Top of the Heap or Bottom of the (Trash) Barrel? Tips for Job Applicants


by Beatrice L. McKay, Trinity University, and Clare Dunkle, Trinity University
[reprinted by permission from NMRT Footnotes, v.22, no.2, January 1993]

The job market is looking tight -- or hadn't you noticed?

When applications flood in, reviewers must make a first cut, and it is often a deep one. Perhaps over a hundred people have applied for the job but only a handful will be interviewed. Your cover letter and resume must stand out from among the many for serious consideration.

The following DOs and DON'Ts suggest ways to leap over the hurdle of this tough first cut.

Cover Letter Do's:

  • Because people have varying levels of sensitivity, tend toward reserve and respect rather than humor or familiarity in your writing.
  • Write short, clearly focused paragraphs and be brief in general.
  • Explain why the job and/or location interests you.
  • Tie your professional experience to the primary job duties as announces. Keep it concise. Use the resume to flesh out your qualifications.
  • Use the correct forms of address for the person to whom the letter is directed: Dr., Ms., Mr., etc. Consult the Directory of Library and Information Professionals or call the library in question, and ask.
  • Apply for only one position if the library has several open. Otherwise, you may appear directionless.
  • If you do apply for more than one position, apply for each separately, tailoring the cover letter and resume to each.

Cover Letter Don'ts

  • Don't be too casual, familiar, anecdotal or aggressive. This shows a lack of respect for the audience and the institution.
  • Avoid easy generalizations that may strike more experienced librarians as empty-headed.
  • Don't go into detail about your current institution's practices unless they supply specific information about your qualifications for the position.
  • Don't use words with negative connotations; for instance, write "some speaking knowledge of Chinese" instead of "limited speaking knowledge of Chinese."
  • Avoid using inaccurate terminology; for example, "online searching of CD-ROM products."
  • Don't mention irrelevant skills; you may appear snobbish or aimless. For instance, a cataloger need only indicate that she reads Chinese; speaking ability is probably irrelevant.
  • Don't discuss spouse, children or other domestic arrangements unless there is a compelling reason to do so. Including such information weakens the impression of professionalism which you are seeking to convey.
  • Don't ask for further information about the library, the university or the city. If you want more information, do the work yourself.
  • Don't use "cute" signatures.

Resume Do's

  • Include all professional experience pertaining to the announced job requirements. Omit irrelevant experience unless it is particularly impressive in a general sense.
  • When considering the layout of your resume, think of it being read quickly. Try skimming it to see if the most important elements stand out. Some search committees must read many resumes, and while they try to give each full attention, they will be more pleased to read yours if it is organized and attractive.
  • Explain why persons listed as references are qualified to discuss your skills.
  • Address anything in your work history which could trigger a question. Your reader won't simply overlook such things as frequent or very regular moves, unexplained gaps or long periods of seemingly unrelated employment.
  • List all publications, even if your publications are all in areas outside librarianship. It shows you can publish.
  • Use consistent, clear citation style for publications.

Resume Don'ts

  • Don't allow your resume's layout to obscure pertinent information. Tailor it to the position. Your reader is probably using a checklist based on the announced qualifications: every relevant item you exclude will result in a negative mark on the checklist.
  • Don't use obscure abbreviations and acronyms; for example, foreign university degrees.
  • Don't use artsy letterhead.
  • Don't make it massive. An eight-page resume is too long.
  • Don't list each committee membership or internship separately. Instead, put all under the heading of the particular division or organization.
  • Don't list every workshop or seminar ever attended. Omit those irrelevant to the position for which you are applying.
  • Don't include a "family status" section. Of importance is your professional, not personal life.
  • Don't include a "hobbies" section. You risk being stereotyped or alienating your reader, whose personal interests may run counter to your own.

Finally, it goes without saying that you must keep your entire application free of spelling, punctuation and usage errors. Don't rely exclusively on your word processor's spell checker for proofreading; it misses mistakes such as there/their and though/through/thorough. James M. Hillard related a pointed anecdote to illustrate the importance of this tip in a recent article in American Libraries (October 1981, p. 559): "Once I spoke to a young person whose job application had some of these same faults, telling her that the time taken to prepare a neat-appearing vita sheet would be well-spent. Her indignant reply was that she was applying for a "professional" position, not one as a clerk typist; she was considered for neither."