There is so much literature out there already on how to write job applications (namely cover letters and resumes) that I wasn’t sure I was going to write this post, but based on the job applications that I was looking over, I’m almost amazed at how many glaring errors people still make.
Applying for jobs is a very time consuming thing to do. Whenever I write an application, it takes at least 2 hours for me to put together a cover letter and resume for a single job even with a lot of previous applications where I can copy/paste a fair amount of stuff.
Tailor the Cover Letter and Resume
I have heard this advice over and over again, and yet still see some applications that look like it could have been for any employer and any job.
Copy and paste the job posting. Make sure that every single qualification and responsibility is addressed either in the cover letter or resume (possibly both).
Admittedly, it’s not always possible to touch on all the points, but as much as possible. For example, if a qualification list says that you need to know ColdFusion (who does?! unless they’ve worked in academia before where they use it), you can still say that you know programming and list the languages you do know and at what level.
Some points can be on the resume only and do not need elaboration. The foremost example being education. If a specific degree is required, and you got it, list it in the education section and hurray, that point is covered.
The most important points, where the focus of the job seems to be, should be covered in the cover letter with some elaboration on how prior experience/knowledge fits and highlighted in the resume.
Make Good Use of Your Space
General guidelines are 1 page for cover letter and 2 pages for resume. That’s not a huge amount of space, so make sure you balance what and how much you elaborate on in both the cover letter and resume.
For example, one cover letter I read took almost half of the body to basically say “I’m super enthusiastic and totally support what you’re trying to do.” It’s great to express that, but don’t use up half of the body of the letter for it. Show your enthusiasm and your support in a one or two sentences as part of the introduction.
Focus on what you bring to the table and what you can do for the employer.
A highlights section at the top of the resume can be very useful, replacing less useful sections like “interests”.
Related to good use of space is formatting.
Formatting can be very simple (unless you’re applying to be a graphics artist or something similar, then you might want to do some fancier to show off your skills).
- Use an easy to read font, minimum 10pt (11pt or 12pt is good for body text). Cut out text instead of making your font smaller.
- Be consistent.
- Use the same header (with contact information) across all pages of your application.
- Have multiple paragraphs (at least 4 including introduction and conclusion) in the cover letter.
- Headings in the resume should mark the beginning of each section clearly with different formatting from body text.
- Avoid having the page break of the resume in the middle of a bulleted list.
- Make sure to have enough white space to make it easy to read!
I probably missed one or two points, but the main take away is that it needs to be easy to both skim and read.
First, if the job posting doesn’t ask for references, don’t include them, because you could do better things with that space.
Also nix any “References available upon request” line. Again, poor use of space, and for a job that requires experience, that’s a given.
Generally, if not required, I advise not to provide references at the time of application. In part, an employer might see it as not following instructions properly. However, the major reason not to include references is that you want to warn your references when they might reasonably get a call.
As an aside: After an interview, or whenever you’ve provided references to a potential employer, send a quick email to your references to give them a heads up with a copy of (or link to) the job posting.
Send in a Single PDF
Whenever possible, send in a single PDF.
A single PDF means that:
- the cover letter and resume are kept together,
- the cover letter is more likely to be read first,
- the employer will not see any wonky formatting tricks used in a document, and
- there will be no formatting issues using different versions or programs opening a document.
Document files (namely Word files) are very likely to have display issues, and so often do not look like the same as the original, for numerous reasons. The whole point of PDF is that it will look the same across devices, so take advantage of that.
While a manager or HR person who does a lot of hiring is ideal, feedback from anyone who has an eye for proofreading can help spot mistakes, point out awkward sentences, and find points that are not covered.
If you’re struggling with writing, consider asking other people, whom you know have been successful, for a copy of their most recent cover letter and resume (or one for a similar job if possible).
When I was a student, I asked three or four peers who got interviews for student librarian jobs for a copy of their application. A couple of them were also willing give me feedback on mine. While I got some good feedback from my peers, it was most helpful to see their applications for ideas on how to better structure and present mine. It was very helpful to have copies of applications that were for very similar jobs (and similar to what I was applying for) and that I knew were successful in landing interviews. Example cover letters and resumes that I later got from the co-op program were also helpful in improving the basic template I had.
Of course, personalized feedback that I got from my co-op advisor was invaluable in improving my applications. So, get that feedback from whom you can. (Mentors are a great resource, and if you don’t have one, a lot of library schools and associations have mentorship programs).
Make your application look good, have others help, and best of luck.