Another semester of teaching at San Jose State’s SLIS program has ended. Many of my students are graduating and others are starting to think about applying for jobs so they’ll have one when they do graduate. For so many of them, the job search is going to be a struggle. It wasn’t an easy job market when I was applying more than five years ago (took me 9 months of looking to get my first job), and it’s only gotten worse in the past couple of years. I was blown away last year by the sheer number of applications we had for the distance learning librarian position we were hiring for; it was significantly more than we’d received for the same position just a year earlier.
In a tight market like this, having a good cover letter and resume can mean the difference between getting a phone interview and ending up in the round file. I have served on four search committees in my five years at Norwich and chaired two of them. I learned so much from being on the other side of the job search experience that I wish I’d known when I was looking for a job. I made so many rookie mistakes when I was looking for my first professional position; mistakes that I’ve seen made time and time again when looking through other people’s cover letters and resumes. I’m writing out these tips in the hopes that others can avoid those mistakes when they’re applying for jobs. Keep in mind that these tips are just from my point of view and others may disagree with them, but they were definitely things that made me and my fellow committee members more or less likely to give the applicant further consideration.
Also, for those looking for information on professional online networking and using social media for career advancement, I’ve written three columns on the topic for American Libraries Magazine: “Your Virtual Brand”, “Finding Your Voice”, and “Dipping into the Stream.”
- This first one can’t be stresesed enough — tailor your cover letter to the job you’re applying for. Most importantly, address the specific requirements in the job ad. You may be particularly proud of how you designed your library’s intranet, but if the job you’re applying for has nothing to do with any of the skills you exhibited during that project, it’s not worth detailing in the cover letter. In all of the committees I was on, we’d go through each cover letter and resume with a list of required and preferred qualifications and would see which ones the applicant addressed. If they didn’t show evidence of one of the required qualifications, they’d be out of the running. Period.
- Tailor your resume to some extent to the job you’re applying for. Highlight things that you’ve done or skills that you have that are on the list of required’s and preferred’s for that job.
- Tell me why you want to work here and why you want this job. When I see a cover letter from someone who clearly wants the job they’re applying for (as opposed to wanting a job), I am much more likely to want to interview them. When we were hiring for a distance learning librarian, I gave the most weight to people whose letters made it seem like they really wanted to be a distance learning librarian.
- Learn about the organization. This is important early on, but is especially important when you get to the interview. I remember having a candidate who asked me what my job was at the library and then talked about how we should do IM reference with a Meebo widget when we had one right on the front page of our website. I figure if they are too lazy to research the library and the search committee members, they are going to apply themselves similarly to their day-to-day work.
- Include experience outside of libraries that might be relevant (school, other jobs, etc.). I always made an effort to describe how the skills I’d developed as a psychotherapist were relevant to reference and instruction work. If you’re applying for a library job where you’re working with the public, retail experience is a great asset.
- Include any extra-curricular professional activities you’ve engaged in, such as speaking gigs, committee memberships, articles written, etc. Personally, I am jazzed when I see a new grad or soon-to-be-grad who has published, presented or otherwise contributed to the profession beyond their library schoolwork. It tells me that they have a passion for going above and beyond and that they’ll probably do that in this job as well. I want to hire someone who sees this as more than just a job; passion is a real asset in an employee.
- Express enthusiasm and confidence. Write your cover letter as if you know you’re the right person for the job (though don’t be full of yourself either!).
- Read the application requirements carefully. We once required that applicants send us a link to at least one example of a website they created. Many people didn’t send us anything, which meant we wouldn’t consider them no matter how great they sounded otherwise, since web design skills were a required qualification. It’s never a bad idea to take screenshots of web design work you’ve done, just in case it gets replaced in the future.
- Unless the reason is particularly sensitive, do explain gaps in your resume. Whatever the search committee will imagine is probably worse than your actual reason.
- If you have job hopped a lot, explain why, and for the same reason as above.
- If you currently work in a different library type (or have only taken coursework towards working in a different area) address why you are now applying for this job. We got a lot of applications for a distance learning librarian position from folks who were catalogers, were members of the Society of American Archivists, etc. Had they said “I’m really interested in getting more experience in online instruction” or something similar we would have given them greater consideration. Otherwise, it just looks like they don’t really want to work in that area and will bolt the minute something comes available that they do want.
- If there’s a reason why you want the job beyond the position itself (like you want to relocate to the area, you have ties to the area, etc.) do state that. It can let people know that you’re seriously interested in relocating. Just make sure it doesn’t sound like it’s your only reason for applying.
- Read over your cover letter and imagine what impression the search committee would get of you if that’s all they read. It should tell them without looking at your resume how you are qualified for the job.
- Apply for a job you know you wouldn’t want (whether because of location, duties, hours, etc.) You’re not only wasting your time, but you’re wasting the time of the people who are reading your resume and interviewing you). And definitely make sure you are really interested in a job before you go for an in-person interview (especially if it requires travel funding). You don’t want to make enemies early in your career by wasting the search committee’s time (and the library’s money… especially during these lean years). There’s nothing wrong with realizing after interviewing that a place isn’t a good fit, but if you’re interviewing in a big city you’d never want to live in or for a job you’d never want, you’re wasting people’s time.
- Send a generic cover letter. Passing off a generic cover letter makes you look like you don’t want the job that much. And usually, it’s pretty darn obvious that a cover letter is the same one you’ve used to apply for 10 other jobs.
- Just list everything you’ve done in your cover letter. Specifically address what the search committee cares about — the required and preferred qualifications.
- If you’re applying for a job that requires technical skills, be honest about your level of skill. A small stretching of the truth is ok, but if it’s a big stretch, it’s likely that you’ll be found out. I remember one candidate talking about their amazing web programming skills, and one look at the websites they’d designed told me that they were grossly overstating their skills.
- Talk about your personal hobbies. I can’t tell you how many resumes I’ve seen that talk about people’s interests in gardening and genealogy, their involvement in the Boy Scouts, or their passion for yoga. All very nice, but unless these somehow relate to the job requirements, they don’t belong in a professional resume.
- Have a generic “objective” on your resume I personally never put an objective on my resume, but if you’re going to, make it meaningful or leave it off. I love ones that say things like to obtain a position where I can apply my knowledge, experience and education in the field of librarianship. How is this useful???
- Write well, but don’t use lots of big words to impress. Usually it’s pretty obvious and many applicants actually use those words incorrectly. I have seen this happen way too many times and it makes the candidate look dumber than if they’d just used terms they’re really familiar with.
- Apply for a job that requires an MLIS if you don’t have one or aren’t close to getting one. A few months away is usually ok, but if you’re just starting an MLIS program, don’t bother.
- Maybe it’s just me, but I hate when people write things like “My background and accomplishments seem to be a good match for your needs”. I’m not just looking for someone who has the qualifications I need; I’m looking for someone who really wants the job.
- Just list the positions you’ve had in your resume – also describe your duties and (in the cover letter) the skills that you gained in those jobs that will benefit you in the position(s) you now want.
- Unless the job requires specific subject expertise, I don’t want to see a list of the databases you’ve used. If you have general reference experience in an academic library, I’ll assume that you are competent at searching most databases and can learn the ones you’re not familiar with.
- List your GPA unless something in the job description asks you to address academic achievement.
- Make your cover letter over 1 1/3 pages and under 1/2 page. Personally, I prefer a cover letter that is exactly one page long.
- Just tell us generic things like you’re “detail oriented” or “innovative” — illustrate it in some way with things you’ve done.
Any tips you’d offer to folks looking for a position in libraries? Any egregious mistakes you’ve seen (or have made) along the way that you’d like to share?