Writing for a job or professional audience
There are many sites that give good advice on writing resumes and cover letters, and we encourage you to explore fully our list of links and further resources. Those sites will provide information and suggestions on important matters that you will not find in this discussion.
On this site you will find discussion and examples that directly address the process of crafting a resume and cover letter into a clear, coherent narrative - a narrative that conveys quickly, easily, and thoroughly who you are and what experience and skills you bring to a position.
One of the worst things that you can do when job searching is the thing that all of us are inclined to do at one point or another in our job search: create a boiler plate resume and cover letter and then send them out to dozens of different companies. The problem with this approach is that a member of a search committee can spot these kinds of submissions from a mile away. Inevitably, these applications are vague, uninformative, and insincere in tone. Prospective employers are left wondering how your skills will translate to their companies and, often, why you are interested in their job.
A successful resume and cover letter will show time, care, thought, and a great deal of knowledge about the position and company to which they are submitted. Through these materials, the successful applicant will show the prospective employer a coherent, impressive narrative of herself, her background, her skills, and her ambitions in this new environment.
Contrary to common belief and common practice, resumes are not simply an itemized list of your education, employment history, job skills, and personal interests. Resumes are pieces of writing whose aim is to persuade; resumes are arguments.
In every decision you make in constructing your resume, you will be conveying information about yourself to your prospective employer. For example: What information will you list first? Your education? Your employment history? Your job skills? Think about what each decision will convey about who you are, your understanding of the job, and your assumptions about your audience.
It's fairly self-evident that if you are applying for a job in which design is important (graphic design, marketing, Web mastering, and so on), you can be certain that people will be looking at your resume as a sample of your work. However, many people fail to extend that principle into other realms. Consider the following example.
A student graduating from Dartmouth is trying to break her way into business management. She applies to a company in her hometown - she wishes to return home, and her family and friends tell her that this company is known for its strong environmental policies and its desire to hire women into upper management. Our student's most "impressive" credentials are from her time at Dartmouth. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa, with honors in her major. She believes that this company will be impressed by her intelligence and academic achievement, and so she plans to highlight the awards she won for her thesis. She places her education and academic awards at the top of her resume. She then lists her activities, affiliations, and positions held within her sorority; allots one or two lines for each of her summer jobs (not overly impressive - in the summers she primarily needed to make money to meet her financial aid requirements); and states her personal interests.
The above resume would seem like a good choice for this student. She is only 22 years old and most of her experience and skills have been formed in her time at Dartmouth. However, this student was thinking about her experiences only from her own point of view. Our student will hit the mark as an intelligent, competent woman who has some understanding, however abstract, of women's issues (her thesis); however, there are easily a dozen other applicants with the exact same qualifications. Had our student done some research, she would have quickly realized that this company is, at essence, a no-nonsense, results-oriented organization whose employees are, for the most part, blue-collar workers. Our student missed the mark by devaluing her summer jobs. A concise account of the innovations she made in the shipping and receiving procedures during her summer job as a manager at the Gap would have given her the edge over the dozen other intelligent women who went to Ivy League schools.
Finally, a word about ... words. Likely, you have been told over and over again to use strong "action" verbs in your descriptions of jobs and positions held. This is excellent advice. Silly as it may seem, "Founded Farm Outreach Project of the Upper Valley" sounds more impressive than "Farm Outreach Project - Founder." However, do not rely on descriptions and words that only you and your affiliated organization understand. What is the Farm Outreach Project? What does it do? What did founding this organization entail?
You should never make the reader(s) of your resume work to understand what a position or experience actually entailed. You do not want a search committee to have to debate: "Okay. Either this means that he was a glorified hall monitor and sat in a dorm checking ID's, or this means that he was a respected liaison between the students and the administration, providing counseling and resource support to students, developing and arranging educational and social programs, and so on." The difference is significant, and such a debate will likely not fall in your favor.
All of this advice is fairly straightforward. The common denominator is that you should think at all times about your audience. Know what they are looking for, know what they will most likely see in each item or experience you list, and know that their time and patience are limited - don't irritate your audience with poor organization, baffling descriptions, and irrelevant experience.
Straightforward advice, but let's see how it plays out in real life.
The following resume - in all of its incarnations - belongs to a real Dartmouth graduate who was applying for a real Dartmouth job. These drafts of his resume were the result of several conversations in which we discussed his understanding of and desire for the job, his experiences and skills, what he understood to be his strengths as an applicant, and what he understood to be his weaknesses.
As this resume evolves you will see the applicant's interests and skills as they pertain to the job he is applying for take shape into a persuasive argument for his application. Note that nothing about this student himself changes - in each draft, he has the same desires for the job and the same strengths and weaknesses as an applicant. What changes is his vision of his audience and his understanding of their expectations and concerns.
The Job Description
Area Director - Office of Residential Life.
Reporting to the Associate Dean of Residential Life, directs all aspects of the Residential Education program and undergraduate staffing in a residential area which includes up to 1100 students.
Fosters a sense of community and offers opportunities for students in residence to develop into mature adults. Provides leadership role in creating and maintaining positive cluster communities that encourage students to take responsibility for their actions and fosters acceptance, tolerance, and consideration for the rights and freedoms of others. Develops, directs, implements, and plans for the expansion of the new residential adjudication system. Actively promotes and strengthens diversity awareness in his/her residential area. Supervises six Area Coordinators, seven Program Assistants, and approximately fifty Undergraduate Advisors.
- Master's Degree with at least one year of student affairs experience with a residential life focus preferred, or the equivalent.
- Demonstrated ability to apply student developmental theory in a growing and complex residential setting.
- Creative programming skills and strong supervisory, leadership, public speaking ability. Excellent organizational and interpersonal skills.
- Philosophical and practical knowledge of residentially-based adjudication systems and ability to share this knowledge with students and campus community.
- Able to adapt personal and professional schedule to the College's year-round calendar and be willing to live on campus in an assigned apartment."
Resume: First Draft
Matthew D. Silvia
Address, Phone, E-mail
Dartmouth CollegeHanover, NH, 9/92-6/96
A.B. in Anthropology, cum laude; coursework in political and cultural Anthropology; academic citation for creative writing and criticism; 1996 recipient of the Grace and James S. Parkes 1920 Prize.
Arabic Language InstituteFez, Morocco, 9/95/-11/95
Studied Arabic language, Moroccan history and Anthropology.
Lycee Charles GideUzes, France, 9/89- 6/90
Completed coursework with distinction; attained fluency in spoken French, proficiency in written language.
Lodge CrewMoosilauke Ravine Lodge, 6/96-10/96
Maintained physical plant; prepared meals for large groups.
Respite Provider and Case AideHealth Care & Rehabilitation Services of Southeastern VT, White River Jct., VT, 6/95-9/95
Provided daily supervision and educational/ vocational/recreational opportunities for mentally ill youth.
Area CoordinatorOffice of Residential Life Dartmouth College, 9/94-6/95
Supervised residential staff, oversaw budget, implemented community development programming in residential cluster.
Presidential Scholar AssistantAnthropology Department, Dartmouth College, 3/95-8/95
Completed editorial and research projects; assigned N.E.H. Summer Seminar "Re-imagining Societies."
Founder & CoordinatorDartmouth Unitarian Universalist Student Ministry 1/96-present
Senior MediatorDartmouth Community Mediation Center 9/94-present
Peer AdvisorSexual Abuse Peer Advisor Program, Dartmouth College 6/93-/96
Peer EducatorPeer Education Action Corps, Dartmouth College 9/94-6/96
Volunteer InternPositive Directions, Inc. Boston, MA, 3/94-6/94
Assisted Development of Self Case Management Project; coordinated support groups for HIV-positive clients.
Discussion: First Draft
Matt brings a lot of skills to the job of Area Director of Residential Life at Dartmouth. He has extensive community-development experience and is obviously well-versed in counseling and mediation. He has even founded a student ministry group at Dartmouth. As an alumnus and former Area Coordinator, Matt is probably very familiar with the ins and outs of Dartmouth - he will know and understand the student social and residential climate. He will also understand how the administration is set up and how to access its resources.
However, all of this information about applicability of skills and experience must be extrapolated right now. Matt is not drawing these connections himself. Moreover, a search committee will quickly note that Matt does not have a Masters Degree, nor has he had any formal training in "student development theory." His employment history is brief - he is obviously young and has not yet held a position with the kinds of responsibilities that the Area Director position will require. The work history is also reasonably scattered. The continuity in Matt's interests and experience lies in his community development work, not in his paid jobs.
Matt has chosen to format his resume in a fairly standard manner: Education first, Employment history, then "Extra-curricular" interests. However, in Matt's case this format only serves to highlight his weaknesses and shortchange his strengths as a candidate for this job. One first sees Matt's lack of formal educational experience in student life. Then one sees a not overly-relevant work history. It is only when we get to the "extra-curriculars" that Matt's strengths for this particular position start to emerge.
The search committee will have to do too much work to pull out Matt's relevant experiences and extrapolate as to how those experiences translate into applicable skills and qualifications.
Let's take a look at Matt's second draft, which will also have some new positions listed.
Resume: Second Draft
Matthew D. Silvia
Address, Phone, E-mail
Dartmouth CollegeHanover, NH, 9/92-6/96
A.B. in Anthropology, cum laude; coursework in political and cultural Anthropology; academic citation for creative writing and criticism; 1996 recipient of the Grace and James S. Parkes prize "for kindness, good fellowship, and respect."
TutorIntegrated Academic Support Program, Dartmouth College, 9/97-12/97
Coached fifteen first-year students in academic writing skills.
Community FacilitatorUnited Developmental Services, Lebanon, NH, 1/97-10/97
Planned and provided community-based training and support to ten adults with developmental disabilities.
Respite Provider and Case AideHealth Care and Rehabilitation Services, White River Jct., 6/95-9/95
Provided daily supervision and educational/vocational/ recreational opportunities for mentally ill youth.
Community Mediator and Coordinator9/94-present
Acquired more than 100 hours training and experience in Dartmouth Community Mediation Center, Windsor County (VT) Small Claims Court, and Grafton County (NH) Youth and Family Mediation Programs.
Chair, Social Responsibility CommitteeUnitarian Universalist Congregation of the Upper Valley, 7/97-present
Coordinated fund-raising events; disbursed more than $6000 to charities; created mission statement and church leadership handbook; initiated adult religious education programming.
Young Adult Ministries CoordinatorNH-VT District of Unitarian Universalist Societies, 8/97-present
Established young adult groups in the NH-VT District; advised campus ministry groups; maintained database; served on District Board of Trustees responsible for $180,000 budget.
Founder, Coordinator, and AdvisorDartmouth Unitarian Universalist Campus Ministry, 1/96-present
Established mailing list; served as liaison to local congregation; led "Building Your Spiritual Home" curriculum for twelve participants.
Peer AdvisorCasque and Gauntlet Senior Society, 9/96-present
AdvisorSexual Abuse Peer Advisor and Peer Education Action Corps Programs, 6/93-6/96
Area CoordinatorDartmouth Office of Residential Life, 9/94-6/95
Tucker Fellow/VolunteerIntern Positive Directions, Inc., Boston, MA, 3/94-6/94
Discussion: Second Draft
The first thing that you probably noticed is the elimination and de-emphasis of Dartmouth-specific activities and experiences. Matt has combined his Peer Advisor positions, and has decided to remove his foreign study programs in the Education section. He has also removed his employment positions with Lodge Crew and as a Presidential Scholar. By culling out items that are striking him as being less relevant, Matt is creating a more unified appearance to the resume as a whole. He has also gained some physical space that he is now using to elaborate on some of his Community Development positions.
Throughout the resume, there is an increased emphasis on the idea of "community." The majority of Matt's current positions and activities all list the word "community" in their titles, so if you scan this new draft quickly, you will get a sense of continuity not present in the first draft. This simple change transforms the chronological list of seemingly random positions held by a recent graduate into the transcript of a person with focussed interests and a coherent body of experiences.
Matt has also fostered this sense of continuity by weeding out experiences that the search committee would find essentially irrelevant to the Area Director position. Lodge crew is gone, as is Matt's position as a research assistant. The education section has also been pared down to Matt's Dartmouth degree. You will note, though, an important addition in this section: Matt has chosen to explain that the award he won was for "kindness, good fellowship, and respect." The listing of the award becomes significant now and not merely a toss-away in a list of achievements.
Most improved though is Matt's section on Community Development. He has elaborated on the descriptions in this section, and we begin to see that Matt's positions outside of his paid job are a far cry from "extra-curricular" hobbies. Indeed, Matt's "Community Development" work seems to be his primary "curriculum." In positions such as Community Mediator, Matt is performing pro-bono mediation work for courts in New Hampshire and Vermont. His other positions are also of a professional or pre-professional nature. Through them we are starting to see that Matt performs critical tasks not only for the Dartmouth community, but for local and regional communities throughout the Upper Valley.
However, this resume is still not in its most persuasive form. We see the same organizational problem - one made all the more obvious by the improved descriptions. There is no reason why Matt's strengths need to be subordinated to the arbitrary hierarchy set by an "Education - Employment - Extra-curriculars" organization. As we've started to see, Matt's employment history is not necessarily the locus of his true interests, skills, or career goals.
Similarly, within the actual listings, Matt is not doing justice to his real qualifications for the job of Area Director. He needs to pay still more attention to the interests and desires of the search committee. First, the position that he already held with Residential Life is de-emphasized. Why? Second, Matt has lost some opportunities when he made his decision to remove items and de-emphasize his Dartmouth-related activities. Matt has worked extensively within Dartmouth's campus and knows its cultural values; he is not capitalizing enough on this experience.
Finally, an Area Director must develop and foster educational, social, and diversity-awareness curricula for the student community. The search committee will certainly be interested in Matt's "leadership" of a curriculum as the founder, coordinator and advisor of the Dartmouth Unitarian Universalist Campus Ministry (though we can wonder what precisely "leading a curriculum" might mean). The primary emphasis of that description is on "Established mailing list." What does "founding" "coordinating" and "advising" the Campus Ministry group really entail if establishing a mailing list is the most significant task?
Emphasis becomes a concern in another area as well. Although "community" is more heavily featured in this draft, the idea of community is coupled mainly with Matt's affiliation with Unitarian Universalist congregations. A search committee might interpret Matt's interest in people, community, and mediation as being a specifically religious interest - they may wonder how well Matt would function in a job dealing with students of all beliefs and religious traditions.
When Matt started talking even more about these positions, what he values in them, and how he sees them relating to the Area Director position, it became clear that he needed another draft - one that dedicated more time, space, and emphasis to a discussion of his experiences.
Resume: Final Draft
Matthew D. Silvia
Address, Phone, E-mail
Dartmouth CollegeHanover, NH, 9/92-6/96
- A.B. in Anthropology, cum laude
- Foreign Study Program in Fez, Morocco, Fall 1995; co-authored Dartmouth in Fez: A Practical Guide to the Fassi Experience guidebook
- 1996 recipient of the Grace and James S. Parkes 1920 Prize for "kindness, good fellowship, and respect."
Plymouth North High SchoolePlymouth, MA
- Advanced placement levels in American History, English & French.
- People-to-People Youth Science Exchange to the Peoples Republic of China, Summer 1988.
- Year abroad at the Lycee Charles-Gide in Uzes France, 1989-90; completed curriculum with distinction.
Residential Life Experience
Area CoordinatorOffice of Residential Life, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH, 9/94-6/95
Co-managed two residential halls, housing 400 women and men. Developed and managed $9,000 annual budget. Supervised and evaluated a staff of ten Undergraduate Advisors. Advised and supported staff in planning academic, social, and community-issues programs for residents. Identified and responded to staff and resident concerns and emergencies; mediated roommate conflicts. Confronted inappropriate behavior in residence halls. Participated in staff selection and training.
Community Mediator and CoordinatorDartmouth Community Mediation Center, Woodbury College (Montpelier, VT), Windsor County (VT) Superior Court Small Claims Mediation Program, Grafton County (NH) Youth and Family Mediation Program, NH & VT, 9/94-present
Acquired more than 110 hours training and experience in consensus building negotiation and Peer, Family, and Small Claims mediation skills. Successfully mediated multi-party conflicts in residence halls and led consensus-building sessions for student organizations. Planned and presented a conflict-management presentation at Undergraduate Advisor training, 1997. Coached Dartmouth and Hanover High School students in mediation skills at training retreats. Participated in revision of court documents for Small Claims mediations. Supervised Small Claims Mediation Program, 1998.
Young Adult Ministries CoordinatorNH-VT District of Unitarian Universalist Societies, NH & VT
Established new Young Adult groups in the NH-VT District. Created District Young Adult Ministries Committee and served as chair. Advised and developed programming for Campus Ministry groups. Served as resource and referral contact for Young Adults (ages 18-35) throughout the District. Maintained address and e-mail database. Attended week-long Continental Young Adult Network leadership training. Served on the NH-VT District Board of Trustees; responsible for $180,000 annual budget.
Chair of the Social Responsibility CommitteeUnitarian Universalist Congregation of the Upper Valley, Norwich, VT
Developed and coordinated local fund-raising events. Identified and prioritized list of community needs and disbursed more than $6,000 to charities annually. Created committee mission statement and church leadership handbook. Initiated adult religious education program on issues of diversity and social justice. Served on the Board of Trustees; responsible for $95,000 annual budget.
Founder, Coordinator and AdvisorDartmouth Unitarian Universalist Campus Ministry, Hanover, NH, 1/96-present
Identified need for liberal religious campus-based ministry at Dartmouth. Established mailing list and organized introductory meetings. Served as liaison to the local congregation in Norwich; secured funding for the group. Identified a student coordinator and began advisory role upon graduation. Developed and provided a Young Adult religious education program, "Building Your Spiritual Home," for twelve students, Winter Term 1998.
AdvisorCasque and Gauntlet Senior Society, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH
Co-advised group of more than 30 senior students in various aspects of the Service Society, with particular emphasis on issues of inclusiveness, social justice, and sexual awareness.
English TutorIntegrated Academic Support Program, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH, 9/97-12/97
Provided intensive tutoring to a first-year English class of fifteen students. Assisted students in developing their English composition, revision, and editing skills. Created a supportive environment for the students during their adjustment to college life. Participated in end-of-term evaluations.
Community FacilitatorUnited Developmental Services, Lebanon, NH, 1/97-10/97
Planned and provided community-based training and support to ten adults with developmental disabilities. Identified health needs and health-threatening situations; participated in development of safeguards. Provided and maximized opportunities for individuals to build self esteem.
Respite Provider and Case AideHealth Care & Rehabilitation Services of Southeastern VT, White River Jct., VT, 6/95-9/95
Provided daily supervision of two mentally-ill youth. Developed educational, vocational, and recreational programming. Created supportive environment to foster independence, self-confidence, effective time management, and positive relationship with family and peers. Participated in development of Individual Plan of Care. Responded to emergencies.
Peer AdvisorSexual Abuse Peer Advisor Program, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH, 6/93-6/96
Acquired 14 hours of training in issues of sexual abuse, incest, rape, and recovery. Served as a contact and resource for three women dealing with issues of incest, rape, and attempted rape. Participated in selection of Coordinator of the Sexual Abuse Awareness Program, 1994.
Peer AdvisorPeer Education Action Corps Program, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH, 9/94-6/96
Acquired 30 hours initial training plus annual review in topics of Wellness, Sexual Assault, HIV/AIDS, Eating Disorders, Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual issues, Active Listening, and Group Facilitation. As a member of the Dartmouth Rainbow Alliance, compiled biographies of gay, lesbian and bisexual contact students for distribution to College Deans and Health Service.
Tucker Fellow and Volunteer InternPositive Directions, Inc., Boston, MA, 3/94-6/94
Secured internship funding from the Tucker Foundation at Dartmouth College. Coordinated ten support groups for HIV- positive clients. Served as resource for information and referral. Organized and designed self-advocacy materials. Assisted development of Self Case Management Project.
Discussion: Final Draft
Perhaps the two most obvious changes - and the ones that have the most impact on this final draft of Matt's resume - are the new organizational categories and the decision to go beyond a single page and expand the descriptions of each position.
The organizational categories now reflect quite directly the search committee's interests: Does Matt have any direct experience in residential life? And what are Matt's related skills and experiences? The new organization also allows Matt to prioritize his non-employment activities and positions. What we see now is an extremely coherent body of experience. Matt has clearly been interested in people, community, counseling, crisis management, and mediation throughout his professional and pre-professional life.
The decision to go beyond a single page and spend some time elaborating on the positions also contributes to this increased sense of continuity and professionalism. The descriptions all highlight information and skills that are of direct relevance to a position as an area director. We see now that Matt has shown quite a lot of initiative in identifying group needs and in developing organizations, programming, and curricula to address those needs. He has a great deal of mediation experience in a number of different contexts and will be able to manage successfully whatever dynamics might arise interpersonally between colleagues, staff, and students. Matt also has experience managing budgets, and though he is young, the search committee now has ample evidence of both Matt's maturity and the trust that others have placed in him in the past.
You'll note that a few changes made in the second draft have reverted back to their original state. For example, Matt has decided to list his two Peer Advisor positions separately again. However, there is ample justification for doing so now that he has expanded his descriptions - each position now enumerates significant information that the search committee will find useful. He lists training hours acquired in each position and evidence of sensitivity training in an impressive list of areas. He also notes that this training did not remain abstract, but was put into practice in a number of different settings.
In short, each position and description provides critical information to a search committee looking to find an Area Director for Residential Life at Dartmouth. Matt is already in conversation with the committee, answering questions about his experiences and showing them how and why skills gained in other positions relate to the position he is applying for. Moreover, each description builds on, and is in conversation with, the ones around it, creating a kind of narrative of experience.
Remember: nothing about Matt or his interests, career path, and jobs has changed. However, the young professional of this resume bears no resemblance to the job-searching recent graduate of the first draft - this is an entirely different candidate in the eyes of a search committee. What has changed is Matt's presentation and discussion of his experiences.
Resumes, however, cannot accomplish everything. In the case above, we still have some stickling problems: First, Matt is still young - the search committee will wonder about his ability to become a part of the administration when he is so close in age to the students. Second, Matt lacks significant experience as a supervisor; this position is responsible for supervising and directing approximately sixty-three employees. Third, the position requests a Masters degree and the ability to "apply student developmental theory...." Here is where a cover letter comes in to play.
Cover letters are your opportunity to address a search committee directly, in your own words. Here you have a space to make your "voice" heard; it is the document that brings the sense of the person to the more impersonal professional that (one hopes) is conveyed in the resume. The cover letter is also your opportunity to address concerns that you know will not be addressed in your resume: What happened during those two years that do not appear on your resume? Why have you not stayed in one job for more than a year? How is your experience equivalent to a Masters degree in student life?
There are certain standard requirements of a cover letter. The first paragraph announces your intentions - namely the fact that you are applying for the job. It is also common to announce in this paragraph where you saw the position listed. The subsequent paragraphs then reveal your interest in the position, your knowledge of the position and the institution (showing that you've done your homework and know what you're applying for), and the ways in which you are perfect for the job. If there are concerns that you know a committee will have about your application, be sure to address them clearly and openly. Finally, your letter will conclude in a cordial manner and offer references either in an attachment or "upon request." (More on attachments later...)
This formula sounds pretty easy, but as anyone knows who has tried to write a cover letter, it's much harder than it sounds. Most people do not enjoy writing about themselves, and are, frankly, not very good at it. It is easy to write a letter that says very little that a search committee will care about, or that paints you as a sugary, schmarmy kind of person. It is best to approach writing this letter as you would writing an academic paper:
Start early.You can probably expect to write about three drafts of a cover letter (not to mention a resume). You do not want to be caught doing this at the last minute!
Know as much about the position as possible.Conduct research on the institution or company, as well as on the position itself. Know the values of your audience. Know what they will be looking for in your application. The Web is a great place to start, but don't overlook company literature and personal interviews with other employees.
Be strategic - you're making an argument.This advice may be obvious, but it's the point most often forgotten when people write letters about themselves. Don't get hung up if your one-page letter does not convey the subtle nuances of yourself, if your claim that you are an organized, detail-oriented person ignores your wild, creative side. You're making a strategic argument about yourself, pitched to a particular audience who is looking to fill a particular position. They will learn that you have that odd quirk about the color pink when they invite you for an interview.
Pay attention to the details!We've seen applications rejected because of spelling and grammatical errors, not to mention poor style. Think about it: this letter is not only evidence of your "communication skills," but, theoretically, is the most perfect example of them.
Get a second reader.Nothing helps more in any revision process than a disinterested, yet knowledgeable, second reader. You should be sure to tell this reader as much as you can about the position, as well as the institution or company you're applying to.
(Note: For space and privacy considerations, we're leaving out the headers with the addresses of both the applicant and prospective employer. You will have to include these when you write your letters.)
Cover Letter: First Draft
I am submitting this letter and resume to you in application for the Area Director position in the Office of Residential Life. Although I am told that the search committee has already selected candidates to bring to campus, the position is still listed in the job flyer this week, and I hope my application will be considered.
The Area Director position is both appealing and familiar to me. While working as an Area Coordinator in the Topliff/New Hampshire cluster during my Junior year (1994-95), I worked closely with Area Director, X and ten Undergraduate Advisors to provide my staff with opportunities to develop time-management, community-building, and active-listening skills, and to develop cluster-wide events exploring a range of important community concerns, such as eating disorders, alcohol, sexuality, diversity, and the new independence of college life. Also during that year, I began my on-going relationship with the Dartmouth Community Mediation Center, which provided my initial training in conflict resolution and for which I still help to train Dartmouth students in peer mediation skills. My involvement with ORL and campus organizations such as the Tucker Foundation, Peer Education Action Corps, Sexual Abuse Peer Advisors, and Dartmouth Rainbow Alliance helped to focus my commitments on conflict management and community development while I was at Dartmouth, and created frameworks through which I have continued to serve the Upper Valley community.
As my enclosed resume conveys, I have a variety of experiences leading and coordinating groups in addition to one-on-one coaching. I love applying conceptual models and procedures to dynamic and complex community needs. I think you will find that I am a capable and thorough administrator, a thoughtful and reasoned advisor, and a dynamic and caring presence within a community.
My long-term intention is to attend theological school and to become an ordained minister, concentrating on young adult ministries and alternative dispute resolution within the Unitarian Universalist Association. Between now and my enrollment in theological school, I hope to continue living and working in the Upper Valley while gaining mentoring, counseling, and community leadership skills and experiences. The Area Director position presents an ideal opportunity for me to not only gain such experiences, but to continue learning and growing in a community I love.
Discussion: First Draft
The first paragraph of this letter raises an interesting and important issue. Matt has learned through his own channels that the search committee has already decided to interview candidates. Generally, this means that they will no longer accept new applications. Instead of ignoring this issue, hoping that someone nice will make an exception, Matt addresses it straight on. Employers are legally obliged to accept applications if a position is listed in a current job advertisement. Although Matt's intentions are certainly not legalistic, by pointing to the advertisement and raising the issue up front, Matt has probably ensured that the committee will look at his application. The general rule to take from this example is that it is almost always best to address any complication or potential problem openly and clearly from the outset.
The second paragraph is also strong (though the sentences are a bit long and unwieldy). This paragraph introduces Matt's experience, skills, and qualifications for the job of Area Director. Wisely, he begins with the work he already performed for the Office of Residential Life. Through this discussion, we see that Matt has performed tasks similar to the ones that he would be asked to perform in this new position, and that he not only knows first-hand the job for which he is applying, but knows, and has worked with, his potential predecessor.
Matt next segues into a discussion of his experience and skills as a mediator. The flow works well, as he began his mediation training at Dartmouth during his year as an Area Coordinator. Implied, too, in the transition is the importance of mediation skills in working with students in residential life, and in being an effective administrator. Matt highlights his mediation skills, and in so doing, highlights his own maturity, leadership, and valuable people skills.
The weaknesses in the letter start to appear in the next paragraph. This short paragraph begins with the statement, "As my enclosed resume conveys, I have a variety of experiences leading and coordinating groups in addition to one-on-one coaching." As a sentence, it's a little wishy-washy; however, the real problem is that the statement is not followed up on. The next sentence proclaims Matt's love for applying conceptual models to real-life situations. What is the connection between these two statements? Remember: paragraphs in a letter must adhere to the same rules you follow when writing academic papers. Readers will still be assuming that the first sentence of a paragraph is a kind of topic sentence, and they will notice if a paragraph's coherence falls apart.
Finally, Matt needs to be a little more strategic towards the end of this letter in matters ranging from word choice to content. His statement that he "loves" to apply conceptual models does not really mean much to a search committee. A search committee wants to know if Matt is good at applying conceptual models to real-life situations. An easy revision, but one that will make a difference. Matt's decision to announce that his long-term goal is to attend theological school and become a minister is also not the best choice. Although Matt wishes to highlight his interest in working with young adults and "alternative dispute resolution," the committee will see a person who does not intend to continue in student life and who may likely leave the position in a year to return to school. This concern is echoed in the lack of a Masters degree in student life.
Let's see how Matt handles these issues in his final draft.
Cover Letter: Final Draft
I am submitting this letter and resume to you in application for the Area Director position in the Office of Residential Life. Although I hear that the Search Committee has already selected candidates to bring to campus, I hope my application will still be considered.
The Area Director position is both appealing and familiar to me. I was an Area Coordinator in the Topliff/New Hampshire Cluster during my Junior year, 1994-95. During that time, I worked closely with X, the Area Director; my co-Area Coordinator; and ten Undergraduate Advisors to provide my staff with opportunities to develop time-management, community building, and active listening skills. I also assisted my staff in developing cluster-wide events that explored a range of important community concerns, such as eating disorders, alcohol, sexuality, diversity, and students' new-found independence. It was an intense and rewarding time for me as a student. Also during that year, I began my on-going relationship with the Dartmouth Community Mediation Center, which provided my initial training in conflict resolution and for which I still work, training Dartmouth students in peer mediation skills. Through my involvement with ORL and campus organizations such as the Tucker Foundation, Peer Education Action Corps, Sexual Abuse Peer Advisors, and the Dartmouth Rainbow Alliance, I committed myself to conflict management and community development on campus. This involvement created frameworks through which I have continued to serve the larger Upper Valley community.
As my enclosed resume conveys, I have a range of experience leading and coordinating groups, as well as advising and supervising individuals. I realize that I do not have the preferred Master's degree and that I perhaps seem to be a young candidate for the Area Director position. Therefore, I am enclosing two letters of recommendation, highlighting my professionalism and my responsiveness to students' complex needs. I enjoy and excel at applying conceptual models and procedures to dynamic situations, and what I may lack in theoretical academic work, I suspect I make up for through experience and my constant enthusiasm for learning. I think that you will find that I am a capable and thorough administrator, a thoughtful and reasoned advisor, and an enthusiastic and caring presence within the community.
Because of my experience in mediation and general interest in conflict management, the implementation of the new residential adjudication system is particularly exciting to me. I hope to see an increase in students' sense of personal responsibility in conflict resolution on campus and I hope it is a topic that we will be able to discuss at length in the future.
Discussion: Final Draft
Much better. The long sentences in the second paragraph have been made more manageable, and the third paragraph has become a discussion of skills - which skills he has, which he doesn't, and which he feels he can easily attain.
This third paragraph actually addresses a host of previous concerns. In it, Matt raises the issue of his youth and missing Masters degree. By discussing these issues directly, Matt can now make an argument for why his experience and skills are the equivalent of a degree. (Note: you cannot make an argument for something that you have not had the nerve to confront.) Matt's argument is thorough: he not only makes the case for equivalency, but submits letters of support for two key doubts the committee may have. He then covers his bases by announcing his dedication to learning whatever skills he may not already possess. His statement that the committee will find him "a capable and thorough administrator, a thoughtful and reasoned advisor, and an enthusiastic and caring presence within the community" now reads as the culmination of an argument and not an isolated claim.
Finally, Matt ends his letter not on what he personally can gain from the position, but on an expression of interest in one of the projects that the Office of Residential Life is interested in. Matt has taken the time to find out what new initiatives were in the works in this office, and it happened that one of them dovetailed perfectly with his own interests and skills. The lesson is clear and bears repeating: show genuine (and specific!) interest in and knowledge of the position for which you are applying.
A short note on enclosures: There are times when enclosures are very important to an application. These enclosures can be letters of support specifically written for the application, they can be general letters of recommendation, or they can be things like writing samples, or slides of your artwork. However, you should always submit additional enclosures sparingly and judiciously. Search committees can be wading through anywhere from sixty to six hundred and sixty applications. The last thing you want to do is irritate the members of the search committee by making them read through extra pages of irrelevant or unnecessary material.
Last modified: Tuesday, 12-Jul-2005 11:30:22 EDT
Copyright © 2004 Dartmouth College