How to write the perfect cover letter

Posted on 29 January 2013 at 11:19 pm in Career.

Originally posted to tumblr, Sept. 2012.

I was giving a friend cover letter advice for a librarian position and she suggested I go public with it.

My admittedly limited credentials: I have written cover letters that were ignored, I’ve written cover letters that got me interviews, and I wrote the cover letter that got me my job. I’ve been on hiring committees where I have read dozens of cover letters for both full time and part time librarian positions, and I remember what made some stand out while others headed straight to the circular file. I’m not an expert; the following are just my own opinions. Feel free to agree, disagree, or add your own perspective in the comments.

My headline suggests an unobtainable goal. It is absolutely impossible to write the perfect cover letter. The fact is, every hiring manager, library director, potential boss, or hiring committee will have different criteria and a different perspective. Some institutions have an expectation of formality, while others have a preference for informality, and unless you know personally the person who will read your cover letter, you’ll never know which is the perfect approach.

However, you can do a bit of research to improve your odds. Read the job ad. Read any ancillary posts about the position (such as the library director’s blog, if s/he has one). Try and get a sense of the library’s personality from their website and current outreach methods: are they formal and fussy? Are they casual and fun? Try and match your style to what you can tell about their institutional personality.

Once you’ve done your research, focus on the objectives of your letter. First up, and I feel this is the most important point:

  • Your cover letter is not a recitation of your experiences.

That’s what your résumé is for.

  • The goal of your cover letter is to paint a picture: you want to the reader to envision you, in their available position, solving their problems.

The cover letter is a narrative. You are telling a story in which you are the protagonist — a problem-solving, enthusiasm-generating, can-do person who has the skills they are looking for and directly addresses all the areas in which they need help. They should get a sense of who you are and your personality, because that is what sets you apart.

The side benefit of conveying your personality in your cover letter is that if they don’t hire you because of your personality, then they were unlikely to be a good fit for you!

Now for a hail of bulleted advice:

  • Instead of listing your experiences, you are relating your experiences to their job.
  • If their job ad mentions three main areas of responsibilities for their new position, you better mention all three in your cover letter, and how your skills, attitude or experiences specifically prepare you to fulfill those responsibilities.
  • If you’ve been working in a different type of library than the one for which you’re applying, address that in your cover letter. Make it clear that the type of position they are offering is genuinely your career goal, and your experience at other types of institutions just brings you perspective from (x) field that will help you in (y) field.
  • If you live far away, make it clear you are willing (and in fact excited!) to move.
  • If you’ve had a gap in employment or other red flag, address it.
  • This might sound obvious, but…no typos, no grammatical errors, and no spelling mistakes.
  • Formatting matters. Put together a clean, attractive page, not just a standard Word template (also true for your résumé).
  • Have a responsible friend read it and give you unfettered criticism.
  • Always throw away your first draft.

Another question that comes up a lot when discussing library applications: yes, both your cover letter and your résumé can be over a page. This is a professional-level position you are applying for. There are different standards!

Questions? Thoughts? Replies? Rebuttals?

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  1. Comment by Ingrid on January 30, 2013 at 4:01 pm.

    Thanks for this. I’m going to share it widely. I know people who could use this. I *hate* writing cover letters. I hope I don’t have to write one for a long, long time.

  2. Comment by Daniel Ransom on January 30, 2013 at 4:06 pm.


    Writing cover letters can be fun…if the job speaks to you. But if you’ve been applying everywhere for everything I’m sure that wears thin quickly. Fortunately I haven’t had to do it myself for a couple years now (I love where I am and I’m not looking to move).

  3. Comment by Gina K Lee on January 30, 2013 at 5:17 pm.

    Thanks for this post, Daniel. I attended a panel of three academic librarians the other day, and each one had a completely different perspective on what they want to see in a cover letter! The one-or-two-pages question seems to be an especially common area of disagreement. So thanks for your tips for getting a feel for the personality of the library and library director and targeting your application appropriately–I think that’s a really smart approach.

  4. Comment by Daniel Ransom on January 30, 2013 at 9:31 pm.

    Yeah, I have heard people take both sides of the one-or-more page issue. However, my sense that in academic libraries (as in the rest of academia), longer resumes are the norm.

    For example, right now several of my co-workers and I have had to include our resumes in a grant application. For that grant application, we decided to *limit* our resumes to 2 pages. I had to cut mine half a page. Two of my colleagues had to cut a whole page. Our boss had to cut three pages — all to get resumes down to just *two* pages.

    In other words, longer resumes seem pretty standard around here, and we’re just one small academic library.

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