I’m back. With Resume and Cover Letter Tips.

Hi again, readers! I took an unscheduled break from blogging while there, but I’m back and ready to dish some more.  Especially since I’m on “vacation” this week and yet I can’t go outside because of the weather.  Blecch.  Hope you’re all staying cool, wherever you are this week.

During my blogging break, I finished a draft of my syllabus for my fall freshman seminar, knitted up a storm, and read two new huge books by two of my favorite authors, George R.R. Martin (A Dance With Dragons)  and Anne Easter Smith (Queen By Right).  No spoilers, though, I promise.

Let’s get back to job hunting.  If you haven’t already, take a look at Mr. Library Dude’s excellent post on Library Schools and Library Jobs.  Fun fact: Mr. Library Dude and I have never actually met, but he had my current job before me.  If he hadn’t decided to move to another job, I wouldn’t have mine.  And he gets major props for passing on all of his very-well-organized files.

Resumes and Cover Letters are, in a way, one of the trickier things to write about. There’s no shortage of advice out there on how to put either document together, and a lot of it, while it may not be explicitly contradictory, does vary depending on the person giving it and what industry they’re in.  Therefore, I’m simply going to make a list of points that worked for me.  Make of it what you will.

– You need a cover letter.  You may have heard that people don’t read them anymore.  This is true in some fields.  It is emphatically not the case librarianship.  Most of us, even those who work primarily in technical or IT services, have some contact with the public.  Even those who don’t have to be able to communicate with colleagues.  Communication is a big part of our field, and your cover letter is the first clue to the hiring committee whether your can do it clearly or not.

– Your cover letter needs to be unique for each position you apply to.  Period. This is your chance to show the employer how your skill set matches up with their needs.  Don’t rehash your accomplishments  at past positions.  That’s what your resume is for.   Show how the skills you used to reach these accomplishments will serve this new employer.

– Regarding your resume, keep those past accomplishments that you list relevant to the new position you are applying for.  Unless my library is also a fast food restaurant, I don’t really care that you can bun more hot dogs per minute than any of your  coworkers.  For non-library experiences and accomplishments, make sure you make the skill connections explicit.  It’s fine to mention secretarial work you did, for example, as such work often requires good writing and communication skills, and you’ll need those in the library – but make it clear that that’s the reason you’re including it – as proof you have such skills.  Here’s a more relevant library example.  Are you familiar with a Course Management System such as Moodle or Blackboard?  Don’t simply list this in your computer skills section.  Explain how you have or could use that as a librarian.  Have you been an embedded librarian in a class?  How do you use these tools in library instruction?

– Most people will advise that you need an individual resume for each application, as well.  While it’s a lot of work to keep writing all of this stuff, I managed it by having three “master” documents – a CV and a resume for academic library jobs (some will ask for a CV, some for a resume, so you need to have both prepared), and a resume for public library jobs, and then I tweaked/moved around items based on the requirements of the particular job I was applying for.

– Cover letter length will vary based on position type.  In the academic world, people tend to write longer (up to 2 full pages) cover letters, while in other fields, this is seen as less acceptable.  I tried to keep my academic library letters to about 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 pages and my public library letters to one page.  No matter what the type of job, remember that, given the state of the library job market, there are likely to be upwards of 50 or even 100 applicants for every position.  Depending on how much time the committee has, your letter may only be skimmed on the first pass through.  Don’t make them search for important information.

– Format your resume.  The “wall of text” approach will get you thrown in the garbage fast.  Remember, however, to stick with conventional formatting schemes and bullet styles that can be read by many email and word processing programs.  Proofread and edit.  And then do it again.

– Don’t waste space on your resume with “references available upon request” (everyone already knows this), or an “objective.”  It’s not 1995, and hiring committees don’t want to read your vague statement of buzzwords.  A well-written cover letter will accomplish the task in much clearer fashion.

– Don’t waste your time (or the committee’s time) applying for jobs that you are not qualified for.  If a job listing says “MLS or equivalent plus 3-5 years library experience” and you’re a recent library school grad, you aren’t qualified for this position.  (The exception might be if you’re an older student and had worked in a library prior to your MLS education).  Don’t piss off the committee by sending them an extra application to read (they’ve got enough work to do already).  Of course, sometimes ads aren’t so clear cut.  It’s nice when they divide their qualifications into “required” and “desired,” but this doesn’t always happen.  Use your best judgment, and you may even reach out to them and ask for clarification, but don’t find yourself on someone’s blacklist down the road because you sent them a pointless application now.

– Apply only for jobs that you’re truly interested in and would consider taking if offered.  Once again, there’s a bit of gray area here, because it’s certainly possible to be interested in a job, and then go on an interview and not like the work environment or find the attitudes of potential colleagues off-putting. But if you’re not willing to move to a certain country/state/city/town, don’t apply.  It’s a waste of your time and theirs.  Put your energy into doing a better job on applications for places you’re actually interested in working.

– Follow the instructions in the ad.  You would not believe how many people eliminate themselves from job searches just by “demonstrating” that they can’t follow simple instructions.  If it says “no phone calls,” don’t harass the contact person with calls.  If it says you need to fill out an online application form with their HR department, along with sending in a cover letter and resume, then do it.  Yes, a lot of these forms are appallingly redundant.  No, there’s nothing you can really do about it.  When you fill out said forms, spelling and grammar count, just like they do on your cover letter and resume.  If you’re asked to include a writing sample, a website sample, your references, transcripts, or any other documentation, you need to include them.

– More and more places are asking for references up front.  If they’re specified on the job ad, make sure you include them.  If you’re asked for “three professional references,” professors don’t count.  Ideally, all three professionals are library professionals, but at the very least, at least one should be a person who has supervised you in a professional work environment.  Pick people who really know you well and can give an honest appraisal of your work.  Be aware that in today’s lawsuit-happy environment, some companies prohibit their employees from giving references beyond the dates you worked there.  Check with your references and find out what they’re able and willing to share before you include them.

– This should go without saying, but if you’re going to use someone as a reference, get their permission to include them first!  Not only is it courteous, but it gives you a chance to screen for possible disasters.  If someone seems unsure about giving you a reference, ask them about their hesitation.  Better to find out and correct a negative behavior before you find out that your reference is giving you less than stellar reviews.

– Send in your materials on or before the deadline date.  If one isn’t listed, get the materials in as soon as possible.  Show that you can be prompt and on time.  If you find an ad for a dream job, and the deadline date is past, you might consider contacting them and asking if they would consider accepting an application late.  Explain that you’re really interested in the job and just saw the ad, and would like to apply if they’re still willing to take your application.   Whatever you do, don’t get in the habit of sending late applications out – it makes you look disorganized.

– Don’t be surprised if you never hear from most of the places you send applications to.  It’s sad, in someways, that as applicants, we’re expected to be on our best behavior and be as courteous as possible, but said courtesy is often not returned by employers.  Very few will contact you to let you know your application has been received and/or is complete.  It’s great when they do, but don’t expect it to happen.  Some employers will never contact you.  Some will contact you to let you know you didn’t get the job, but only after a candidate has been hired, which can be several months after you initially sent in an application.  Some will contact you once they’ve selected candidates to interview, and let you know that you’re no longer under consideration.  And, of course, some will contact you asking to set up an interview (we’ll tackle that in the next post).

A Year Before You Graduate…

I think the best piece job-search related advice I received during library school was to make sure I didn’t wait until the last minute to start compiling a resume and look at job ads.  In fact, Louise Robbins, Professor at UW-Madison, said at a workshop that you should start reading job ads and tweaking your resume as much as a year in advance of completing your library degree.

I found this to be important for several reasons.  First, by examining job ads a year before you go on the market, you can tell if the courses you’ve completed thus far are in line with what employers are looking for, and what you might still need to add to your grad school experience.  For example, I really didn’t want to take a cataloging class, but after seeing a number of ads for reference and/or instruction librarians that were blended positions requiring, at the least, some knowledge of cataloging principles, or in many more cases, reference and instruction jobs that also included cataloging duties, I realized that it wasn’t a class I could or should skip.   Job ads will also give you a sense of what level of technology skills various types of employers and libraries are looking for.

With a year left in school, you don’t need to be exhaustive and read every last job ad that comes out, but checking the Chronicle of Higher Education weekly for a month or surfing ALA JobLIST a few days a week is time well spent.  You can surf JobLIST for free, and you can probably find the Chronicle in your school’s library databases.  You can also probably find a hard copy in any number of offices around your campus.

The other thing you should start doing well in advance of graduating is compiling your resume and/or C.V. (Academic Librarian and Archivist-types: you’ll need both.  I’ll talk about the differences in a later post).   When I started library school, I had come straight from another graduate program, and I hadn’t updated my resume since I was looking for undergrad student work (think MS Word 98 layouts).  My C.V. was in slightly better shape, but it still needed some work.

Workshops and feedback are among the best ways to start tweaking your resume.  During my first semester at SLIS, I attended a resume workshop which was hosted by SLIS director Louise Robbins, Wisconsin Writing Center Director Brad Hughes, and a recent graduate of the program (whose name has unfortunately escaped me).   Louise handed out a great packet – recent graduates who had successfully gotten jobs – and she included the job listing, the cover letter, and the resume of the applicant, and she had one each for academic, public, school, and special libraries.  During her portion of the workshop, she talked through several of the points in each letter and resume, and what she did and didn’t like in each one.  If I remember correctly, the academic example belonged to Andy Burkhardt, and I liked the layout of Andy’s resume so much that I used it to inspire my own redesign.

If your library school is offering resume or C.V. workshops, by all means, attend them.  Workshops offered by your school’s career center are also valuable, if less discipline-specific.  Once you have a working resume or C.V., have it critiqued by a professional in the field who regularly reads resumes and actually hires people.  If your LIS program offers this opportunity as a workshop or consultation-based service, take advantage and sign up for an appointment.  If you aren’t able to have a face-to-face consultation with someone, consider the ALA New Members Round Table Resume Review Service. (You do need to be an NMRT member to use the service, dues are quite reasonable for students).

Getting a grip on job ads and the mountain of expectations they often contain, and starting to organize your resume in a way that highlights your ability to meet those expectations is not an overnight process, and getting a head start well in advance of graduation will save you from many a stressful headache as graduation draws near and the search goes into high gear.