Reading Between the Lines

In teaching this summer the final class students take in our program, I invited students to submit draft cover letters they might write to potential employers for critique. Well written, I believe the cover letter is the most important part of the application. It personalizes and energizes the standard application and injects personality into the resume/vita. I see it as an opportunity for students to advocate for themselves as potential employees and to signal how they stand apart from other applicants. Poorly written, the cover letter can do more harm than good.  t invites a potential employer to read between the lines and infer information that the applicant may not intend to convey. So, I was surprised by the bland and nondescript language that some students used in their letters and dismayed at what I was reading between the lines.

One student opened with the notion that working at the school would allow her to share her love of books and literacy. Another student seeking public library work promised she had the ability “to help perform library tasks accurately and efficiently” and to provide excellent patron experiences by cataloging and organizing books or working at the circulation desk. She talked about experiences “assisting” patrons at the circulation desk and “assisting” with programming. While I am certain it wasn’t their intention, when you read between the lines, each student in her own way emphasized traditional, stereotypical librarian skills or interests and failed to portray herself in the best possible light.

The school library student did not consider that her passion for books and literacy alone was not unusual or unexpected in a school library applicant and would not single her out as the best fit for the position. She did not elaborate on how working at this particular school would allow her to share her passion or even why her passion would benefit the school. While she wisely played up her classroom teaching experience and she did talk about teaching inquiry-based lessons, she missed the opportunity to advocate for the overall work of the school librarian or to lay the groundwork for eventual program change by describing other interests such as a desire to collaborate with teachers as an instructional partner and co-teacher, which is supported by research relating the work of a certified school librarian to student success.

The public library student talked about being adept at tasks more appropriate for a paraprofessional. She did herself no favors by talking about her experiences “assisting with” rather than planning or leading activities. While both students were enthusiastic, neither indicated anything that would set herself apart from anyone else applying for the job.

I encouraged both students to rethink and rewrite their letters incorporating strong action verbs and describing specific ideas they would implement in the new position. I challenged them to talk about what would make them stand out from the other applicants and convince an employer that they were the best person for the job. I suggested they provide more robust examples of their prior work or internship experiences that would clearly demonstrate their preparation for taking on the new role.

For the public library student, I urged her to give examples of planning and leading programs and collaborating with other staff members. I told her to speak about the librarian’s role in the digital era with less focus on the traditional roles of library work and more on incorporating technology to support patrons in their search and acquisition of knowledge, resources, and information.

For the school librarian, I suggested she explain how her love of books and literacy would bolster students to read for information, for pleasure, and for lifelong learning and would support the school’s reading initiative. Additionally, I prompted her to look at the AASL standards to talk about how she would engage students in inquiry-based learning, multiple literacies, and 21st-century skills, and how she would partner with teachers to integrate emerging technologies, lead professional development, reinforce reading instructional strategies, and ensure students could effectively access, interpret, and communicate information.

For both students, I wanted them to see how cover letters can say one thing and infer another if the message is not clear. By rethinking and revising their cover letters to focus on action and leadership and the value they alone can bring to the work, the message would be powerful and there would be nothing to read between the lines.

Author: Anne Akers

Clinical assistant professor in the Department of Library and Information Studies at the University of NC at Greensboro working with school library candidates. Former elementary, middle, and high school librarian in Virginia, Mississippi, and North Carolina.

Categories: Advocacy/Leadership, Blog Topics

3 replies

  1. I’m guessing that few students preparing for library work or any other work would think of stressing experience or interest in collaboration or team activities. My early years with organizations were spent mostly reporting to one leader or boss who parceled out assignments with little collaboration. Then I moved to a team-centered environment with a huge meeting culture involving planning and strategizing. Boy, was I out of my comfort zone! But over several decades I adapted and got good at committee and group work. It’s a skill that can be learned and should be taught.

  2. This is an important kind of job seeking skill that I’m glad to see you teaching to teens. They need to learn how to market themselves and promote themselves with language that express what employers are looking for!

  3. I’ve been doing a LOT of research into resume and cover letter writing advice for a faculty member at our college who wants to incorporate open educational resources into her writing course.

    What I have found is that advice is all over the place. I flailed at cover letters for years until someone told me to simply address the job description, which is pretty bland, generally. This post and some others say it’s a place to show some personality. Others say don’t get cute or creative.

    I guess what it comes down to is many managers are going to read very different things into any given type of letter. God help the job seeker. It’s a miserable maze of hunches, guesses, rumors and rejection.

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