the torment of terrible cover letters

I have been compiling this post for a while. I think about cover letters when we have an open search, and moments when we have an open search are precisely the wrong time for the Director of Libraries to talk about how to write a good cover letter. So I write a few sentences to get some of the firey rage out of my brain, and then I hit Save Draft.

Well, no one here is reviewing applications right now, so I feel like I can safely speak without compromising any integrity. So here’s my take on how to write a good cover letter, or, more specifically, how to not write a bad one. I write this on behalf of all those who are currently searching, and tearing their hair out over bad letters, and all of those of you who are looking for a new gig and really deserve a chance to shine.

*steps up on her soapbox*

So, we get between 40 and 120 applicants for every search. That means that you, Applicant Q, are one of many, and we are looking for ways to distinguish the excellent from the mediocre from the poor. We’re looking for a great new colleague, so we’re optimistic. We want to love you. And then. We read all of your materials — every cover letter, every CV, every reference sheet. Those are, in fact, the only materials we can consult as we work to distinguish the excellent from the mediocre from the poor. And our ad instructions say “applicants must submit a cover letter that addresses details of both the required and preferred qualifications”. So that’s step one.

First, read the instructions. We wrote that ad thoughtfully. Read the ad. Particularly note the specific instructions you are given. “applicants must submit a cover letter that addresses details of both the required and preferred qualifications”. Do that.  Do not begin your application by failing to read the instructions.  We will notice.

Second, stop talking about yourself in your cover letter.  Yes, you’re trying to sell your skills and personality in this letter, but I mean it: Stop talking about yourself.  Talk about us instead.  Think about it with me:  We have your CV, which, if it’s good, tells us a lot.  Therefore, we don’t need a paragraph that tells us what you did at your last job.  You’re just repeating yourself in your limited communication space.  What we need is a paragraph that tells us how you intend to apply what you know to the job we described in our carefully worded ad.  Tell us how you’re gonna help us and contribute to our insitution. And do it well, so that you stand out from the dozens of other applicants, whose CVs and cover letters we also have. Ask yourself: how does this letter make my application stand out as a potential member of their team?

Third, go back, and read the ad again. All of it.  Including details like who the search committee chair is, what the required qualifications are, and what kind of work we’re describing in the Responsibilities section. That ad is not rote, or careless, or irrelevant. We wrote that ad carefully, intentionally, and with great thought and care.  Read it. Make a list of its key points. Read it again, and check for nuances — descriptive words, active verbs, and things that look like “filler” to you.  Consider that every word was chosen, so they all matter.  Now, go back to your cover letter. Do you talk usefully about all the things we talk about in our ad? Have you made thoughtful reference to our required qualifications? Have you highlighted experience that you will bring to our relevant preferred qualifications? Have you indicated why you are excited about doing the things listed in our description of responsibilities, or why our description of our ideal candidate matches your skills? If the answer to any of these is “no”, rewrite your letter.

Fourth, seriously, just stop with the cut-and-paste jobs, already.  We can tell. We’re more experienced at this than you are, we’ve just read 75 cover letters, and you’re not fooling us.  We know that you’re tired of applying for jobs and eating ramen and suffering under your terrible current boss, but the fact that your cover letter is a cut-and-paste job from the fourteen jobs you applied for last month shows. And we hate you. If you can’t be bothered to match your fonts, get the name of our institution right, list our job position title correctly, and write something that indicates you read the ad… Just no. You just wasted our time, and you’re out of the running.

Fifth, whatever else you do, whatever advice you take or don’t take, don’t do this:

[this is representative, though several sentences were harvested from varied actual applications received here.]

Hello,
I am interested in the [job title redacted] position would like to learn more about your available opportunity. I am currently working  [redacted]. Along with my work experience, I am finishing my last course online [name of course redacted] by May. (Although I will be available, to begin work by the the end of February. [unadorned statement of previous work experience redacted]. I believe my skills would be a good match for your organization and would  appreciate to opportunity to discuss my qualifications.  Feel free to contact me any time with questions or concerns. My transcripts can be faxed from my School upon request.

Don’t do this. Let me tell you why this is wrong.

1.  “Hello” is not the opening of a business letter, and you failed to sign it. I am unimpressed by your professionalism.
2.  Odds are, the job has “strong communication skills” somewhere in its requirements.  If you present poor written communication skills (or cut and paste badly) in your letter, you just failed.
3.  Commas and parentheses are not decorative; use them right.
4.  The job says it starts in some other month which comes after February. Don’t talk to me about February. You are not reading the ad, or you are not respecting our institutional needs and expressed desires.
5.  Too short. You had my attention available for one to two pages, and you wrote a (boring) paragraph. What a waste of an opportunity.
6.  No one asked for your transcripts. Therefore, we don’t care. Don’t waste the words on that.
7.  Overall, this letter is useless.  It tells me nothing additive to what will be in the accompanying CV.  It tells me nothing about why I should consider you over the dozens of other applicants.  You are treating the cover letter like a hoop to be jumped through rather than a crucial part of your application package.

Fail.

tl;dr: The cover letter is not a formality. Use it to present yourself really well. I already have your CV; I don’t need a repeat. Read the job ad very carefully, and use your letter to say something about yourself and the job.  And spell everything correctly and learn to punctuate.

*steps off the soapbox*

See also: Open Cover Letters and Cover Letters as Narrative and Arc

101 thoughts on “the torment of terrible cover letters

  1. Kate

    Well done! This is akin to putting the glass to the door and listening in to the search committee as they discuss your application. You’d be a fool (and have no one to blame but yourself for your unemployment) if you don’t follow this. (And yes, I did when looking for a job.)

  2. Jenica Post author

    Sometimes, NO, the employer can’t. Sometimes the system isn’t that flexible. Sometimes there are government guidelines that must be met.

    Sometimes, yes, it’s just careless practice or inconsiderate policy. But not always.

    And I’ll be blunt: If I ask you to do it, and you want my job, DO IT. And smile.

  3. Laura

    @joe – those are often an institutional requirement, but read the instructions carefully! Often (at least at academic institutions to which I’ve applied) you don’t have to fill out all that information in the online form, just the absolute required (usually name, contact info, position applying for) and then upload your cover letter and resume/cv. Once I figured that out, it made those online app systems so much easier to deal with.

    Also, yes, what Jenica said, to all of this. I have seen every one of these mistakes – and until someone helped me, I made some of these mistakes. There are awesome people out there looking for jobs in libraries – but you do have to show us that you’re worth taking past the resume review stage.

  4. Jenica Post author

    Dorothea, and that would be any job seeker’s choice to make. But I would suggest that very few job seekers know enough about an institution to know whether or not a request for information is redundant. Perhaps there’s a state system that requires data entry which cannot be effectively harvested from a CV. Perhaps there’s a background check process that requires that particular form be filled out. To dismiss a requirement because it seems redundant to you is often to dismiss something unfairly.

    And right now, it’s not a job seeker’s market — it’s a hiring market. While we will always do our best to present ourselves honestly and in our best light, whining that the process is too complex doesn’t win any job seeker any points in my eyes. Given how many very good applicants we see for any job, every bit of data presented to us counts. And one of the things we consider is how bad the applicant seems to want the job, part of which is “If we ask for something, how do they present themselves in giving it to us?” I don’t think that makes me an unfair boss.

  5. librarianme

    I’ve sat on a few search committees now and have been surprised each and every time to see that many recent LS grads don’t seem to know the basic style of cover letters in our profession. So many people complain about how hard it is to get a job–and then so many cover letters are total crap. When I see bad cover letters, I start to think people aren’t getting jobs because they aren’t even following the basic conventions in our field.

  6. redgirl13

    Fantastic post.

    I’ve read some fantastic cover letters and many terrible ones. A fantastic one might not get you the job if you don’t have the proper qualifications, but it will give you name recognition with me forever – and that name recognition will come with a warm fuzzy feeling in my gullet.

    Best advice I can give is to find (preferably more than one) person to review your application – with, as Jenica says, a copy of the ad. Librarians are sharing folks, and many library associations have help for job seekers. As someone who chairs many search committees, I will happily invest time helping people best put forward their credentials.

    And if you’ve been told your skills are already awesome, volunteer for the above.

  7. Corin

    I could not agree more. It is not an enjoyable task to be sitting down with a stack of applications to read and be constantly frustrated by the quality of the cover letter. I tend to be very demanding of the cover letter, and if you have not even provided one, you are seriously in trouble as far as I am concerned.

    It is a simple task to read the job requirements, key tasks and the application requirements and match these. Yet so many can not even do this basic thing. This SHOULD be a skill people are leaving education with!!!

  8. messy

    Hm. Obviously you want someone to be able to write professionally, but shouldn’t you also really be focusing on what the person has actually done?

    I’ve seen awesome cover letters written by people who turned out to be totally unqualified for the job. And I’ve seen weird/awkward cover letters written by weird/awkward people who turned out to be very capable at doing the work.

    Just seems like you focus a little too much on the cover letter part. I’m just thinking, what jobs are out there where being able to write brief formal self-promotional essays would come in handy?

    Oh wait…I guess that’s what a lot academic library managers do all day, huh? So I guess it is really important in that situation.

  9. Laura

    @messy – the resume/cv and cover letter are what we have to rely on to decide who to interview. The interview is where we have to be asking the questions that dig into whether the person is the right fit for our organization and the position as posted. And candidates should be doing the same to us when it comes to the interview.

    But if you can’t write a decent cover letter and resume, it’s generally not going to make it to the interview stage. That’s the world we live in, whether you approve or not – and it’s the same all through the working world, not just in libraries.

  10. wicked

    yeah, cause weird and awkward helps you ace the interview, so who needs a kick-ass CL? Like, who needs an interview and application review process anyway? You have my word and my word is bond. If I say I can do this job while being weird and awkward and showing you pictures of my cats and the baskets I’m making every morning for five minutes, then you should just trust me and realize that how I represent myself on paper has nothing to do with how well I will do this job. Geez, just give me the job already.

  11. Michael

    While I completely understand where you are coming from, unfortunately not all organisations are like yours. These two quotes stand out:
    “We wrote that ad thoughtfully.”
    “That ad is not rote, or careless, or irrelevant. We wrote that ad carefully, intentionally, and with great thought and care.”

    Yes, I’m sure you do write your job ads correctly, with as much information available as possible for job applicants. However, just like you get cover letters such as your example, there are plenty of organisations who write job ads just like that.

    Frankly, when I’ve been looking for work, and found ads that offer so little information, it is hard to bring myself to care too much. Sometimes I’ll contact the organisation looking for more details, sometimes I’ll just write an application with what I’m given, and sometimes I’ll just ignore the ad.

    Anyway, final point is that actually, in this modern digital world, there are other things that can be used to assess an applicant. I know I always include a link to me website (however horrible it maybe). I wonder also whether or not you do a search for applicants before you accept them?

  12. Anna Creech

    Well said, Jenica! I have (thankfully) not served on a search committee for several years, but what I remember of the experience left me feeling much the same. In my own job searches, I found much more success when I wrote a fresh cover letter, tailored for the position in question, that was both professional but not too dry. In short, something I’d like to read if I were on the other side of the table.

    Messy, if you can’t tell the search committee why they should talk to you, much less hire you for the position, who will? If you can’t tell your boss how you met or exceeded expectations in your annual performance evaluation, who will? If you can’t tell your funding body why the library/program/whatever needs to keep their budget, who will? There are plenty of uses for being able to write “brief formal self-promotional essays” in libraryland, or anywhere else that your career (and attitude) may take you.

  13. Liz Q

    Would love employers to stop being pedantic about stilly things like matching fonts. The only time you should worry about an employee not having matching fonts is if you are hiring somebody doing web design or magazine layouts.
    It continuously frustrates people that employee are asking for some magical unicorn person who can do everything and anything they want for a mediocre at best pay, and they are no doubt expected to work overtime at that.
    You are hiring an employee, not looking for a future partner to wed. Discard the cover letter and start reading their skill set, and references. Try setting them a basic skill test if you really want to see how they are at something.
    More importantly, find out if the person is able to learn new skills, because every company usually has their own way of doing things, and they will need to be able to learn. Find out if they get along with people easily or have a quick temper.
    Stop asking stupid questions because some website says you should (ie ‘when you look in the mirror, what kind of person do you see’).

  14. Jenica Post author

    Who knew calling for professionalism in job applications would spark such fervor?

    Messy, I get the sense you think I’m an asshole, so I’ll let others address your points, as they’ve ably done.

    Michael, point taken in re: other job ads. My faith in my colleagues is eternal, but also pretty shaky, so I can’t argue with you on that point. But, at the same time, they’re telling you something about themselves with that ad — they don’t care enough to do better, for whatever reason, so… is that where you want to work?

    And as for other information on candidates, yes, it absolutely exists for some. But not for all, and when you work in a state system that is scrupulous about fairness, it’s often hard to know when to go looking for more, or whether you must do so for all candidates, or can you at a specific point choose to seek other information, etc. Our campus rule is that in our initial pass at applications we can only evaluate the information we requested, so unless we ask for an online presence or portfolio, we cannot consider one. And until and unless all librarians and all new graduates have a presence or portfolio, it feels unfair to ask for one — it cuts out viable candidates on grounds that seem pretty shaky. Later in the process, yes, we can go digging, but in the first pass, the CV and cover letter are IT. So they need to be awesome. 🙂

  15. de1373

    Hey Jenica, and any other hiring managers reading this,

    I think a few people with whom you need not go any further in your hiring process have self-identified in the comments.

    Hey, whingers?

    You’re getting good (FREE!) advice on how to apply for any job, any where; and you’re going to whinge about it and then attempt to contradict that good advice?

    If you’re going to argue over advice from blog post, I bet you’re a real whinger to work with — therefore I don’t want to hire you, and I certainly don;t want my people to suffer through working with you.

  16. Jenica Post author

    Liz: Based on my experience in academic libraries, you’re just plainly wrong. Professional presentation matters, as does providing a clean application when the application is the only data a prospective employer has to consider about you. I hope someone can convince you of that, or you find the unique situation where your perspectives are a good match. Good luck.

    de1373: It’s amazing what one can infer from someone’s written presentation of self, isn’t it? There might be a smart point to be noted there.

  17. wicked

    For realz. If an applicant could learn new skills, like pedantically matching fonts on a resume, or cajoling friends to serve as references, why should you care that they don’t know how to format a Word document? I actively do SEO for my crappy resume website because I feel like it represents my potential to excel at basic HTML in a mediocre job that I don’t really want. I also make sure to include a few pictures that demonstrate how hard I can party. If a potential employer knows that I will be the life of the annual winter holiday event, then it goes a long way to getting my foot in the door. Cover letter smover letter. I gotz skills.

  18. wicked

    Yeah, what up with that? It’s not like academic librarians are supposed to coherently interact with Ph.D’s who already look down on them or anything? Am I right? Seriously though, I should be able to copy and paste the list of job responsibilities from my last few jobs into my resume and they should just understand that I can do all of those things well. What happened to the “human” in human resources? It’s all “Job Qualifications” this, and “background check” that. When I say I’m proficient in Web 2.0 technologies, we all know what those are right? Do I have to spell it out that I know how to set up a Twitter account? Should I have to explain that I can proficiently upload videos to YouTube? Sheesh

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  20. Michael Baird

    Jenica–great post, thank you for laying out the pieces for a competitive and engaging cover letter. It’s encouraging to see that I’m on the right track.

    My largest complaint is in how poorly our MLS programs prepare us to be competitive applicants. Wouldn’t it be incredible if as part of a capstone process graduates were required to submit a cover letter and CV which would be reviewed by an appropriate library professional in their target field (not faculty)? There is a *ton* of misinformation on the web for writing cover letters; most of it is dated, or originated in a job seeker market. For a fresh grad, it’s difficult to figure out where to start, especially if you are not well-networked.

  21. messy

    @Wicked – excellent points. Like me, I’m sure you’re tired of a lot folks who call themselves “managers” in academic libraries…”failed academics” is more like it. I know not everyone with a PhD in English/Anthropology/History/Philosophy can become a faculty member, but why do they all seem to end up in library administration? Must be a pretty darn good cover letter to explain how a year abroad studying 20th French poetry makes someone good at managing tech projects.

  22. dchulse

    Having been on the receiving end of cover letters and CV’s for too many years to count, I think Jenica’s touched on a really important point. It is amazing to me how many cover letters seems to make little or no reference to the applicant’s qualifications for, or even interest in, the specific position in question.

    And yes, I’ve seen candidates with mediocre cover letters who turned out to be just fine, and some with very good cover letters who turned out to be real duds. But on the whole the correlation between a well-crafted cover letter and a strong candidate holds up pretty well.

    As Ring Lardner said, “The race may not always be to the swift, nor victory to the strong, but that’s the way to bet.” As a hiring manager I know how I’m betting…

  23. Tim

    “…asking for some magical unicorn person who can do everything…” like using ctrl+a and then changing the font face and size? You make valid points about academics manqué, mediocrity in management, and kitchen sink advertisements, all endemic problems in academic libraries. And then bury them in a cloud of grumping about being asked to pay a little attention to detail in support of a decision point, made about *you*, one that offers limited in-or-out data for the folks trying to hire talent. There are going to be people who participate in the search process who are not failed academics, who care about the qualities of leadership and management, and who chafed at the job announcement. And they’re going to see that you can’t be bothered to respect their time and energy as they plow through heaps of dossiers. And they’re going have a hard time distinguishing your fine qualities from someone who just doesn’t give a crap.

  24. Colleen

    I’ll say this: when you are hired as an academic librarian, we’re not just hiring your library skills, you *need* to be able to self-promote, because when you work with our faculty, students, and community members, you will be promoting our institution. As a manager, yes, it is important to me that you can do that without embarrassing my library. I’d expect that you can do this best in your cover letter, so if your enthusiasm doesn’t shine there, I’m going to be concerned.

    @messy – sounds like you’ve worked at some horrible places if those are the only administrators you’ve been exposed to; I hope you find something better.

    And a reminder: a great cover letter is a *necessary* condition, but it is not sufficient in and of itself for us to hire you. That’s why we do phone and in-person interviews after looking at cover letters and CVs. To be sure the goods match the label.

  25. Jenica Post author

    Michael, you wrote, “My largest complaint is in how poorly our MLS programs prepare us to be competitive applicants.”

    I’m concerned about that, as well. Every time we search, we see some excellent candidates, and some very very poor ones. And all have the MLS as a basic qualification. So I have to wonder where the graduate programs are in all of this. Feedback from recent grads and current students isn’t reassuring.

  26. Angela

    @Michael — In my MLIS program, for one of the core required courses, we did actually have to find a job ad and write a resume and cover letter addressing it. Unfortunately, it was reviewed by the instructor, so the feedback was less than incredibly helpful. On the other hand, my program has a “resume network” set up, which pairs students with experienced librarians in their preferred fields. That was HUGELY helpful!

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  28. cclibrarian

    I don’t buy the excuse that your academic program didn’t help you. Find someone you respect to review your CV and cover letter. If you can attend ALA, make time to go have your materials reviewed. Get a mentor. Show some initiative. When I hear this trotted out, it makes me mad because you are telling me that you can’t be bothered to put some effort into your career. I don’t want to hire people like that because I don’t have time to hold your hand every day and tell you what to do. While I don’t expect new graduates will know everything about libraries, you are also adults who need to take responsibility for yourselves.

  29. RJM

    Exactly! I tell job-seekers to list each item in the “requirements” and “qualifications” portions of the ad on a sheet of paper. That is your outline for the cover letter. Tell the hiring organization how you meet those requirements. Do it in the order listed in the ad. If you do, your chances of being called for an interview have risen astronomically. If you can also address other points in the ad (for example, if you have experience with the tasks mentioned in the “will be responsible for” portion), do that, too.

  30. David F

    At some level, the consistency of the fonts you use (and spelling and grammar) boils down to “attention to detail”.

    If you don’t think that details aren’t that important, then maybe you should reconsider your choice of careers.

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  32. Erin Dorney

    Thanks Jenica! This is a great post and I’ll be sharing it with any and all new grad/job seekers that come my way. I have been on one academic search committee (also at a state institution) and everything you said here rings true. Also, the comment from @RJM – where I work, if you don’t touch on every single requirement from the job ad, we can’t even consider you. It doesn’t necessarily have to be *library* experience, but you have to make the connection.

  33. Ge Ge

    Hi Jenica! Thank you for [bravely] sharing helpful points about writing cover letters/CVs. As for the recent comments of how formatting cover letters should be overlooked- if you CANNOT follow instructions in the small stuff- how can you be trusted with a large responsibility of working with a team of people? ALA offers FREE career preparation webinars twice a year for MLIS students.

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  35. Susan

    This article has been passed on to my high school senior English teachers who struggle with students who do not believe that punctuation, spelling, consistency, or attention to detail matters. Good to know that our standards are not out of whack with the real world.

  36. Charlotte

    Great post 🙂 One other thing I look for is (again goes back to the job ad) is being a team player and being adaptable. Adaptability is key in our field as you blink and things change. Being able to accept those changes is so important.

  37. red

    Thank you for this post, but how does one talk about the job without talking about oneself? Like if I say “I have tons of experience in this and it would translate well to providing excellent service in this somewhat different area that this job requires” – is that considered talking about yourself or talking about the job? Could you give an example of a “word it like this, but not like this”?

    This was the hardest thing on the list for me to reconcile.

    Also, any comment on salary requirements? When librarian positions ask for that , I freeze a little. I include it since it is required, but I worry that if I put it too high, I won’t have a chance at the job, but if I put too low, I’ll be undercutting myself.

    I know for public universities salary information is available, but what about private? Should I go by the BLS Occupational Outlook website? The average? The median?

    Thanks.

    P.S. I love your blog!

  38. Michael Baird

    Jenica, perhaps I was a little harsh on our grad programs, but I don’t think so. It could also be the process of “natural selection” at work. As @cclibrarian indicated, you have to take some responsibility for yourself. Fortunately, I did that by hounding my librarian co-workers while in library school, getting a mentor through ALA, and utilizing various resume review services. It’s incredible how many fresh grads are oblivious to those things. If you don’t know that something exists, how are you supposed to find out?

    However, I do wonder, why shouldn’t this be part of the responsibility for our MLS programs? They do a disservice to students by luring them into $50,000 of debt with promises of tenure-track positions just waiting for them as soon as that degree is in hand only to say “thanks for the cash, see ya!”

    Would it be so horrible to help bridge that gap between coursework and “making it” in the real world? I’m not asking for much: an honest look at the job market, library managers to review application materials and hold mock interviews. The strategies Jenica lists here to write a successful cover letter, this is what should be passed along. It isn’t hand-holding or coddling.

    @cclibrarian You make a great deal of assumptions which turn out to be completely inaccurate. I graduated and gained a very competitive faculty position in the worst job market in 20 years. I worked my ass off and am proud of it. You would be fortunate to have me as an employee.

  39. Jenica Post author

    @red:

    “I worked for two years as a Technical Services Librarian at Rockford College, and in that small-library environment I gained invaluable project management skills. Among my successes was Project Q, which achieved X, Y, and Z.” = talking about myself and repeating my CV.

    “My two years working at Rockford College leading a close-knit team as Technical Services Librarian taught me invaluable project management skills which I will bring to Your Institution and use to Do Things You Care About As Evidenced By Your Job Ad And The Research I Did On Your Website. I am particularly proud of Project Q, which taught me X, Y, and Z, which ensures that I am well-positioned to work effectively as a member of the team implementing your Center For Things You Care About.” = talking about the job in ways which are more meaningful to potential employers.

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  41. 00Bob

    Does anyone still use cover letters? The last position I applied for was just selection criteria and resume as were, um, probably most of the positions I’ve applied for in the past few years. Maybe if it was a paper submission it’d be different.

    Actually I thought the cover letter sounded like the outline supplied by my old Uni for how to do it. A quick Google later … maybe my memories a little off. THeir outline is roughly:

    Personal Details
    Intended Recipient’s Details
    Long Format Date e.g. 30 January 2010 – I’m guessing the axample’s dated.
    Dear Mr\Mrs\Miss\Mz … Person
    Para1 – what\why you’re applying
    Para2 – what you are doing\how it links to position
    Para3 – show links between your skills & required skills
    Para4 – Other links to position\organisation (life experience)
    Para5 – Concluding comments – documentds enclosed, that you would like to discuss your application further etc.

    Yours sincerely
    signature
    Name

    Obviously a long time since I checked.

    On a totally separate note, US$50,000 for a library degree? eek! I’m going to shut up about my $20K or whatever it was for a Masters.

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