Part 1 will be about the length of a cover letter, what it should have. Part 2, coming shortly, will be about what a cover letter shouldn't have. Part 3 will be about what makes a good one good and what makes a bad one bad.
First assumption I'm going to make here: You ARE tailoring each cover letter to each application. Go ahead and create that master cover letter with boilerplate language or with the fill-in-the-blank MadLibs look, but you must modify. That's not just me. I heard it from the survey respondents, I hear from recruiting colleagues all of the time. Job ads are kind of like snowflakes (I can hear my high school writing teacher howling right now) in that a lot of them may appear alike, but there's going to be differences, even if subtle. Even if it's the same job a short time down the line, do you want to take the chance that some reader with a spectacular memory will notice that your two cover letters are word-for-word the same? More importantly, if you didn't get the job the first time, what are the chances that repeating your exact efforts are going to work the second?
Let's dig in.
The length of the cover letter. Apparently? Size matters. At least to most of the respondents.
I also offered "the shorter the better" as an option and a few people chose that, mostly in tandem with other size preferences.
The interesting thing about these results are that I put in some vague statements (shorter is better, any size if all relevant) and people still chose specific lengths. Nobody sent me a comment saying that they needed more choices: that they preferred 5 page letters, for example. Nobody argued with the answers they had to choose from. That hit for 3 pages or less? 1 respondent only. I think you can take from this that 1-2 pages is acceptable but the closer you can get to 1 page, the more likely you'll hit the mark.
So short and succinct. But not too short, mind you. Again, I told survey takers to assume you've put your contact information on it. This probably isn't a safe assumption--I've received a number of cover letters submitted that don't have any header information on them at all or have only a name. If the cover letter manual you read between the last post and this one says you don't have to put that information in? It's wrong. I've also received cover letters that essentially said: "I'm applying for X job at Y institution." And nothing else. We get our share of apps that are from people who are clearly just applying for anything open in the system whether or not they're remotely qualified for the position, but some of these came from people who were actually seeking the position in question. Really, really not good. As for contact information: provide your name, address, phone, email. One of the survey respondents has obviously been bit a few times by cover letters that only have a signature at the end and no other mention of the name. (Sounds like s/he dropped a few bunches of papers and had to gather them together too.)
So what does my panel of experts say on what a cover letter should include? Here we go...
For the first point, I'll quote one of my experts. "Evidence that the candidate has read the job description carefully." This is pretty broad, I'll agree. The first way to demonstrate this? Not only mention the position by title, get the name right. If they're advertising for a User Services Archivist, don't call it a Reference Archivist. Why? If you don't prove that you've read the job ad and read it closely, you're not going to convince your recruiters that you're interested in the position. We all want to hire somebody who really wants the position we have on offer, as well as somebody qualified to do it. Getting somebody like that means the employee is more motivated in the position, they tend to do a better job, all things that make supervisors' and coworkers' jobs easier.
According to several panelists, they want to know where you saw the ad too. And in the spirit of keeping things short, it nicely combines with the previous requirement into one sentence for your introductory paragraph along the lines of "I'm applying for the position of XYZ as advertised in PQR." Why mention this? Time savings for the recruiter. If none of my qualified candidates picked up the ad from LibJobs, well maybe I don't need to bother to advertise there. If the subject-targeted listservs are generating the best candidates, maybe I need to send the ads out to those sooner with occasional reminders. Or if I'm paying for the ad in one of the for-pay venues and I'm not getting responses from there, maybe I can save that money. Or better, if somebody has reposted my ad to another place and I get a lot of good candidates from that source, I'll be sure to post directly to it next time. Not everybody cares about this, but enough do to make it worth the 3 or 4 words you need to dedicate to it.
Experience, experience, experience. Every single respondent had some sort of riff on this topic. Not a rehashing of your resume which they'll also look at, but a summary. Mind you, that's a summary of experience as it relates to the job duties. Connect each element clearly to the job responsibilities and requirements if you're not using the exact phrasing that the job ad used. (Though do try to use the keywords as they appear in the posting, okay?) In your summary, either provide examples or reference the explanation provided in your resume--and by directly pointing to it. "I have three years of progressively responsible reference experience with XYZ Archives, as detailed in the enclosed resume." Keep it short. Not every respondent emphasized that, but enough did. They were using words like summary, brief, pithy (I love that word), short, overview, relevant, relevant, relevant.
The cover letter is also the place to explain why the readers should pass you even though you may not have one of the requirements. This is tricky. As one respondent put it: "If the candidate does not meet any of the stated job requirements, there MUST be a VERY persuasive argument for alternate relevant experience." Sometimes the institution is stuck and can't waive one type of degree for another or a certain length of documented paid full-time experience can't be made up of unpaid part-time work. But if you can't make the argument and you aren't qualified according to their standards, you're probably not going to make it past that first screening. Take a shot at it, but make it a good one. Don't ignore it in hopes that nobody will notice. I'm not kidding about the check-off list that a bunch of institutions use.
Also, if there's no apparent direct correlation between your resume information and the requirement, this is your chance to draw that connect or, perhaps, to reinforce it. I had a friend who a few years back was able to get a reference job (library) based on her argument that her cataloging experience gave her the ability to understand the search process and how to make the most of it. Connects like that are really important. In our last position opening, I didn't require archival reference experience (I think it was a preferred) but I did require customer service experience. I was willing to take retail, waitstaff, anything that showed the candidate got the public service side of things. A few candidates did an excellent job of telling me about their part-time retail college job and why that was pertinent. Okay, so I gave them the initial connect by stating the customer service requirement, but those who demonstrated that they understood why it mattered? They got a lot further along in the process. They reinforced the relationship between the job requirements, the job duties, and that hard-to-judge "is this person suited to this type of job" query.
Provide other relevant experience or knowledge that may or may not be covered in the resume. Like past experience that may not be in the archival field that still relates (note customer service example in the previous paragraph). Relevant is important here: a reading knowledge of a language may or may not be relevant. If it's in the job ad? Obviously it's relevant. If not? Maybe you should go take a quick peek at the institution's collection policy or collections list: do they have anything or are they trying to collect materials in that language? If not, probably not a priority for the cover letter. Especially if leaving it out can help you condense down to a page.
A few other things. Do some homework on the institution, make it show. That's true for every step of the way, by the way. If you can demonstrate a feel for the types of materials the institution collects, the mission of the organization, so on, that's a good thing. Survey respondents--when they defined what would exhibit understanding of the institution--pointed at holdings and mission. Keeping it short, of course. I was amused by one respondent who answered "Appear as if you have done some research on the place or job." Note s/he didn't say do homework, just appear to have done homework. You don't want to go too far, too early, since I'd be worried about somebody who quoted the minutiae of our commercial use fee policy in a cover letter, but keeping in mind the keeping it short goal should help you avoid the worst excesses.
Express why you're interested in the position. Now this can get tricky too. You don't want to emphasize one piece of it over the others. I had this discussion not too long ago with a jobseeker who wanted to know how to make it clear to places he was applying that he really, really wanted to live in that part of the country. He wasn't just applying because of the locale, but the locale was an attractor. The problem is if you tell me "I really, really want to move to Alaska" and focus too much on that, I'm going to start wondering if the reason you want my job is because you want somebody to pay your way here (we offer moving allowances) and a few months of salary and you're going to dump me for some other local job soon after you get here. It's a balance. I also don't want to waste my time and our travel budget interviewing the otherwise-perfect candidate because they really just aren't quite ready to move away from home yet so a statement of location affinity isn't a bad thing. But if you put it in? What will balance it out is a clear and effective statement of why you want that job, not just the locale. Something about the duties, the challenges, the responsibilities.
But don't tell me (or just tell me) why the job is perfect for you, tell me why you're perfect for the job. What will you bring to my department that's you-specific and should make a difference in my calculations? Careful here, you want to do this without slamming the competition or making a statement that can't be supported by evidence. I had a candidate one time who told me something like "I'm better for this job than all the other candidates because I have thus-and-such qualification." And my first thought was "how do you know any of the other candidates don't have that?" and my second thought was "wait a moment, 2/3 of the candidates have that," and my third thought was "I don't have that qualification so is this candidate slamming me?" But back to how to do this. Look over the job duties and requirements again. Do you have a special ability in one of them? A combination of some of them that would make you stand out from the crowd in some way? Some sort of compliment you received on a review that you could quote?
Some other points mentioned by survey respondents. Show some personality. (Not too much, because hey, only one respondent said that.) Explain any gaps in your resume. Provide information as to when you might be available to interview. You don't have to provide an exact time and date and if you'll be available at their pleasure, go ahead and tell them that. If you can't take phone calls at certain times of day, let them know when it would be good to call. Make sure you put in your time zone. (Please, begs the Alaskan of any Louisiana, Iowa, or South Dakota applicants, save me the lookup. I'm good with both coasts and offshore, but I occasionally misstep in the middle). If you have a preference for method of contact, let them know what it is. Provide an alternate in case that doesn't work for them. Make it as easy as possible for them to contact you when they're ready to do so.
Ready for what not to put in? That's the next post.