cover letter madness

I am in Iowa for a couple days longer, but before it goes out of style, I thought I’d post my contributions to the whole cover letter meme. (If you are looking for true cover letter hilarity, you may wish to visit my friends over at Hermits Rock.)

Cover letters, like letters of recommendation, are, I think, very hard to write because usually when you start out, you’ve never seen a cover letter. Sure, you can get a book with examples, and you can get some advice, but you just don’t see a lot of cover letters until you actually have a job and have hired people or served on a search committee. (Of course, now that I think of it, I did see a whole stack of cover letters once while visiting a friend whose mother was hiring a new teacher for the school district. Said letters were uniformly awful, but presumably at least one of them was successful, which is more than I can say for most of mine). And the business of cover letter writing and resume writing is so convoluted. You’re trying to brag without sounding like you’re bragging, and you’re trying to make the things you’ve done sound more official than they often actually were. During our senior year of college, my house mates and I spent an afternoon cracking each other up by translating our resumes so they’d say what we’d really done: “Assisted in the planning and execution of department events and functions” became “Brought soda,” and so on.

I have applied for many, many, many jobs in my life and have gotten almost none of them. I looked through my file for a representative cover letter from one of these fruitless searches, and while it’s not exactly representative, the letter I sent to the Enyclopaedia Britannica in 2004 is illustrative of the worst of my cover-letter-writing faults. To wit:

To Whom It May Concern:

I am writing to apply for the Copy Editor position that you have advertised at copyeditor.com. Actually, I am writing to apply for any position you have open for which I would qualify. Since my chief training is as a writer—I completed an MFA in Nonfiction Writing from the University of Iowa in May 2003; prior to that, I studied at Vassar College, where I received a BA in Greek in 1998 and did extensive coursework in English and history—I’m going to start this letter by telling you a very short story.

When I was ten years old, my mother and I returned from seeing The Gods Must be Crazy with a burning question: where in the Kalahari desert was the “edge of the world” over which Xixo threw the Coke bottle at the end of the movie? What ridge in Botswana would be high enough that you could see clouds below you? This was before the internet (which I just used to track down the name of the protagonist and the country the movie took place in, both of which I had forgotten), so when we got home, we pulled several volumes the Encylopædia Britannica off the shelf, laid them on the floor, and carefully unfolded the maps that lay between the tissue-thin pages. As it happens, we had the eleventh edition of the Britannica, which is a bit out of date, but though the national boundaries have changed quite a bit, the topography was accurate enough that we easily picked out several possibilities. Years later, in college, I learned that Denis Diderot believed that an encyclopædia was a book designed “to change the general way of thinking.” That’s a bold statement, and probably not one we would want to associate with tomes designed as objective sources of information. But if you spend any time reading encylopædias and have any imagination, you do start to think, and think differently, after a while. You realize that the world is round to some and flat to others, and you start to think about what those differences mean.

I have worked as a newspaper columnist, a graduate instructor at the University of Iowa, and as an adjunct teacher at a private school in Iowa City. I have been proofreading, fact-checking, and doing general editing work for friends for years. I would greatly enjoy the chance to work at the Britannica in the digital age, and perhaps on into whatever comes next.

Sincerely,
Laura E. Crossett

Translation: I have absolutely no job skills but I like to be a show-off anyway.

When I started applying for library jobs during library school, I decided I had to figure out some way to make a lot of disparate pursuits sound as though they were actually useful and related to the sort of work I would be doing as a librarian. To that end, I first divided up the work experience section of my resume into parts — library experience, teaching experience, and sometimes journalism or writing experience. I then used those divisions as the basis for a cover letter. My letter was, in effect, a five paragraph theme:

Introduction: I would be good at this job because of my experience as a librarian, a teacher, and a writer.

Paragraph 1: library experience

Paragraph 2: teaching experience

Paragraph 3: writing experience

Conclusion: My experience as a writer, teacher, and librarian would make me perfect for this position.

Dull, but it got the job done, and it was a way for me to structure my largely unstructured experiences in a way that made them sound a little better. Below I is the letter for the job I have now. I used the same letter for every library job I applied for, although I changed some introductory details for each job to show I’d done a little research about the place. I sent out three letters and got two interviews and a phone call saying “we really wish we could interview you but we need someone yesterday, but we’ll keep you in mind if we have other openings,” so I must finally have done something right. It’s a long letter — almost two pages — but I don’t think that’s a bad thing, so long as your pages contain actual examples of skills and successes you’ve had (or possibly haven’t had — I think my “regular contact” with the junior and senior high librarians was more like “attempted contact” — but hey, I tried).

Dear ______:

I am writing to express my interest in the position of Branch Manager at the Meeteetse Public Library. I saw the advertisement a month or so ago when it was posted on LISjobs.com, and I have been reading up on Meeteetse ever since. It sounds ideal. Although I currently live in the suburbs of Chicago, I have, like my fellow Iowan Buffalo Bill Cody, long been drawn to the West. I am a believer in the strength of rural areas, and Meeteetse seems like a community where I could use my skills as a librarian and educator and a place where I could feel at home.

Although I will not complete my MLIS degree from Dominican University until May 2006, I am applying now on the very off chance that the job will still be open then—or on the chance that the job will still be open in January and that I can arrange to complete my coursework through a distance-learning program. One never knows.

I have worked in three major fields: libraries, education, and journalism. Each of these professions has given me different, though related, skills; taken together, these skills make me ideally equipped to be a jack-of-all-trades librarian in a position such as the one in Meeteetse.

I currently work as the Young Adult Services coordinator at the Franklin Park Library in a working-class suburb northwest of Chicago. I manage the young adult collection, organize programming for older kids and young adults, provide reference and readers’ advisory services in the children’s room, and help out with computer troubleshooting throughout the library. With the cooperation of the adult fiction librarian and the Technical Services department, I have established a young adult graphic novel collection. Over eighty kids aged 10-14 participated in the young adult “Superheroes: Powered by Books” summer reading program this past summer through reading books, attending weekly programs, and entering the contest to design a library superhero. I keep in regular contact with the librarians at the local junior and senior high schools, and I look forward to collaborating with them on some programs in the coming year. One thing that I noticed in reading the Wyoming Rural Development Council’s Rural Resource Team Report on Meeteetse was that, as is the case in many small communities (and some big ones), there is a great need for activities and outlets for young people. I am enthusiastic about getting young people involved in their library and in their community.

Prior to beginning library school, I spent three years teaching at the University of Iowa, where I received an MFA from the Nonfiction Writing Program and took courses in the Education Department. During my time at Iowa, I taught both at the University and at Willowwind School, a private alternative grade school in Iowa City, where I taught Latin and tutored students in a variety of subjects. Additionally, I ran a Saturday drama workshop for kids in kindergarten through second grade. Teaching at a school like Willowwind, where the schedule was rarely the same from day to day, and where the staff worked cooperatively and creatively on everything from how to supervise two different classes sharing the same room to how to get the toilet unclogged, has given me the flexibility to change plans quickly and the good humor necessary to take disaster — or at least creative disorder — in stride. When not teaching, I have worked as a freelance writer for a variety of publications addressing an array of audiences, from the readers of a campus newspaper to those of a weekly alternative tabloid to those taking standardized tests.

The skills that I have gained through my work as a librarian, a teacher, and a writer have prepared me to work and communicate effectively with the public; my schooling has provided me with a foundation in education and librarianship. I would bring to the job of Branch Manager my enthusiasm for books and information and my zeal for getting people, young and old alike, connected to the world of information and imagination not just as readers and absorbers but as creative participants. I would bring my familiarity with a variety of technology and my willingness to learn more. I would bring my love of open spaces and my belief in community. I realize that you may need to fill this position as soon as possible, but if it does remain open, or if another position should open up in the Park County Library System, I hope that you will keep me in mind.

Thank you very much for your time and consideration, and I look forward to hearing from you soon. Please feel free to contact me via e-mail [fancy Vassar alum email address] or by phone at ________.

Sincerely,

Laura Crossett

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