Surviving and thriving and getting that professional archives position.

Welcome. If you're here, you're probably wondering how to get some job--maybe the perfect professional archives position or maybe just something you can use as a springboard--and you're seeking advice on how to do that. From searching for advertisements to writing a resume or cover letter to making it through the interview. And hopefully even beyond.

No guarantees, you probably already know a lot of this, but maybe some help from a lot of people who want to make sure that good candidates get good jobs. If you've got better advice? or need further explanation? Please share in the comments.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Cover letter part 3: Good or bad, what makes it so?

Before I get into the details of the good/bad traits of a good/bad cover letter, I want to share with you one of the answers I got to this question. I think it's the final justification on why producing a good cover letter should matter to you.

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.)
Oh, and most who mentioned it, preferred prose to bullet points. Bullets were okay by some people, but they had to be judiciously used. Might be best to avoid, or use only sparingly.

You ready for it? Let's kick into resumes next.


  1. I do have a question of the place of cover letters in online applications. While most do allow you to upload more than one document (your resume) some don't. I applied to a job today online. When I called to see to whom I would address the cover letter, they were bewildered and said that I should apply online and that it wasn't required. They ended up telling me I should just address it to whom it may concern. I just found it odd that they seemed to not about it.

  2. Pearl, thanks. I think I'd assume that if they don't allow you to upload more than one document and they haven't specifically asked for a cover letter, not to mention that upon a phone call to the institution you were met with a "not required" answer, then you don't need to nor should you create a cover letter. This does make what you need to do with your resume a little more complicated since the cover letter allows you to remove a lot of the summary-type statements from the resume, but I'm hearing loud and clear from this description you've provided that you've found an institution that doesn't require a cover letter. Don't give them one. Take a look at the paperwork post again. Yes, the majority of institutions require cover letters. Not all do. If you've managed to find one that doesn't, even if you do provide one, there's a chance they can do nothing with it. Every so often I get a document submitted that I haven't asked for. If I read it--usually only late in the process if the candidate has survived to that point--there's not much I can do with it.

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  4. This is an intriguing question to which I do not have anything resembling a firm answer. Here's some thoughts though, knowing that I could be completely off-base here. My initial assumption would be not to place it within the context of a disability but rather to state those areas in which the effects are positive without going into details as to the underlying cause. Here's the thing: you wouldn't necessarily explain the why of other skill sets or characteristics or traits in your cover letter, you'd just state those skill sets or characteristics within the context of the position for which you are applying and if the ad requires "demonstrated," you'd give an example. For example if you're a very prompt person (for a position in which this was required), you'd just say you're prompt and your references will attest to that, you wouldn't necessarily explain that you're prompt because you used to go to a school that would punish for for tardiness. I tend to be able to adapt to new work environments quickly, but I wouldn't explain that it was the result of a childhood spent across several states and two countries. If I mentioned that I can deal with change well because the job ad said something about it, I'd be more likely to present a concrete example in which I'd demonstrated it. Basically the how, rather than the why. Most of the time, the why is going to be far outside the purview of a cover letter.