The cover letter is the ultimate "writing sample."
Even if they haven't asked for a writing sample, they're going to be judging this with that in mind. And chances are, somewhere in one of the screening or ranking documents or somewhere along the way, you're being judged on the quality of your cover letter and it will have an effect on your passage through the process. Thank you my anonymous survey responder, your succinct and concise explanation did a much better job of explaining than I could. On to the data.
Now this was interesting. 81% of the respondents answered this question even though I made it totally open-ended which meant they'd need to spend some time, they couldn't just choose from pre-written responses. They really do want to share this with you.
The other interesting thing about the responses to this question is that despite the impression you got from the previous blog post on what not to do, these are almost universally positive. Some of them did address the bad side, but almost all of them addressed the good side. So they've not been burned out which is good news for the applicant as it's hard to please a cranky recruiter.
I'll compile for you. In this case, I'm not sure percentages and numbers really matter. Some of these could be a little nebulous like "something that will catch my attention," but I think most of them are not so much. These are things that even if you can't gauge your own writing on, one of your proofreaders (yes, I said "one of" suggesting more than one is good) could probably assist. These are the basic traits of a good cover letter, all of which speak to your communication ability--and that's something a bunch of survey respondents specifically stated. (Note: if you don't see why communication ability matters, let me know please. I didn't think I needed to go there but maybe I do.)
In tone and style: Professional and to the point. Easy to read, well-written, with good grammar and punctuation.(Note: good grammar and punctuation? Shows attention to detail, generally considered a good thing in our profession.) Congenial, shows personal/professional writing style without being overly informal (that doesn't mean informal,) displays enthusiasm and some personality, well-organized, fact-checked, and polite. Simple. Concise, possibly even brief. Provides quick access to pertinent information. Reads like a well-written piece of expository writing - had a introduction (with engaging topic sentence), support paragraphs, and effective summation. Addressed correctly. Polite.
In content: Specific, relevant, and tailored to the position for which you are applying. Touches exactly upon the qualities that we desire, e.g. a project archivist cover letter should mention things like project management skills, benchmarks, etc. (there were several variants on this phrasing). Makes a good case as to why the individual is a good candidate. Exhibits research skills (often in finding out about the institution), explains concisely how the applicant is a match for the position even if the resume doesn't match exactly, and tells how applicant can use their experience to the institution's advantage. States what you're applying for. Expresses a desire to advance professionally. Draws direct connections to the open position, might even acknowledge areas where the match isn't perfect and establishes the candidates interest in the specific job.
Oh and for those hard copy apps? Make sure you use good quality paper.
As for the traits of a bad cover letter, you can basically flip the above. A few respondents had some additional points that I think really are worth mentioning and some explanations/clarifications about the flip side. So quickly:
- in every recruitment I've done, there have been applications from individuals who were obviously just applying for every available job at my institution. Those people clearly didn't understand the nature of the job (hence the emphasis on tailored applications)
- nebulous terms like "works well with others" and "positive spirit"
- forgettable, impersonal, generic, and boring
- presumes on existing relationships
- odd fonts, colors, strange paper, food stains (for some reason this one really charms me though certainly I wouldn't be so amused if such a paper app landed on my desk)
- poor continuity and flow
- too general--could be for any archives job
- flip of the expressing desire to advance professionally: not to the extent that their willingness to perform entry level work or accept supervision is in doubt
- obviously unqualified applicant stretching to get an interview because s/he is desperate for a job
- explains to me why you want the job even though you know you are not qualified for it (remember my talking about how tricky it is to convince the recruiter that something else substitutes just fine for one of the requireds that you don't have? This is what happens when it doesn't work.)
You ready for it? Let's kick into resumes next.