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.]

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.


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

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