I have reviewed hundreds of job applications over the past few years, which means I’ve read a lot of cover letters and resumes. The quality of the application materials vary, but some patterns have emerged. In general, however, application materials are rarely of high quality. In many cases, they are incomplete or poorly composed, making me wonder just how much archaeologists really care about this part of the process. Perhaps they don’t, but I find it much more enjoyable to look through stacks of applications when the materials are of good quality. What I do know, is that when I do get a well put together application, it moves to the top of the pile.
If you’ve already read my post on how to decide if a job is a good fit for you, then you should already have done a ton of research. Because you cannot write a quality cover letter or resume without knowing the job and institution inside and out. You also need to know how you and your experience fit with that job. Again, it won’t be a good letter if you don’t have this background. So, be sure to peruse this post before diving into a cover letter or resume.
Before we start, some full disclosure for you all: I am writing this post for me. I truly, honest to goodness, want to hire you. I am fully invested in hiring the best staff members who fit with our team. Unfortunately, one of the only ways for me to find those candidates is by looking at two things: a cover letter a resume. That’s it. I am certain that I have passed up numerous candidates who would have been great parts of our team, but unfortunately, that didn’t come through in their materials. So, I am hopeful that this post will result in me getting materials that help me make the best hires I can!
With that, let’s get started. I’m going to do this as an old-fashioned list, starting with cover letters, and then resumes.
Any good cover letter should be….
A Persuasive Argument…
Your cover letter should not be a descriptive list of your accomplishments. It should be a persuasive essay about why you are a quality candidate for the job. We’re all researchers here, so lets put this into terms we can understand: the job description is your model. Your resume is your evidence. The cover letter is the bridging argument connecting your experience to the job. Do my job for me: tell us why you are the person we should hire. Convince me! I want to hire you. Give me the reasons why I should.
…In the Mold of a 5 Paragraph Essay,
Remember the 5 paragraph essay you learned in grade school? Well, its just training for cover letters. You should have an intro with a thesis (why you’re a candidate for the job), a series of supporting paragraphs, and a conclusion. Each paragraph should address a different reason why you’re qualified for the job. Then, wrap it up with a conclusion. If you need more then five paragraphs, add it. But stick to this general framework.
…That is Organized Around the Needs of the Job,
Those supporting paragraphs should address the things that are the most important parts of the job. Your experience should support those things. This keeps you away from just reguritating your resume in paragraph form. Instead of “Job 1, Job 2, Job 3”, think “Excavation Experience, Managerial Experience, Historical Archaeology Experience” or whatever elements jive with the position. Then, address the experience you have in those categories in the paragraphs.
…And Always Ties Back to the Job.
Everything in your letter should tie back to answer this question: “how does this thing connect to the job?” This should be explicitly stated in the letter. Because that’s the argument you’re trying to make, that your experience in these areas qualifies you for the job. Make the connection for the employer, don’t leave it up to them. Remember, they’re reading a giant stack of these.
Okay, some pet peeves…your cover letter should also:
Be Addressed to an Actual Human Being,
Don’t address your letter “To Whom it May Concern.” Your letter does concern someone, make the effort to figure out whom. Call someone and say, “Hi, my name is [your name] and I am interested in applying for the [Name of Job] advertised on your website. Could you tell me who to address the materials to and who I should contact with any questions?” Or put that in an email. People are impressed by effort. Why does this help? Three reasons. First, it shows a bit of respect to the person reading the letter. Second, this is a chance to make yourself known to the reader. Third, it shows initiative and dedication to making quality materials.
…Demonstrates your Enthusiasm for and Knowledge about the Job and Institution,
This doesn’t mean it should be a bunch of exclamation points. Demonstrating enthusiasm means being thorough, respectful, and showing you are informed about the job and institution. This should be easy to do because you’ve already done all the research. Show that you know the job and institution by being specific in your letter. Reference their programs, people, reports, or whatever you think is relevant.
…Shouldn’t be a Form Letter,
One great way to show that you aren’t enthusiastic about a job is to just send in your form cover letter. We know when this is happening, because it is unlikely that you are addressing the things our job specifically asks for. And also, because these letters typically have another job title or a different institution listed somewhere in them. This happens more often then you would think. Don’t be that applicant.
…and Gives Me No Reason to Suspect that You Don’t Want the Job or Would be a Pain to Manage.
This goes for the whole process. Follow all the instructions. If I ask for a cover letter, resume, and a picture of your favorite animal, then please make sure those things are included. I want to know you follow instructions. If you aren’t careful enough to proofread your cover letter to catch the wrong institution listed, then are you careful enough to fill out our paperwork correctly? If you won’t respond to an email promptly requesting an interview time, will you respond to my work email promptly? If you won’t go the extra mile to make your materials as good as they can be, can I count on you to do it when you work for me? I only have so much to go on in this evaluation process, so remember, the process itself is also part of your evaluation.
Also, make sure it’s a pdf File.
I have received word documents with track changes still on. Ensure this doesn’t happen. Make it a pdf.
Okay, Resumes. Honestly, I put less stock in your resume than probably most of the world. I expect the cover letter to do the heavy lifting for me, since it should be telling me why you’re qualified for the job. But, in a nutshell, the resume should have some similar qualities as a cover letter. It should be:
One to Two Pages Long
Anything more than this I probably won’t look at. I would suggest supplementing with an obvious online portfolio, LinkedIn Profile, or something where if I want to do a deep dive, I can. Use the Internet to your advantage.
Tailored to the Job
Remember, the letter ties your experience to the job, so the resume should be your reference document for the letter. If it’s relevant to the position, you should have it on the resume. If its in your cover letter, it should be on the resume. This goes for bullet points underneath each experience, also. For example, if you’re applying for a lab position, and you had a job where you did field and labwork, make your fieldwork one bullet point, make it the last one, and expand on the labwork. Be strategic. The better you can tie your resume to your letter and the job, the better off you’ll be.
Not have that “Purpose” or “Objective” thing at the top
Obviously, your purpose of submitting your resume is “To Get a Job in the Field of Archaeology.” You’re applying for an archaeology job. And you just wrote me an awesome cover letter outlining this whole thing, so save yourself the space and use that couple inches for some more valuable content.
Well Formatted and Easy to Read
I should be able to read your cover letter and say, “oh, they worked for XYZ Firm. I know a guy who worked there in 2010…wonder when she worked there?” And quickly look at your Resume and get an answer immediately. If I have to search through your cover letter for basic information, then it needs help. Remember, reference document.
No One Cares What You Did in High School
I’m sorry. I know you worked hard. It got you into college. It served its purpose. But unless you managed to publish something in an archaeology journal, leave it off. For the most part, if you’ve been in the field for a little while, this applies to your undergraduate experience as well, particularly things that are unrelated to the discipline.
There you have it. My advice for cover letters and resumes. As a whole, these will get easier as you write more of them. And the more you view them as a package: Job Description, Resume, Cover Letter, the more success you will have tying them all together effectively. Just remember, the idea is to present an argument for your candidacy. This should excite you, because, presumably, this is a job you want. These materials are your chance to make that case. Good luck!
PS – special thanks to my wife, Ashleigh Brock, who happens to a career professional in higher education. She’s ripped enough of my cover letters apart over the years to turn me into a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to these things.
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