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 ┬áto 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?

Andy Burkhardt


  1. Hint: Please don’t assume the hiring committees are all dense and lazy–it will come through in your letters. I’m sitting on four different search committees at this point and I’d like to think I don’t resemble that remark. Overloaded and desperately hoping for a brightly shining candidate amongst the bland and impersonal form letters is closer to how I feel.

  2. Abigail, sorry I didn’t quite mean that they were dense and lazy. I said that a bit more for effect. I’ve been on a lot of search committees too, and I was poking fun at what you alluded to in your comment: that search committees are overloaded and overwhelmed. It’s so much work being on a search committee, that if a candidate makes some of the connections for you as to how they’ll fit with your organization it eases the burden of committee members. Those ones, like you said, are the shining ones that jump out at you from the bland and impersonal applications. And your point is a good one. Search committees have a lot of work to do. If you can do some of that work for them your application will stand out. Thanks for the comment.

  3. I really appreciate that you illustrate how to make the cover letter about what you can do for the library with examples. I’ve seen this advice a lot but sometimes it’s difficult to figure out how to actually do this. Your post helped this click for me, so thank you!

  4. Amanda, I’m glad it was helpful! And it doesn’t always fit everywhere when you’re making it about them, but if you put yourself in the mindset of how do my skills match their needs and how can I show my value to the work they’re doing, it really shows up in the cover letter.

  5. Thanks Andy for this post – I’m in the middle of writing a bunch of cover letters and this comes in quite handy!

  6. Andy, this is a really helpful post. I’m on a search committee at the moment and your advice is helpful. I would modify it a bit and say we are interested in “you”–the job candidate–but what we’re most interested in learning is how you’ll fit in with us. If you’ll pardon the pingback, I wrote a post about cover letters at the start of our committee’s evaluation process last fall. I always like to think of cover letters as letters to your future colleagues. Try to write the kinds of things you would want to know about the people you will likely be working with for the next few years. https://freelancelibrarian.wordpress.com/2012/11/27/dear-future-colleagues/

  7. I loved the post you wrote and how you frame the cover letter as letter to your colleagues in the future. Putting yourself in the frame of mind will help you as your writing, but hopefully will help when you get the job too! Thanks for your insight.

  8. Hi Andy! Thank you very much for sharing your ideas! May I add that your participation here at the comments makes it even better to understand what you pointed out. Veronica’s hint is rather interesting as well!


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