Are cover letters still important for library job seekers? You bet! Here are the results of my pseudo-study.

BACKGROUND

In my roles as management instructor, student adviser and resume reviewer for ALA’s New Member Round Table, I dole out a lot of advice about the application process, especially the identification of appropriate positions, the creation of supporting documents, the interview process, and, should the candidate be successful, the negotiation process. One of my assignments (adapted from Barbara Moran’s) in the management course is to have students turn in a relevant job ad, a cover letter customized for that position, and a current resume. Over the years, I’ve gone back and forth about the value of this exercise, but having heard from previous students that it was one of the most valuable activities in the course, I assigned it this semester. Even for job seekers who aren’t required to submit cover letters, I think the exercise is useful because it forces them to think about who they are, the training they’ve received, how that training matches up with potential jobs, and it forces them to articulate these ideas in an organized, clear way. It also asks them to consider many of the organizational behavior themes of the course as they look for employment: organizational culture, structure, mission, values, diversity, geography, etc. I try to convince them that applying for every job under the sun (especially those for which they are not qualified) is neither effective nor efficient. Adopting this rational approach may be difficult when you’re about to graduate and you’re desperately seeking a job, any job.

As I was reviewing the students’ submissions for this assignment a few weeks ago, I began to wonder about how individual librarians (mostly) approached the cover letters and resumes they received as part of the hiring process. This hit me as I was trying to decide if I would look at the cover letters or resumes first, and if my decision had any impact on how I perceived the second document. The order of attack might seem obvious to some, and in my prior library administrative positions I had my own method, but I wondered what those currently employed at library and information agencies were doing. So, I asked!

METHOD

I asked the members of my twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook (actually, a colleague’s, since I no longer have a Facebook account) networks to consider this question: When screening applicants, do you look at the cover letter or resume first?

There are a number of underlying assumptions in this situation. First of all, my networks include primarily librarians or those with previous library experience or certainly those with a library ethos even if they have moved on from librarianship. The respondents also include a small subset of LIS types who fall more on the IS side of things.

Secondly, I framed the question in such a way that I expected to learn more about how the individuals actually process information rather than organizational practices. For example,  an organization might require the submission of an online application, rendering the cover letter and resume supplemental or even superfluous. Admittedly, my sensibilities almost always lean toward the academic library way of doing things; in this case I expected responses from people who have been on search committees and so have participated in the selection process, but also from library staff who might be preparing for a candidate visit even though they may not have a direct say in who gets hired.

My primary goal was to get a sense of which document people look at first, and to extrapolate from that information how people who are involved in candidate evaluations go about forming opinions based upon their assessment of these documents. Clearly, I did not set this up as a scientific research study, but within these limitations I learned some valuable information that might inform those seeking LIS jobs, especially jobs in academic libraries.

RESULTS
My question generated quite a lot of responses on Facebook and the LinkedIn group LIS Career Options (clearly, I need to develop my Twitter network more!). Overwhelmingly, librarians indicated that they look at the cover letters first. This allows them to get a sense of who the candidate is, how they express themselves, if they can write, and why they think they are ideal candidates for the job. With higher numbers than I expected but still a distant second, many responded that they look at the resume first in order to see if the candidate meets the basic requirements of the job before they expend the effort to read the cover letter to determine fit.

PERSONAL PREFERENCE AND PERSONALITY
As some of the respondents indicated, this boils down to a personal preference, and I would go a step further and say it’s a personality issue, too. Based on Jungian Typology (expressed commonly using the Myers Briggs Indicator Type or MBTI) there are four dimensions of personality that identify preferences for perceiving the environment and obtaining/processing information:

Extroversion vs. Introversion

  • direction of focus and source of energy vary: people focused versus focused on thoughts and ideas; energized by being with others versus energized by being alone

Sensing vs. iNtuition

  • collecting information through senses versus through intuition, inspiration or subjective sources

Thinking vs. Feeling

  • using rational logic versus personal values to process and evaluate information

Judging vs. Perceiving

  • using order and structure versus flexibility and spontaneity to orient to the external world

According to this typology, a person whose results indicate a personality type of INTJ is focused on thoughts and ideas and get their energy by being alone; collects information through inspiring or subjective sources; uses rational logic to process and evaluate information; and deals with the external world through order and structure. It’s important to remember that these four dimensions are each reported on a continuum, so the extent to which a person expresses these tendencies will vary and can be measured (for example, I am an INTJ with percentages of 33 (I), 50 (N), 50 (T) and 1 (J). So, my tendency to deal with the external world through order and structure is pretty low and I may occasionally employ spontaneity).

According to one seminal study (and it’s definitely time to update this data, in my opinion), the majority of academic librarians are ISTJs (16%), INTJs (12%) and INTPs (11%) (Scherdin 2002). Each semester, I ask my management students to take the Jung Typology Test. Over the past four years, out of 97 students (IS and LS), here are the highlights:

ISTJ: 11.3%
ISFJ: 11.3%
INFJ: 22.7 %
INTJ: 22.7%
INTP: 11.3%
Four other types were recorded in negligible amounts (ESFP, ESFJ, ENFJ, ENTJ, each of which stood at 5.2%, subject to minor rounding error). To be clear, all of my students do not want to be academic librarians, nor am I the only instructor teaching management at my school.

DISCUSSION

What might this mean? My interpretation: Most of the librarians reading your cover letters and resumes express Introvertism (this does NOT mean they are not adept at leadership, public speaking, or social events!) and deal with the external world through order and structure (J). It is not much of a surprise, then, that the majority of librarians who responded to my question said they read the cover letters first. They prefer to focus on the applicant’s thoughts and ideas, and they use the cover letter to identify them. This might also explain why (some) librarians find typos and grammatical errors in cover letters unforgivable.

Based on the 2nd dimension, library types are both “N” and “S”, with iNtuition having an edge. This means that rather than gathering the objective, factual information from the resume (e.g., MLS or not? List of skills, etc.), iNtuitive librarians seek information in context, and look to the cover letter to explain the usefulness of the applicant’s skill set, maybe through an inspiring story. With the 3rd dimension, overall, the “T”s have it, with strong representation from the “F”s. Thinking librarians will tend to use rational logic to draw conclusions about the narrative an applicant has presented in their cover letter, rather than their own personal values. This may mean the applicant who tells the better story will get the most attention. It also supports the regulation of having objective criteria for screening applicants!

A couple respondents said that cover letters were easier for them to read, as they had trouble finding information on resumes due to variable organization schemes. As noted briefly above, exceptions to this dichotomous question included organizations with online applications and those who have to process hundreds of applications for one open position. Also, “depends on the situation” came up a few times.

SO WHAT?

Why is this important? I think it is important for job seekers to really understand the industry in which they are seeking employment, and the nuances of the organizations within that industry. How your application documents are perceived is dependent upon who’s doing the reading (we should also be concerned with objectivity and legality, of course). I admit I was a little surprised in how much stock librarians still place in cover letters and that most read them first to get a sense of the person(ality) before they check the credentials. Looking at all this information made me think about how I process application packets and how the order in which I look at documents influences my perceptions. I may be way off base in my conclusions about how personality type influences reading order preference, but that’s a research project I’ll leave to someone else!

What does everyone else think?