared toward business, and within the library world most of them are geared toward public libraries (in my experience anyway). But I’ve found that the advice in those sources is often really bad if you’re applying for academic librarian positions, for the reasons I’ve outlined in my post.

What I’ve found for academic library positions, (and I was really shocked when I found this out, so I asked colleagues at other universities and it does seem to be common), is that there is a spreadsheet with the phrases from the job ad, and all the resumes are on the spreadsheet, and you get points based on whether you have mentioned the phrases in the job ad in a coherent way. Sometimes the people reviewing your resume don’t even know what those phrases mean, which is one of the reasons why it can help to use the exact language from the job ad. Your mileage may vary for other kinds of jobs, but for academic libraries this seems to be the way it’s done. I am telling you this because it seems to be sort of a secret. Every librarian I know who applies for their second or third job knows this trick because they’ve been on a search committee by then, but all the recent grads seem to be at a huge disadvantage (as if they weren’t at enough of a disadvantage already!) because someone is telling them to keep their resume to a single page.

I’m trying to be helpful, I promise. Even if it did come off as sort of snarky.

Comment from Carleen
Time: April 9, 2008, 8:26 pm

Really? The cover letter was only one sentence? And this is common? Wow. Ok. I didn’t realize that.

I apologize if I sounded sensitive in my comment. I think I was responding more to Dorothea’s post which had really good points too but was written in such a way that I ended the post feeling pretty hopeless. I work in a public library now but have always had an interest in academic librarianship. Unfortunately, my degree only taught me library basics and theory (same old familiar story) and my job right now consists mainly of customer service/desk coverage and some program planning so I have a lot to learn before I can make the transition (ie. Just started learning wikis….Apache is a little ways down the road for me).

I really appreciate the information. I never stopped to think about review practices being different according to the type of library so it is very helpful to have a behind the scenes scoop on the review practice at an academic library. :-)

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