From My Side of the Search Committee: Cover Letters

While I have a momentary lull between actively being on search committees, I need to press Publish on this. I’ve been working through these thoughts for several months now and while I am by no means the only one to try and tackle advice to job hunters, having so recently sat on 4 search committees, I certainly have some fresh opinions. If you’d like some other good advice, Jenica Rogers has a great post here (check her archives for other job hunt posts), Gavia Libraria discusses the process and some good warning signs here, Andy Burkhardt has pointed out his favorite tip, and John Dupuis has a nice round up here.

For this post, I’m just going to review what I read first, which is cover letters.

Cover Letter Problems:

  • No cover letter.  We’re in a field that pretty explicitly requires cover letters. Applications that didn’t have them felt incomplete.
  • You don’t mention the job. Oh, you mention the title of the job, in a copy-and-paste-the-title sort of way but not the actual job. I was looking for Medical and Science librarians. If you managed to write a page and a half and never mention something in one of those fields, that’s an enormous red flag.
  • It’s an obvious form letter. Yes, I know you’re writing lots of cover letters. Yes, you can use something of a template. But if the only thing you’ve swapped out is job title and library name (and sometimes not even both of those correctly), I noticed.
  • We’re so fortunate that you’ve condescended to apply. And I want to work with someone who thinks that because…??
  • Typos.  I understand. People are human. I’ve caught the error after I submitted an application too. And I’ve never gotten an interview from one of those places either. Run spell check. If you’re not a native or fluent English speaker, ask someone who is to do a quick grammar check.  Also, don’t tell me how you are so detail oriented if you didn’t bother to proofread your cover letters.
  • Color and Font. You can play with font within a very limited readable range (other colleagues of mine are more particular about fonts than I am, I don’t mind Arial or Times New Roman). Be cautious with color usage. What looks pleasant on your screen may look horrendous on mine.
  • No formatting or confusing formatting. Simplicity in fonts doesn’t mean you can get away without any formatting to the letter at all. At least for MPOW, you need to upload your cover letter so it’s not as though you’re trying to guess whether people read their email in plain text. Spaces between paragraphs give my eyes a break. Cramming it all onto one page with .1″ margins is really annoying.
  • How long is that? Speaking of which, while a cover letter doesn’t have to be a single page, multiple pages of single spaced paragraphs gets exhausting.
  • What does that URL go to?  If we’ve asked you to upload a CV, please don’t only send me a link to a webpage where I have to try and dig around to download it. If you are including a personal professional website, make sure it represents the you that you’d like me to see. I assume you don’t want me to associate you with out of date content, painful formatting, or anything involving the phrase “blink tag.”
  • Transitioning library types without telling me why. Yes, I know you’re trying to get a job and then you’ll work on getting the job you actually want. But if you’re applying for something that seems totally left field, you need to give me a reason why. Remember, I went from a medium sized youth services position in Wisconsin to a Research 1 medical academic library in Chicago, I know you can include why you want to change; I’ve done it.
  • Why do you want to move here?  You live on the other side of the country. What brings you to my town?
  • Personal things that I have to try and not consider.  Include personal information sparingly. Volunteering things that hiring institutions aren’t allowed to ask about (race, marriage, kids, politics, religion, other non-work activities) can be awkward for search committee members. I’ve seen it done well when people are giving context for why they want to move but overall it puts us in a difficult position. Please be thoughtful.
  • Wrong institution.  This happens wherever there is a city or state where there’s more than one: University of Michigan vs. Michigan State; Univ of Chicago vs. Univ of Illinois AT Chicago; and a colleague in DC has seen all sorts of mix ups between George Mason, James Madison, and George Washington.  Please please please double check that.
  • Odd salutations: I saw several of these.  At least one made no sense at all. It might have been a reminder to the person to change it later but they didn’t. Oh, and “Dear Sirs” is never a good idea.
  • Weird email addresses.  Please go claim something related to your name on Gmail or Yahoo! and use that or your professional handle on other social media (assuming said handle is appropriate for professional jobs).  I find things like “thesmithfamily@” or “chrisandbecky@” or “sparklypurplehedgehog25@” inappropriate. The former two suggest a lack of privacy in your accounts and we face a lot of rules about privacy at my institution.
  • The same person may be sitting on multiple searches: Candidates who submitted the exact same package for more than one position? Yes, I remembered your name and cover letter from round 1.

And many of you, I’m sure, are yelling “BUT I DO ALL THAT RIGHT AND YOU STILL DIDN’T CALL ME!” Trust me, I understand that thought. I know how much effort I put into looking for jobs during the last couple of searches I did. If you did all of the cover letter things correctly, then you probably made it past my first cull through–and that’s really important when I need to get from a large double digit or triple digit number of candidates down to 10-15 that I’m willing to re-read more closely.

If you’ve fallen guilty to only one of these errors, is it an automatic rejection? Not necessarily, but it’s now given you an uphill climb against the other candidates.

Next up, your resume and some interview reminders….

Questions? Want me to read your cover letter? Let’s talk.



  1. Comment by Bruce:

    On the other hand….

    Some folks don’t even read the cover letter unless someone passes round 1 culling. Isn’t the *resume* supposed to represent a person, rather than the cover letter? [I.e. at least one reference on job seeking actively calls the cover letter a ‘mere formality’, implying that form letters are acceptable]

    Also, why does the form of someone’s email address have any bearing on appropriateness? It seems sorta like saying someone’s phone number isn’t appropriate, but maybe I’m wrong here. Yes, email addresses are a dime a giga-dozen these days, but it still seems a bit, well, ‘off’ as a criterion to me.

    I guess all I’m saying is that a couple of these criterion/helpful hints seem more likely to inadvertently remove great candidates than to weed out the less-than-stellar ones.

  2. Comment by Abigail Goben:

    Every search committee I’ve been on has very highly valued the cover letter. That may be something that is more profession specific, but in libraries, they are a must and they had better be written well and position tailored. I have never seen anything that says cover letters are a mere formality. If a candidate is applying broadly, there are templating things you can do to make it easier, but many of the form letters I saw were flat and utterly uninteresting. It was often apparent that the applicant was merely blanket-submitting to every posting without verifying appropriateness. Frequently a poor cover letter indicated a lack of qualification by the candidate. Also, the cover letter is my first (often only) encounter with how a candidate writes. As this is a research and writing intensive job, that’s important.

    For email addresses: I don’t mind a whimsical email address (have you seen my blog title? 🙂 ) but if you’re applying to a university and would like to be taken seriously for a research faculty position where, in 7 years, we’ll guarantee you a job until retirement, I like to see a little more professionalism. Unlike phone numbers, where it’s often assigned by your carrier of choice, email addresses are frequently part of how you choose to present yourself: did you use an alumni address? a gmail account? your personal website? your work account? It’s unlikely I would completely write a candidate off for a silly email address unless it was offensive. And as emails addresses can be obtained for free, getting a professional one is not a particular burden to the candidate.

    Might one of these criteria make me miss a great candidate? Possibly. But a) that’s why it’s search committee rather than me picking alone and b) I still read the resumes. If someone’s a weaker writer but a stellar candidate, hopefully I’ll catch it there.

  3. Comment by Sarah L:

    Excellent suggestions, Abigail! I look forward to the next in the series!

    Another faux pas I saw on a search committee I recently sat on: using your current employer’s letterhead for your cover letter. You are basically advertising to me that you will use my institution’s (and in our case, taxpayers’) resources for your personal purposes – a lack of judgment, dedication and discretion.

  4. Comment by Abigail Goben:

    Yes, I’m glad we’re not having to do so much with resume paper but your letterhead should be your own.

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