I was thinking the other day of someone I never met, a candidate for a job at Paragraph City, in the English department, more or less. It was a dreadful search experience, in retrospect doomed to failure. Through a series of poor decisions — the sort of compromises that occur in committee when we really want three people but can only afford one — we wound up attracting mainly people who had fallen off the usual ladder and were showing up at our door in order to find their way back on.
Imagine, for example, a person who had been working for 25 years but never longer than four years at any one institution (and thus never received tenure), or someone who had bounced through a variety of related positions but in different departments in different colleges and suddenly gone to Korea to work in a university there for a year. Or think of someone who taught for three years, sold textbooks for two, chaired a Communication department for a year, taught high school for three, enrolled as a student in a Creative Writing program for two years, didn’t work at all for a year, then directed a writing center for four years.
We on the committee read cover letters, scanned vita, and groaned. The writing was horribly boring and uniformly lacked that primary trait of good writing: sounding as if it came from a human being. It was all defensive writing, intended to cover up gaps, smooth over odd job choices, and repeat the same old cliches. Mostly the cover letters just repeated what the resumes said — right down to job titles and dates of service — as if reading the information in the read-at-a-glance resumes wasn’t enough punishment and we were sentenced to trudge through sentences. And all the candidates pretended it didn’t matter why they were leaving their current positions. With every candidate we knew they were hiding things, and often we could tell what they thought they were hiding.
Then one candidate came through and all five of us wanted to talk to him immediately. Here’s why:
He had a personality. Without being casual, he spoke comfortably to us in his cover letter and responded directly to our ad.
He didn’t waste words in formal circumlocutions and 19th century expressions. His cover letter was just over a page.
His tone had a familiarity and an ease suitable to the community college, and his interest in teaching was assumed in his expressions.
He told us his reason for seeking a new position, why our position interested him, and something of who he was.
He didn’t seem to be hiding anything.
So we had one candidate for the job and maybe two others we ought to talk to. But before we could meet him, our real candidate sent us an email saying that he had taken a job at another college, thanking us for the opportunity, telling us why he had been looking forward to meeting us, and explaining why he had taken the other job. His note turning us down was easily more appealing than the cover letter any other candidate had sent.
So the search failed and we completely re-designed and simplified the position, opening it up to people with little experience and assigning it the duties of just one job (instead of combining partial duties of the three different positions we really needed). But we ought to learn from our mistakes. So I tell my careers English classes this: the resume should open the door for an interview, but it’s the cover letter that makes the employer want to meet you.
How powerful it can be when a piece of paper carries a lively personality into a tableful of cautious, deceptive, generic cliches.