The Top of the Pile, or How to Avoid Having Your Application Thrown in the Trash

By Tricia Juettemeyer, Information Literacy and Reference Librarian, Assistant Professor Oakland University, Rochester, Michigan

Your cover letter is an important document. It is the key component in the application packet that gets your foot in the door for what may become your first professional position. During library school did you submit final papers with spelling and grammatical errors? In your reference class did you write papers about collection development? Did you purchase a paper outline off the Internet and insert your content? Probably not, yet these are some of the biggest mistakes new librarians make when writing their first cover letter. The information below outlines the reasons why some cover letters get your application tossed in the reject pile and provides suggestions for writing a successful letter.

Hiring committees receive so many applications for one position (we're talking hundreds of applicants) that the first thing they do is narrow the selection in any way possible. A highly unscientific survey of colleagues revealed some of the problems with a cover letter that can cause your application to be rejected. These include:

  • spelling and grammatical errors;
  • lacking the qualifications specified in the job posting;
  • not addressing the qualifications specified in the job posting;
  • using a form letter and not bothering to change things like 'your institution' to a specific library;
  • overselling yourself; seeming over-confident or cocky;
  • including personal or irrelevant information, revealing eccentricities; and
  • including jokes, writing informally, and using slang.

So you're a brand new librarian, reading this list and thinking, pshaw! I would never write about my cat, Marvin, or spell the search committee chairperson's name incorrectly. Well, here's some news for you: It happens all the time.

A library dean told me she believes the most important part of any application packet is the cover letter. After a while, all resumes start to look similar. Your cover letter is a way to stand out, to inform the library you want to work for exactly why they should hire you. This does not mean including a laundry list of your accomplishments, but it does mean addressing each specific qualification of the job, informing the committee (graciously) that you possess each qualification, and explaining how you can use these characteristics to serve them. Your cover letter should in reality be all about the library and why hiring you will help them.

Now you know what to avoid in your cover letter, but how do you write a good one and what should you include? Here are tips for writing a cover letter that will not only be shuffled to the top of the pile but may even get you that coveted interview:

I. Format:

  • Format your document to use 1-inch margins and choose a 12-point font.
  • From the top of the document, hit return one or two times. On that line, type the date. Always spell out the month, and include the entire year, for example, March 12, 2006.
  • Next, type the person's name to whom you submit your application. If that person's title is included in the job posting, use it. Here's an example to follow:
Charlie Brown, Chair
Peanuts University
Librarian Search Committee
300 Lucy Library
Zippity, Mississippi 22222

Include all address information provided to you in the job posting at the top of your cover letter.

  • Hit return twice before your salutation and always start with a salutation. I prefer Dear + Mrs., Dr., Ms., or Mr. Jones.
  • End your letter with an easy-does-it closer such as Sincerely, Regards, or Cordially. Avoid words like Enthusiastically (too excited) or Best (too informal).
  • For an entry-level position, cover letters should range in length from one to one-and-a-half pages. I have heard of applicants who sent out cover letters of up to five pages; don't be that librarian.
  • One last note about form: You may want to add a footer to your cover letter (and resume for that matter) that includes your name, address, telephone number, and e-mail address. Sometimes two-page letters get separated from each other or from the resume. You want the search committee to be able to reassemble your application if this occurs.

II. Body:

  • Perhaps most important, write a different cover letter for each job application. If you write good letters and have the skills to back these letters up, you really shouldn't need to send out 50 applications before you hear back.
  • Break up paragraphs into not-too-lengthy chunks, each of which addresses a different aspect of the position for which you are applying.
  • Follow the language of the job posting in your letter. If a library is seeking a creative and energetic librarian, you want to convey that you are both creative and energetic (but not by writing too creatively).
  • Don't be redundant. Use that thesaurus! (You are a librarian after all.) But choose words that are in your regular vocabulary; using obscure language only makes you look pretentious.
  • Your introductory paragraph should include the title of the position you are applying for and where you saw the job announcement posted. You may also want to include a sentence indicating why you are applying for the position; this will lead the reader into the next paragraph.
  • Your second paragraph should address the library where you are applying. Do your homework. Go to the library's web site, and find the mission statement or other statement of purpose. Work this into your cover letter; you want the library to know you support and will strive to further its mission if selected for the position. This is also a good way to win points with a search committee, as they like candidates who proactively seek information.
  • The following three to four paragraphs should each address a different provision in the job announcement. You want to write a clear, concise paragraph that mentions what quality or skill they are seeking and how you will provide that. Remember, this letter, while seemingly about you, is really all about the library. For example: If a search committee is seeking a librarian who can 1) teach, 2) provide reference, and 3) use technology to improve the user experience, you want to address teaching first. This means writing one paragraph about your skill in each area and how it will benefit this library. Are you starting to see a pattern here?
  • A job announcement almost always provides a list of required and desired qualifications. Incorporate all the required qualifications into the paragraphs mentioned above if possible. If there is a required qualification that you are unable to work into an existing paragraph, create one more paragraph. Desired qualifications are just that, desired. Hopefully you possess some of these, and you can incorporate those into your letter as well.
  • The primary thing to remember is to address everything in the job posting, as concisely and effectively as possible. If you lack certain requirements or desired qualifications, you should mention in your letter that you want to develop those skills and that you are currently working on developing them in some way.
  • Your last couple of paragraphs should help sell you to the library. This is a great place to talk about abilities in areas like time-management, self-motivation, and anything else that wasn't specifically mentioned in the job announcement. Avoid simply talking yourself up, though; make it apply to the position and the library. If you can incorporate your diverse skill set into the earlier paragraphs, do so there.
  • Near the end of your cover letter you should reiterate that you believe you are a good fit for the position and should include the position title and library or university title. You should also include your telephone number in this section.
  • At the very end of your letter, always thank the committee for their consideration of your application and say something like, "I hope to hear from you soon," or "I look forward to hearing from you." Avoid anything over-confident or too direct, such as "I am able to interview with you immediately. Contact me at (321) 555-0000."

Know you are a super-fabulous librarian, but show some restraint in your cover letter. Once you have made it to the in-person interview, you will be able to convey all those amazing qualities, but they may not be appropriate for inclusion in your cover letter. The primary function of this document is to get your foot in the door. A well-written, personalized, direct cover letter that addresses the position in detail is a sure way to make it to the top of the pile. Good luck in your job searching endeavors!