Library job hunt: cover letters to interview

This is part two of an essay talking about my job hunting process. Part 1 deals with everything up to writing the cover letter. (And you can see the full index of posts in this series over here.)

6.) Write the cover letter:

Writing good cover letters is really hard. Fortunately, there are some great resources out there. I started with Alison Green’s comments at her Ask a Manager blog (adjusting for the fact that library work is not the same as many other fields).

But there have recently been great library cover letter specific posts – one from Jenica at Attempting Elegance, that inspired Steve to create OpenCoverLetters (it’s library specific, but he encourages people in other fields to do their own.)

My basic format looked like this:

[business lettery stuff at the top - if applying electronically, I didn't do the full mailing address, but did include the date, a greeting (with precise names if I could possibly find them) , etc.]

Introduction: I’m interested in [position], I found out about it through [wherever]. And maybe a sentence about why I’m especially excited about this position, or think I’m an extra good fit.

Library skills: A paragraph highlighting how projects and things I’ve done fit with their desired skills, focusing on things that aren’t already obvious from my resume. I also used this to give context (the size of school I’d been working in, the level of research that students did, etc.)

Technology skills and interests: Same thing, only for technology relevant to the position, including a reference to this blog.

Other skills: Sometimes this was about hiring/managing/training skills, sometimes about customer service skills, sometimes about whatever else I hadn’t already covered that was in their listing or obviously important to the school/library based on my research.

Closing paragraph: this included why I’d be happy to move to wherever it was, if the job was not local, and for places where having an out of state interview might not have been in their budget, an offer to pay my way if I was a serious candidate.

I liked “Thank you for your time and attention, and I hope to hear from you soon.” as a pleasant but not pushy way to end.

Structure notes: There were certainly times I did something different – especially if the ad itself suggested a different structure. My basic goals were to respond to every skill desired in the ad (either required, or preferred) in some way, and to include 2-3 very brief stories or examples to illustrate major points. (More is better, but there was already a lot I had to get in there.)

I did not want my cover letter to duplicate my resume, so I tried to only include details from the resume if they were needed to respond to a specific requirement in the ad, or if I could wrap them in with a great example.

7.) Other notes on cover letters.

Templates and copying previous letters: I used a template only in the sense you see above: a Pages document with reminders of what I might include in each of those sections, basically.

Mostly, I wrote from scratch based on that outline, as I think the end result flows better. I did sometimes snag paragraphs I especially liked from past letters that got particularly good responses. (I have both a paragraph on management and hiring style, and a paragraph on my patience and curiosity I used in very similar forms in multiple places.)

Proofreading: This is critical. My favorite method is to read it out loud to myself – it’s a great way to catch duplicate words or places I’d edited something until I was missing half a sentence.

Length: I aimed for a page, but went over that if I was working with a particularly long and detailed ad (if the ad was a packed page, my cover letter was likely a page and a half to two pages.)

Useful information: I also made a point of providing information that might make a difference to some of their decisions – for example, for out of state jobs without a clear starting date, I made it clear I was able and willing to move quickly if hired, and for jobs talking about technology, I talked both about skills and about the things I’m especially interested in.

Saving copies: I created a folder for each job I applied for that included the job posting, the Pages version of my cover letter and materials, and the PDF version I actually sent. (My resume has some layout formatting that I do not trust to translate perfectly on all systems, so a PDF preserves it.)

This meant I could easily pull up the editable version (if I wanted to review something specific and use it in a new application) but that I also could easily open what I’d sent for a later phone interview. You can see a bit more of the structure of my job hunt folder in a previous post.

Name your PDF or other attachment something sensible – mine were usually jcarnott.pdf or something similar. (As opposed to resume.pdf.)

For email applications: I generally included the cover letter in the attachment, and did a very brief “Hello, I’m applying for [whatever position]: attached, please find my cover letter, resume, and references. I’m particularly interested because [reason or two], and I’d love to use [important skills] in your library.” intro – no more than a couple of sentences.

I did it that way because when I’ve done hiring, I found it really tedious to have to reattach the cover letter from an email to a resume file (if it’s all one file, it’s easier for me to manage). But I’ve seen a lot of conversation on Ask A Manager that suggests that putting the cover letter straight in the email is easier for other people. I think as long as the job ad doesn’t specify, though, anything that’s reasonably clear and up front is fine.

8.) Allow time for other things that need doing:

For example, posting at least semi-regularly on this site was important to me: it’s a way for me to share nifty things, but it was also a way for me to demonstrate my technology skills and interests to potential employers. That made it important to keep up with. (Same thing with being up with current conversations in the field.)

But more than that, job hunting involves a certain amount of other tasks. Filing for and following up with unemployment benefits took a while at the start (and has its own requirements, like tracking job applications and contacts.)

Setting up an interview often took a series of back and forth emails for scheduling.

And of course, prepping for an interview could take anywhere from an hour or two to days – for a couple of my interviews, I prepped substantial materials (an instructional design sample class, an extended presentation). These were great ways to keep up and demonstrate my skills at other times and places, but they took huge chunks out of those weeks.

And of course, allow yourself time off (in keeping with relevant laws). Minnesota requires, for example, that you be in the state when you’re claiming unemployment, unless you’re travelling for an interview. However, for two trips to the Boston area, I extended my trip from the actual interview a bit, both to allow a little flexibility in case of weather, and in case I could set up another interview while I was there. (In both cases, that looked like it might happen, but not working out in the end) And in between those bits, I got to see my mother and various friends, and that was a really nice break in the search process.

Definitely take weekends off. Or something equivalent, if you’d rather work on applications over the weekend, and have some other days off. And evenings. Find a hobby that makes you feel better. (I picked up knitting in a big way this past year, partly because it’s obvious you’re making progress towards a goal.)

9.) Waiting and detaching:

Really, once you send the thing off, the only thing you can really do is detatch a bit from the process. Love your application, treat it well – but then let it go, and move on unless and until you hear something about it.

Lots of times you won’t hear back. That’s life these days.

Let me digress here for a moment. My personal take is that anyone who makes it to the phone interview stage deserves a direct communication – email’s lovely – once a decision is made to move on with other candidates. So they’re not hanging, especially if you said stuff that sounded at all promising during the interview (“We look forward to talking to you again soon”, that kind of thing.) But I am not queen of the world, and this is not what happens. Sorry.

In general, I found smaller public libraries to be particularly good about responding (both to confirm they had an application in hand, and to let me know promptly about their decision). Independent schools were often really lousy, even after phone interview or face to face contact. Academic libraries were somewhere in the middle – again, smaller schools tended to be surprisingly good, large scale systems move very slowly.)

10.) Phone interviews:

I had a much better time, in general, with phone interviews with one or two people rather than ones with a group. (But the job I’ve been hired for, was a group interview, so never say never!)

I had one interview where we had really lousy static, to a degree I have never had before or since. (They tried calling back, it didn’t get better, and we just sort of made it work.) I had two planned-to-be-Skype interviews where my internet got flaky that day (I was using the Minneapolis city-wide wireless, which is normally great, but has moments of deciding to do strange things) where we switched to phone instead.

Having backups is critical – even if you agree to Skype, make sure they have your number, and you have a number where you can reach someone if your ‘Net goes flaky.

My preparation for phone interviews looked like this:

  • Review the job posting and make any notes about things I want to highlight.
  • Include brief notes about stories or examples I want to share.
  • Look over what I initially sent to them, so that I remember what I said (and didn’t say yet!)
  • Look at the information about the library again, this time doing a little more research (up to an hour or so) to learn more about the library, the context (the town, school, etc.), major programs or challenges, etc. School or town newspapers can be a great source.
  • Review questions I want to ask (both about the position in general, and some of the excellent questions I’ve gotten from my job-hunt reading (especially Ask A Manager)).
  • Writing up notes with all of those things on my computer, and having it up during the interview.

Talking with friends who’ve done a lot of hiring interview panels helped too: a university faculty friend’s stories about how they do their initial phone interviews while wearing funny hats (and stuffed antlers headbands and so on) made it easier to smile and be outgoing.

I found standing up (or walking quietly) helpful: there’s a lot of advice out there about how it can make you sound more energetic.

If you have a cat or other pet and have a good way to keep them out of your way, I recommend it. (My previous home, that was tricky, but I swear, there is nothing more interesting to a cat than you doing something intently that does not involve them.)

11.) In person interviews:

Except for some quirks covered in that part of this post series, in person interviews are much like you’ll see discussed in various job-advice discussions.

My deeper research before an interview usually involved looking extensively at the website (the library site, plus general information), at the institutional history, recent news stories (for schools, my practice was to read back at least several months in the school paper if I could, or the equivalent for public libraries and the local paper.) And then some quick Googling to see if any of the people I was interviewing for had a public online presence. (I didn’t go digging, just looked for obvious public links and resources, like a link from their professional profile or contact information.)

The rest of it – other than some specific quirks I’ll cover in the final section of these essays – is beautifully covered by a wide range of other interviewing material. Being comfortable with a wide variety of types of questions (behavioral,  examples, classic interview questions, etc.) is important. Allison Green’s free guide to interviewing at Ask a Manager is awesome, and I also recommend her ebook for the interview section alone (but it’s got lots of other great stuff).

So is having a good clear answer for anything that you might be asked that’s complicated for you to talk about (leaving a previous or current job, why you’re looking to relocate, etc.) that feels natural and comfortable for you (while still being appropriately informative to the interviewer.)

12.) Afterwards:

I tried very hard to detach after the interview, as well, at least a bit. I found that my own sense of how an interview went wasn’t very helpful – I think largely because while I had some idea how mine went, I didn’t have an idea of how the other final candidates had gone.

I’d come home, and work on a thank you note. (I generally prefer to sleep on them when possible, but send them first thing the next morning.) Mine would include:

  • Thanks for their time and attention (especially since many of my interviews involved people taking time well outside their normal workday).
  • Pass along any additional materials I’d offered (links I’d mentioned, example handouts, etc.)
  • And a follow up on anything I’d forgotten to mention, but that was particularly relevant (“When we were talking about purple hippos, it slipped my mind to mention that I’ve done things with orange rhinos relating to X and Y.”)

My basic process was that after each in-person interview, I would go do something nice for myself (dinner with a friend, a trip to a movie, whatever made sense for my time and budget.) And then I’d let it go.

I was very lucky that for most of my on site interviews, I was the last candidate interviewed, so I had a very fast turnaround to find out the answer. This is good because I found it tremendously hard to focus on new applications while I was waiting to hear (especially about jobs I’d particularly liked.) If you have a longer wait, figure out a way to manage that tension: perhaps get a bit ahead on other applications before the interview so you can take a day or two to recover.

And for any employers out there: if you’re not picking me, I am happy to find out in email, rather than answer the phone and be really hopeful it’ll be an offer. (Or worse, have to play phone tag to find out the same thing: if you don’t reach me, let me know in a message rather than have me call back. There’s discussion of this in one of Alison’s posts over here.)

I don’t mind phone calls when they offer me something beyond the decision.

  • “We really liked your skills, but have an internal candidate that just edged you out – but we might have something open up in a year or two, would you be interested in us touching base when that happens?”
  • Feedback I can use to improve my materials (“We went with someone who could demonstrate their use of X….” means I can go explore that.)
  • “I’d like to include an example from your essay when I talk about the search process, would that be okay?” (Sure: more name exposure of that kind is never bad.)

But even there, my being upbeat through my disappointment is still sort of hard. An email with an offer to follow up with any questions is just fine and probably easier on everyone. It’s okay for it to be a fairly stock form letter, but if I’ve travelled to interview with you, it takes moments to stick my name in, add a sentence specific to our conversation, and send it.

I do, however, want to hear something back, once I’ve reached the phone interview stage, and especially if you’d made hopeful sounding noises (“Well, yes, let me talk to X about scheduling the next step” and then silence is terribly frustrating.)

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Hi, I’m Jen

Librarian, infovore, and general geek, likely to write comments about books, link collections, and other thoughts related to how we find, use, and take joy in information.

I'm the Information Technology Librarian at the University of Maine at Farmington, the small liberal arts college model campus in the University of Maine system.

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