the torment of terrible cover letters

I have been compiling this post for a while. I think about cover letters when we have an open search, and moments when we have an open search are precisely the wrong time for the Director of Libraries to talk about how to write a good cover letter. So I write a few sentences to get some of the firey rage out of my brain, and then I hit Save Draft.

Well, no one here is reviewing applications right now, so I feel like I can safely speak without compromising any integrity. So here’s my take on how to write a good cover letter, or, more specifically, how to not write a bad one. I write this on behalf of all those who are currently searching, and tearing their hair out over bad letters, and all of those of you who are looking for a new gig and really deserve a chance to shine.

*steps up on her soapbox*

So, we get between 40 and 120 applicants for every search. That means that you, Applicant Q, are one of many, and we are looking for ways to distinguish the excellent from the mediocre from the poor. We’re looking for a great new colleague, so we’re optimistic. We want to love you. And then. We read all of your materials — every cover letter, every CV, every reference sheet. Those are, in fact, the only materials we can consult as we work to distinguish the excellent from the mediocre from the poor. And our ad instructions say “applicants must submit a cover letter that addresses details of both the required and preferred qualifications”. So that’s step one.

First, read the instructions. We wrote that ad thoughtfully. Read the ad. Particularly note the specific instructions you are given. “applicants must submit a cover letter that addresses details of both the required and preferred qualifications”. Do that.  Do not begin your application by failing to read the instructions.  We will notice.

Second, stop talking about yourself in your cover letter.  Yes, you’re trying to sell your skills and personality in this letter, but I mean it: Stop talking about yourself.  Talk about us instead.  Think about it with me:  We have your CV, which, if it’s good, tells us a lot.  Therefore, we don’t need a paragraph that tells us what you did at your last job.  You’re just repeating yourself in your limited communication space.  What we need is a paragraph that tells us how you intend to apply what you know to the job we described in our carefully worded ad.  Tell us how you’re gonna help us and contribute to our insitution. And do it well, so that you stand out from the dozens of other applicants, whose CVs and cover letters we also have. Ask yourself: how does this letter make my application stand out as a potential member of their team?

Third, go back, and read the ad again. All of it.  Including details like who the search committee chair is, what the required qualifications are, and what kind of work we’re describing in the Responsibilities section. That ad is not rote, or careless, or irrelevant. We wrote that ad carefully, intentionally, and with great thought and care.  Read it. Make a list of its key points. Read it again, and check for nuances — descriptive words, active verbs, and things that look like “filler” to you.  Consider that every word was chosen, so they all matter.  Now, go back to your cover letter. Do you talk usefully about all the things we talk about in our ad? Have you made thoughtful reference to our required qualifications? Have you highlighted experience that you will bring to our relevant preferred qualifications? Have you indicated why you are excited about doing the things listed in our description of responsibilities, or why our description of our ideal candidate matches your skills? If the answer to any of these is “no”, rewrite your letter.

Fourth, seriously, just stop with the cut-and-paste jobs, already.  We can tell. We’re more experienced at this than you are, we’ve just read 75 cover letters, and you’re not fooling us.  We know that you’re tired of applying for jobs and eating ramen and suffering under your terrible current boss, but the fact that your cover letter is a cut-and-paste job from the fourteen jobs you applied for last month shows. And we hate you. If you can’t be bothered to match your fonts, get the name of our institution right, list our job position title correctly, and write something that indicates you read the ad… Just no. You just wasted our time, and you’re out of the running.

Fifth, whatever else you do, whatever advice you take or don’t take, don’t do this:

[this is representative, though several sentences were harvested from varied actual applications received here.]

I am interested in the [job title redacted] position would like to learn more about your available opportunity. I am currently working  [redacted]. Along with my work experience, I am finishing my last course online [name of course redacted] by May. (Although I will be available, to begin work by the the end of February. [unadorned statement of previous work experience redacted]. I believe my skills would be a good match for your organization and would  appreciate to opportunity to discuss my qualifications.  Feel free to contact me any time with questions or concerns. My transcripts can be faxed from my School upon request.

Don’t do this. Let me tell you why this is wrong.

1.  “Hello” is not the opening of a business letter, and you failed to sign it. I am unimpressed by your professionalism.
2.  Odds are, the job has “strong communication skills” somewhere in its requirements.  If you present poor written communication skills (or cut and paste badly) in your letter, you just failed.
3.  Commas and parentheses are not decorative; use them right.
4.  The job says it starts in some other month which comes after February. Don’t talk to me about February. You are not reading the ad, or you are not respecting our institutional needs and expressed desires.
5.  Too short. You had my attention available for one to two pages, and you wrote a (boring) paragraph. What a waste of an opportunity.
6.  No one asked for your transcripts. Therefore, we don’t care. Don’t waste the words on that.
7.  Overall, this letter is useless.  It tells me nothing additive to what will be in the accompanying CV.  It tells me nothing about why I should consider you over the dozens of other applicants.  You are treating the cover letter like a hoop to be jumped through rather than a crucial part of your application package.


tl;dr: The cover letter is not a formality. Use it to present yourself really well. I already have your CV; I don’t need a repeat. Read the job ad very carefully, and use your letter to say something about yourself and the job.  And spell everything correctly and learn to punctuate.

*steps off the soapbox*

See also: Open Cover Letters and Cover Letters as Narrative and Arc


  1. The tone is grating but the message is clear.

    I have been looking for something like this on cover letters for a while. There a good books and articles out there on writing cover letters but what makes this useful is the fact that it is your opnion and personal perspective presented in a rather raw and ruthless fashion.

    I’m not masochistic and as indicated I did find it a bit grating. (Sorry. Don’t take it personally I find most Blogs to be like that.) In this case as harsh as it may come across it brings home the point as to why we should take care to write cover letters carefully and professionally. Simply, you don’t want to irritate the person you want to hire you. You want to impress them.

    Have you offered additional insights from employer perspectives on related topics such as “interviews” and other important stages in the employment process?

    PS> If you’re looking for a good cutter/paster I do a pretty good job of matching fonts and style as well as taking care to proof and smooth out transitions in the targeted text. I have reames of experience in cover letters I will now have to rewrite.


  2. It would be great to be able to right the perfect cover letter every time. However, over the past nine months of applying for dozens of various jobs I believe that the electronic method of submitting your resume and cover letter prevent you from being able to fulfill all of the steps that are usually prescribed. Here are a few I found:

    1.) Usually you do not know who the application, resume and cover letter are going to, so you are unable to address the individual personally. Sometimes you can research the web site and find out who is working in the HR department, but there is still no clue who will be reviewing the applicant packet.

    2.) Most larger institutions use recruiters.

    3.) Unless there is another way I’m not aware of, physically signing the cover letter would require you print and scan the letter which might leave the letter in a format which can not be uploaded into the employer’s system.

    The bottom line is that the electronic submission of resumes and cover letters often prevents the applicant from having a perfect submission for the job.


    • 1. But the problem comes when the job ad clearly states *a person* and the cover letter is written to a generic search committee or dear ma’am sir. Don’t do it.
      2. No, many don’t. Many use a HR system to collect “stuff” and this system may in fact toss you out if you don’t meet the most minimal requirements (hence reading the job ad and how they want things submitted is even MORE important) but for places like libraries that care about personal service, there is still a fair amount of human involvement from the people who are working with them.
      3. You type it, you print it, you sign it, you scan it and save as a pdf. If you can’t do this, then you make it clear by not leaving a huge space for your actual physical sig in the letter.

      And if you find this all bothersome, then don’t blanket apply to every job that is out there. Yes you need work. But applying for jobs that you are not actually in anyway qualified for does not help anyone at all, including you. Spend more time creating better quality materials for the ones you do apply for.


  3. I have to agree with some of the commenters here, you sound kinda cranky. And as much as its nice to hear you’ve put a lot of time into your job ad, I’m afraid they can be hellish to read. All that management speak jargon re competencies and skills: it can be quite difficult to figure out something original to say in response. It’s like writing an essay for a subject you’re not that enthusiastic about because you don’t understand the question. I can see you’re rather fed up though…but hey, so are we.


    • The website is called “Attempting Elegance.” If you are writing in a way that is opposed to that idea, then maybe you should consider renaming the website to “My Bitchy Perspective: I Am Who I Am and If You Don’t Like it, You Can Go Somewhere Else.” You don’t attempt elegance at all.


  4. I love this post! And am curious to read a response to Theresa Pye’s comment about electronically submitting cover letters and formatting. So many places require different things – I have uploaded things in pdf, jpeg, bitmap – you name it – as per their requirements. Everything I have is now in about six different electronic formats. It’s an exhausting process. As harrowing as it is on your end, I think it’s worse for those of us who are applying trying to figure out what everyone wants and match ourselves to it – like you said, it’s a hiring market.


  5. Man, I’m so mean and crabby, I even demand that page applicants write cover letters.

    Must be my advancing age.

    Cover letters are good practice for writing grant proposals, reports, presentations, etc. The ability to identify an audience, speak clearly, and stay on message is even more important after you get the job.


  6. I have had many jobs in the past, I am 49 years old. I have a MA in History, I graduated December, 2010, and I am working on a MS in LIS. I am not without writing skills, but there is often a gap in communication, either from the potential employer or the employee. Another aspect to consider is not everyone can write well about themselves from a marketing perspective. I believe that is the biggest problem I face right now.


  7. I agree with Theresa Pye. She has many points I would be interested hearing your thoughts on. Many of the institutions I’ve applied for state they don’t want paper applications they want everything online.

    In my own opinion, each person will look at a cover letter sent to them differently. What one person wants in there one another won’t. Ultimately I think a person has to do their best and be happy with what they sent out. You can’t please everyone. Perhaps it’s better in the long run because if your best doesn’t land you the job in one place it’ll get you a job in another.

    That being said I agree with you “your best” is the key there. People need to read and research to help themselves secure that job.

    Also another point on what someone else said (I don’t remember who). I think library schools do need to offer required workshops/courses/classes on resume and cover letter writing.


  8. Theresa Pye, the biggest challenge you’ll face is how to downplay the over-45 factor. I’m 47, a 20-year MLS, and I can land interviews, but when the interviewer is my age and sees me going for $16/hr. jobs, he wonders why I would want such a low-paying gig.

    “It’s because my unemployment compensation dries up in 5 weeks, dummy,” is what I want to say.

    Jenica, if I were in Potsdam, I’d apply for the gig at your library, but oh, how we’d clash. I’d be more responsive to an over-40 boss. Maybe that’s ageism in reverse, but it’s the truth!


  9. I’m just reading “Three Ways to Pitch Yourself in 30 Seconds” by Jodi Glickman in Harvard Business Review OnPoint Summer 2011 (free for Nook last week or the week before). If you think of the cover as a 30 second pitch you will be ahead of the pack: Think relevant, not recent; Focus on skills-based versus situation- or industry-based qualifications; and Connect the dots.


  10. Having sat on many an interview committee and prescreened many many applications, I have to agree with nearly everything you stated (except the part about ads being written “thoughtfully”). For the most part, I’ve found that the applicant who doesn’t really bother producing professional-grade application materials is the employee who is not going to go the extra mile when they get the job. The way they “represent” for themselves will be the way they represent for your institution later.

    However, I also have to say I’m personally loving that so many MLIS-holders can’t write a cover letter to save their lives. I have helped many friends/colleagues with writing and refining their CVs and letters, and I am always open to doing that. But given how competitive the job market is right now, I need any advantage I can get. I know that my cover letter is the thing that has gotten me in the door more than once (even when I didn’t meet all the requirements).


  11. Thank you for this peek behind the curtain on the application process at your library, and for the thought-provoking, honest, and inspiring blog. I sent the link to this post immediately to my soon-to-be-newly-minted MLIS students who are working as interns on our reference desk (with the caveat of course that this is *one* director’s thoughts, but also is probably representative of the thoughts of many among the sort of directors for whom they might be most happy to work.) I will not speak to what my interns do or do not get in this regard in the classroom in our university’s program; I am library faculty, not library *school* faculty. My role is to guide them in applying what they learn in the classroom to where the boots meet the carpet at the Desk. I have six on the market now for whom I can say, from 10 months’ direct observation on the job, that if the hiring institution is ready to appreciate their energy, professional ethics, and on-the-Desk experience, they will rock from Day One.


  12. …I ran out of space before I could say that your advice very much mirrors what I and my 3 colleagues in charge of training for our system’s intern program share with our students as they begin the heart-breaking process of searching for and courting that One Perfect Job. We hold workshops where our colleagues (younger and older) read over interns’ resumes and letters, we have our system’s Personel Librarian speak to the group, we help all we can when any of them come to us for advice on approaching a particularly promising “best fit” position or institution. Getting them through to the phone interview is the goal…after that, if the match is a good one, they’re golden. The cover letter is the bottle-neck, which is why posts like this one are so valuable. If I may be so bold, I have a request to all search committees: when you see a really good applicant but they just didn’t beat the competition, tell them in the “sorry” letter what they did *right*…the market is so tight, they need that confirmation.


  13. Amen to that, Patricia. I finished 2nd in a $53,000/yr. gig last summer, and it was useful to hear from the assistant director (via phone call) that it was only my lack of experience with Ubuntu Linux that prevented my selection.

    Today I am composing this letter via the Opera browser on my Ubuntu Linux laptop. One more skill added, and it’s kinda fun, too.


  14. @Stephen B. – Excellent display of taking away the *positive* from a potentially disheartening experience. You have a very healthy attitude: I lost for not having that? OK, next time I will have it. Most of the MLIS students I’ve had the honor of coaching and training these last few years are, like yourself, very open to advice and to working constantly at adding to or improving their skill set and experience. I wish you well in your continued search!


  15. Thanks for this! I’ve passed it on to all my job-searching friends.
    Last fall I participated in a hiring committee for the first time, and it was also the first time I really grasped why cover letters were so important. I had a pile of resumes, some of which were more suited to the posted job and some less, and every time I got an application with a good cover letter I would breathe a sigh of relief. Here, at least, was someone who wasn’t going to make me GUESS how their experience would be relevant to the position. Here was someone who’d taken the time to write three paragraphs to help me understand why they wanted the job!
    I have always hated writing cover letters, but I now realize how damned important they are.


  16. Hey there!

    I just wanted to say thank you for this advice! I found it through the Library-Grrls livejournal page. Although I’m only starting my MLIS this Fall 2011, I did use this advice to write a cover letter for a library internship for this summer before school starts. Not only did I score an interview, but I also just landed the job!

    Thanks again


  17. Thank you for your advice! I appreciate your thoughtfulness and valued opinion. Although I do most of what you suggest in the article, I was delighted to review your article and will incorporate your suggestions into future cover letters.


  18. on the subject of cover letters – I obtained my current job by 1) addressing the needs and wants mentioned in their job ad (yes, right down to ripping off the buzzwords) and 2) making connections between library promotion and my summer “job” working at renaissance faires. Oh, and lifeguarding. Every library needs a lifeguard.


  19. You really make it appear really easy with your presentation however I in finding this matter to be really one thing which I believe I’d by no means understand. It kind of feels too complicated and very large for me. I am taking a look ahead to your subsequent put up, I’ll attempt to get the hold of it!


  20. Jenica, thank you so much for this firm and no-nonsense post. I completely agree with your thoughts here and have long attempted to to craft a thoughtful and well-written cover letter as an integral part of my application package. When applying for positions, I always find the cover letter to be the most difficult part to perfect. I apply my skills and previous experience to the desired qualifications & duties as best I can, but I really like the specific wording you used in your response to @red. Excellent suggestion!

    In previous cover letters I’ve always tried to write a little about myself, a little about the opening, and a little about what a perfect match we are together. I try to strike a balance between professionalism and all-out enthusiasm and excitement about the job.

    I’m not certain I understand why some people posting replies here seem to be so angry, but I know that when I send out my cover letter that is punctuated correctly and appropriately discusses all skills of concern, I normally get an interview as a result. Thanks for the excellent advice!


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  22. I’m late to this wonderful post, but I hope someone can still answer this question for me. The advice I’ve read often comes down to two points that seem to contradict each other:
    1) address every part of the job ad, every qualification
    2) keep it short.

    I see job ads for entry/mid level positions with 10-15 minimum qualifications. I can address each of these points. I can even address it in such a way that I throw in some stuff about the institution as you suggest, but that makes my letter at least 2 pages long. What should I sacrifice? Shortness or content?


  23. Not sure if this old post is even still being monitored but for any manager/hiring types still hanging around, I have some questions that have been causing me no end of grief in my job search process. The original post says I should stop talking about myself so much in my cover letters. Later on, I see some posts that suggest I match every single requirement in the job ad in order in the cover letter. 1) How is it possible to match requirements like that without effectively making a long boring list that is completely about me going “I match requirement A because I did X. I match requirement B because of Y.” 2) If my cover letter is meant to be proof of my skills at professional presentation and writing expertise, why would a manager want a long boring list in which I explicitly spell out how I match each of the 15 bulleted points? That’s basically how high school students are taught to write to pass standardized tests. I’ve always written cover letters by synthesizing the main skills of the job ad (“okay, this library especially needs somebody good at literacy instruction, database research, and community outreach programs”) and then providing examples of how my experiences/skills/attitude make me a good candidate for doing that at your library. I don’t address every highly specific bulleted point with a list of bulleted points about myself. Apparently, that’s the total wrong thing to do because I have yet to get any kind of response.


  24. Short follow-up to the above:

    In short, I find it somewhat contradictory that I’m supposed to use my cover letter to prove I’m intelligent, professionally savvy, and good at synthesizing information but the search committee also wants a clear, simple list explicitly connecting all the dots because they don’t have time to consider how working as a waitress might give me customer service skills. “Explain for busy” and “make yourself shine” don’t usually occupy the same space.


  25. Also, because I’m in a bad mood and feeling borderline obsessive I’ll just ask this.

    Why are so many blogs like this so belittling of people looking for career advice? I know it’s not your job to give me handouts or make me feel good, but 90% of the time I come to places like this genuinely wanting to improve my chances and I come away feeling like I’m some dirty vagrant who can’t spell and I’m wasting some *REALLY IMPORTANT BUSY PERSON’S* time every time I submit an application. Many advice columns like these seem to assume everybody applying is the lowest common denominator or something.


  26. Jenica, thank you for posting this (though I know it was posted quite awhile ago and you may never see this comment). I find cover letters tricky because the issue of “How do I frame this without making it all about me?” is often a fine line to walk. I appreciate your insights on this matter.


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