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The One Cover Letter Trick That Will Get You Noticed

Image via scottkellum on Flickr - CC
Image via scottkellum on Flickr – CC

It’s that time of year when upcoming library school grads will be applying for jobs. And while gaining real world experience is extremely important, it is just as important to be able to sell yourself in your application materials. I’ve chaired and been a member of a number of search committees for both librarians and faculty and have read hundreds of resumes. Through this process I’ve learned one simple trick  to make your application stand out among others who might even be more qualified than you. It’s not really a secret, but so few people do it that it might as well be. The trick is similar to advice for a first date. In writing your cover letter:

Don’t talk about you, talk about them.

This might sound a bit backwards. The whole point of a cover letter is to talk about yourself, your experience, and let the search committee know who you are. But this is where just about everybody gets it wrong. The people doing the hiring don’t care about you (don’t take it personally). They care about themselves. How is this candidate going to benefit my organization? How are they going to help us become better? These are the real questions that search committees are asking. So when you focus on yourself and what you’ve done in the past it makes it that much more difficult for the search committee to picture you at your organization.

Of course they want to know about your experience, but put it in the context of them. Instead, just tell them what you working there would look like! Instead of saying “I’ve taught numerous information literacy sessions using active learning techniques,” say something like “My significant teaching experience using active learning in the classroom would be an asset as you’re trying to grow your information literacy curriculum.” Instead of saying, “As part of a class I created video tutorials for use in undergraduate instruction,” say “I’d love to bring my knowledge of creating engaging video tutorials to help enhance your instruction and web presence.” It’s only a slight shift but it makes all the difference.

Search committees are dense, lazy, and have dozens of applications to read through. Instead of making them work to imagine you at their institution, do the work for them. Instead of assuming they will make the mental leaps between your experience and their needs, make that connection for them. It will make their job easier and set you apart from everyone else. They’ll already be able to see how you fit because you’ll have told them.

If you focus your cover letter on them first and within that context discuss how your talents, experience, and attitude will enhance the work they’re trying to do, you’ll already be ahead of the game.

You can get other cover letter ideas at this awesome library cover letter project. Are there other tricks, tips or advice that you’d give to new grads and others preparing for the job search?

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Not Just Problem Solving But Problem Identification

One of things that I see students struggle with the most in doing research is question and topic identification. A big portion of the time I spend helping students with their research is spent helping them identify and define what their question is and what problem they want to address. I use techniques like mind-mapping to help students break apart their problem and start asking the right questions. Traditionally the work of librarians has been more focused on problem-solving. “Where do I look for information on human rights?” But increasingly, problem identification is becoming a skill necessary for students to master as they move into a world and economy built on creativity and innovation.

Dan Pink, the author of Drive and most recently To Sell is Human, talks about this importance of problem identification:

“The premium has moved from problem solving to problem finding as a skill,” Pink said. “Right now, especially in the commercial world, if I know exactly what my problem is, I can find the solution to my own problem. I don’t need someone to help me. Where I need help is when I don’t know what my problem is or when I’m wrong about what my problem is. Problem solving is an analytical, deductive kind of skill. The phrase ‘problem finding’ comes out of research on artists. It’s more of a conceptual kind of skill.”

This is a skill that can be hard to learn and especially hard to teach, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore it. It’s a lot easier to teach how to search a database or how to properly cite, but teaching students how to ask the right questions and identify problems will better prepare them for the world they’re entering.

A real world example of problem discovery comes from the folks at the design firm IDEO. In this this video, the CEO Tom Kelley talks about redesigning a toothbrush for children. Based on observation and asking the right questions they are able to see the problem in a new light and design a brush that not only tops sales but fits children perfectly. By finding the right problems and asking the right questions the solutions that follow are going be exponentially better.

This skill of asking the right questions and identifying the right problems to solve is something librarians should definitely be teaching our students. It can be done both in the classroom and at the reference desk. What are ways that you teach this skill?

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NERDing out

This past semester I took on a new role as Assistant Director of the Library. My focus in this role is digital strategy and user experience, but since my excellent colleague Sarah Cohen left last spring I have also been filling in as the organizer of the Teaching Librarians. This week though, I am very excited to hand the position off to Alan Carbery our new Assistant Director for Information Literacy. It’s a great team of teachers, and I know Alan will be an asset in providing us leadership.

With Alan’s arrival I’m eager to be directing more energy towards the digital strategy and user experience side of my position. One of the things I’m really excited about is a new team that I helped to form at the start of last semester that’s focusing on these areas. At the initial meeting our group recognized that as a library we often have great ideas, but many of them don’t come to fruition because every semester we get busy and some are inevitably forgotten. We wanted to form a team that could not only come up with ideas, but also create a space where these ideas could be incubated and given legs. As part of our first meeting we came up with a team name and some shared principles. I love the name we came up with even though it’s a bit geeky. We called ourselves NERD (New Entrepreneurial Research & Development). As for the shared principles, among other things we wanted a team that:

  • has focus, is directed towards goals, and sets timelines and deadlines for ourselves so we can actually get things done.
  • is not exclusive or exclusionary. Other people can join on and off, and we’ll sometimes intentionally want people there.
  • makes decisions not just on gut feelings, conjecture, or what other people are doing but on data and evidence.
  • purposefully tests out ideas using user research, interviews and data.
  • meets students where they are not where we assume they are or want them to be.
  • works in an environment of perpetual beta where we brainstorm, choose ideas, pilot/prototype them, and then ship them knowing that they are not finished and with an eye to improving them.

In the past semester we’ve been tackling things like improving the reference experience for students and improving how study rooms are utilized. We’re already off to a great start this semester and I know we’re going to do some amazing things.