Having recently spent a few months searching for a new job, I've lately devoted a lot of time to crafting cover letters. I'm happy to say that I am now a little over a month into my new job and I'm getting settled in. Since I spent a lot of time working on cover letters, though, I thought I could share my experience and some tips for those who are writing them.
This is one of the most time- and energy-intensive parts of applying for jobs, because for each application you submit, you should really be starting the cover letter over almost from scratch. Every job is different, as is every organization, as is every hiring committee. It's tempting to just write a standard letter and then change the position title and name of the institution to which you're applying, but from the hiring committee's perspective, it's pretty easy to tell when someone has done this. And they're not looking for someone who's applying to any and every opportunity, sending the same letter to everyone; they want someone who is interested specifically in them, so every cover letter needs to be tailored specifically to the job for which you're applying.
That's not encouraging, is it? Well, there are ways to make it easier on yourself, which you can do by looking for the similarities and constants. You'll probably be applying for more than one job in a particular type of position. You are the same individual with the same qualities, skills, and talents. You are probably looking at jobs within a particular field, in this case we'll say librarianship (which, yes, can be pretty broadly defined, but still). Theoretically you know the ins and outs of your field and can speak the language of the industry comfortably.
So when I began applying for jobs, before I started writing an actual cover letter, I started to write about myself. There are so many clichés now when it comes to this - I'm a proactive detail-oriented team player! - so I brainstormed words and phrases that describe me as a person and as a professional. I tried to stay away from things that could probably describe any applicant and focused on crafting language that specifically describes me. Part of being a professional that I think is often under-emphasized is knowing yourself: what motivates you? At what type of work do you excel? What kind of manager/team/work environment brings out your best? What are your professional goals and how will this job help you achieve them? I asked myself these questions and more as I thought about how I wanted to describe myself. I also re-took the online freebie version of the MBTI (got the same results as previous times, no surprise) and a few other personality type tests and looked through the descriptions for words, phrases, or concepts that seemed to apply to me especially well. I ended up with some stock sentences and paragraphs that I could use in my cover letters, from which I could pick and choose according to what fit the position and organization.
When I started applying for jobs, I also looked for sample cover letters to use as inspiration. I called on people I knew who had recently gotten new jobs and asked to see the cover letters they'd submitted. I looked to the folks in my personal learning network to see if anyone had tweeted or posted to Facebook about writing cover letters. I searched my favorite library job sites for posts about writing cover letters. I looked through all of these and tried to identify the important bits. I looked at the format, the style, how the letter was constructed, and formed opinions about what I thought would work best for me.
Having previously been in positions where I reviewed applications for hundreds of candidates, I also had a little bit of a head start. When hiring, I always saw the cover letter as the candidate's time to shine. Here's your chance to show me your personality - who are you beyond the degrees you've earned and jobs you've held? Resumes are pretty standard, but you can wow me in your cover letter. So I set out to wow each hiring committee with mine.
For each job, I would highlight the key words and phrases in the position posting and try to incorporate those into my cover letter. I would also look up as much information as I could find about the institution and gather key words and phrases from their strategic plan, About Us page, mission, vision, and whatever other useful info I could locate. Generally I had already looked through this info (I used Evernote, but there are other ways to keep this information stored and organized.) when I was deciding whether or not it was a position I wanted to apply for in the first place, but I went through it all again as I wrote the cover letter to be sure that I was hitting on the things about the institution/job that appealed to me.
Finally I would put it all together. When I had a draft ready, I'd read through it a few times in my head, editing and fixing along the way. When I felt like it was pretty solid, I'd read through it out loud to make sure it felt like it was really in my voice. Did I stumble over any phrasing? Anything sound like it came out of a textbook and not my mouth? My goal was to make sure that my voice came through as much as possible, so reading it out loud and having it sound natural was a key step. After I felt like the letter was done, I'd usually walk away from it for an hour or so and then re-read it one more time to make sure no issues jumped out at me.
And that's it! Having written several dozen cover letters over the span of a couple months, I felt like I got to a pretty good place with it. I also felt that the process of writing them helped me to improve my writing and editing skills (I believe in the one-page cover letter, which sometimes required editing down to make things fit), which was a nice side bonus. One last thing: I strongly encourage you to let your natural awesomeness shine through in your cover letter. Be yourself - any organization worth working for will appreciate that you are a human being with a personality.
Bio: Anne Heidemann is the librarian at the Valparaiso campus of Ivy Tech Community College as well as a knitter, gardener, sometime punk rocker, adopter of Boston Terriers, naturally curious person, and all-around nerd. You can find her on Twitter @anneheathen and at her blog, LibrariAnne.