In a previous post, I gave advice on and examples of the types of questions that you might get if you interview for a job in conservation and ecology. As a recent graduate, I had several interviews. This past spring, for the first time, I was on the other side; I was the one hiring. Although I managed people in the past, they had either been undergraduate employees/volunteers chosen by my advisor or they were field assistants at the field station I where I worked. This was the first time I had to write and advertise a job, review applications, and interview others by myself.
As I started reviewing applications, the more I reviewed, the more confused I became. There were too many nuances between applicants and I had to make up a rubric. My rubric consisted of a scale from 1-5 of the different items contained in the job description, including both duties and attributes of the person. Additionally, I also added categories of overall cover letter quality (writing), resume quality, and attention to detail. I spent roughly 5-10 minutes on each application for an initial read and put the applications in three different categories: yes, no, and maybe. Here’s what stood out to me:
Address Specific Requirements
Within this position, as in all posted positions, there is a list of what is required and desirable characteristics the person must have (e.g. work well independently). A good application will address each one of the responsibilities and give examples of how their past work integrates well with the responsibilities of this position. For entry-level positions (right after undergrad), these can be examples from courses, extracurricular activities, and volunteer positions. It is gold when you can integrate the qualities that the position asks for into the responsibilities; don’t just say you work well independently, give an example of how you showed this in the past. If you do not have experience on one or a few aspects of the job description, express your enthusiasm to learn. Do not underestimate your past experiences. If you simply learned about something in a class, explain your interest in that subject when you learned about it and explain that you are excited to gain hands on experience. Cover letters that did not address all of the components of the job description and qualities I was looking for were put in a lesser category (either the “no” or “maybe” pile).
The Sweet Spot
Don’t go too long, but also don’t stop too short. This advice goes for the length of sentences within the cover letter as well as the cover letter itself. Don’t ever just repeat what is on your resume. The purpose of a cover letter is to provide another opportunity to explain why you would be amazing at this position. To repeat information that is already on your resume is a waste of time. Therefore, listing your experiences of what you have done is not going to fill up a cover letter. Alternatively, too much detail is overwhelming, and the reviewer will do a lot of skimming anyway. Cover letters that provided no details immediately went into the “no” pile, unless the person did have experience in all of the relevant responsibilities.
While the main point of a cover letter should be to show how well you fit into a position, you should always explain how the position fits into your larger career goals. It is okay to be broad or even unsure, especially at earlier stages of your career. For example, you might express interest in two different fields, such as research and science education, and at this stage of your career you are exploring options in both. Missing this point does not automatically put you in the “no” pile, but it is definitely something you will be asked in the interview.
Enthusiasm and Passion
The best cover letters are those that are able to convey their enthusiasm for the position without being cheesy. This is often best shown by the level of detail you can include about past opportunities, reflecting how you felt about them. Don’t be afraid to use phrases like “I am excited to apply” or “I am enthusiastic about the opportunity.” If you’re not excited about it, it’s hard for me to be excited about hiring you, and makes me more likely to put you in the “no” or “maybe” pile.
Leave anything personal out of the cover letter. While searching for your biological father may be an example of perseverance, it is unprofessional to use as an example. Use only examples from your work, volunteer, or academic experiences. As mentioned before, expressing passion is good, but make sure it is professional. Do not use your pets (even though Fluffy is the best!) as an example for how much you love animals. Instead, use what you have learned in the past and discuss how you want to build upon that knowledge. Did you take mammalogy? Explain why learning about animal behavior was your favorite component. While your love for ecology may have started by catching frogs in ponds or exploring the woods behind your house, a more sophisticated example would be highlighting a particular ecology lab you were fascinated by. Don’t tell me where you grew up. Not only is this unprofessional, but also trite. For me, oversharing is a red flag. It indicates that you do not understand where professional boundaries lie.
After a first read, I reread the applications to make sure I put them in the right categories, as your opinions can shift the longer you read them. I chose three to interview, and of those three, they had the best combinations of the qualities I mention above. I am writing this blog as advice to those applying for a job; it is an insight into what the person reviewing your application thinks. But I am also writing because I am interested in hearing what other people think, more specifically, those hiring and reviewing applicants. What do you see as red flags? What are the most important points an applicant should cover? How do you choose? Comments appreciated.