By Lisa Von Drasek, 1/31/2011, Illustration by Victor Juhasz
Cash-strapped school districts? Shrinking budgets? School library positions under the ax? It’s enough to make a resourceful media specialist wonder whether she’ll still have a job at the end of the school year or will need to find a new one. And it’s not just experienced media specialists who are anxious.
A teacher completing her MLS recently wrote on LM_NET that she was worried about getting a job after graduation. With all the gloom and doom on listservs and blogs, she wanted advice on how to succeed in these tough economic times. Do I have any advice? You bet.
Although this isn’t a comprehensive job-hunting guide, I’m here to offer some helpful strategies that’ll give you the best chance to land a position in an incredibly competitive field. What you’ll find in these pages are some common sense tips to make your resume and cover letter stand out in a crowd, present yourself in the best possible light, and ace the interview.
Let’s start with a bit of insider information. My school typically receives about 50 resumes for each job opening. But we only pass along 15 of them to our hiring team. Why? Most have been weeded out for typos, poor writing, and failing to meet the basic requirements of the position. In the end, we only interview five to seven finalists—and only three are invited back for a second interview. If there’s ever been a time to be fastidious, it’s now. Top on my list are these to-dos: make sure your resume reflects your experience as it applies to the specific job opening; that your cover letter is warm yet professional enough to get your foot in the door; and—I can’t stress this enough—that when you actually nab the interview, you arrive prepared. In the end, being a librarian is about being good with people, so that should also come across when you’re applying for a job.
Ratcheting up your resume
There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all resume anymore. So be prepared to tailor yours to specifically meet the needs of the job description. This is so important that I’ll repeat it: the job description is the most important information to help you rework you resume. For a sample school librarian job description, visit http://tinyurl.com/4a8z8wg. Use it as a guide and rework it to reflect your own work experience.
Here’s an example: The prospective candidate will:
Ensure that students and staff are effective users of ideas and information.
Rewrite to read as follows by fleshing it out with specific example.
• Ensured that students and staff were effective users of ideas and information by collaborating on curriculum with classroom teachers. Presented information literacy curriculum at the all-staff meeting, cocreated American history curriculum using original source documents from the American Memory website, and presented to the PTA on Internet safety and social media.
Even if all (or any) of your experience isn’t in a library, your resume should focus on the skills that librarians use every day, such as working with children, collaborating with others, writing, budget planning, managing resources, grant writing, managing people, customer service, program planning and execution, documenting, and statistical analysis. Include something about experiential learning. For example, mention that you’ve worked with third graders on an ancient Egypt research project and accompanied the class to the museum to examine artifacts, or supplied students with websites to create their own hieroglyphic messages.
For job seekers already working in a public library, plan a resume-writing workshop with a local corporate human resources professional. It’s the kind of community service that always looks great on a resume. For those who are unemployed, make this request as a patron at your local library or attend a writing workshop.
It doesn’t hurt to look around at examples of resume formats. I’m fond of Arthur D. Rosenberg’s The Resume Handbook (Adams Media, 2007). It offers a variety of formats for all kinds of jobs (including a librarian’s) and demonstrates how to emphasize the skills needed for a range of professions. The author also reiterates what may not be common knowledge—quantify the information, which means to highlight pertinent information such as the fact that you’ve been a supervisor. Include the number of staffers you oversaw, and whether you started a “Friends of the Library” group. Did its membership shoot up by 50 percent during the time you were there? Then say it.
As for aesthetics, keep it simple. That means no neon stock paper, no fancy typeface, no less than 12-point font, and a clean design. Yes, it can be more than one page. (That old advice is for just-out-of-college kids.) But try to keep the page count under three. If it’s more than a page long, number the pages and use the header function to label additional pages with your last name. Saving the document in Microsoft Word or as a pdf is perfectly acceptable, as long as it can be easily emailed, opened, and printed.
After you’ve gone over your resume with a fine-tooth comb, have someone else do the same. This is no joke. Do you want your resume nixed because of a silly typo? Homonyms are my favorite error; spell check doesn’t catch those. I’ve received resumes with nonworking phone numbers, the applicant’s name misspelled, and endings with dropped sentences.
Research the prospective employer, look at its website, and if possible talk to someone who works or has worked there. Be prepared at all times with an up-to-date resume.
Does your cover letter cover all the bases?
Never send a resume without a cover letter—unless, of course, the employer specifically says so. (Following directions is essential.)
Create a letterhead with your contact information. Don’t be lazy and send your cover letter to “To Whom It May Concern.” Pick up the phone or do a quick online search to find out the name of the director of human resources. Then address the letter to that person—and don’t address them by their first name. I get very annoyed when someone I don’t know begins any correspondence—either hard copy or email—with “Hi, Lisa.” If you’re asked to address the search committee, then your cover letter should say, “Dear Search Committee.” If you’re sending an electronic application, however, the content of the email message can serve as your cover letter, and you can simply attach your resume.
The first paragraph of your letter should be very simple. What job are you seeking? Where did you hear about it? Why are you the perfect candidate? In the second paragraph, you’ll want to briefly discuss why you’re the perfect candidate and your knowledge of the employer. Do your research. Choose one part of the job description and give a concise example that reflects your own experience.
In the closing paragraph, say, “Thank you for your consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.” Sign off by including your name, email address, and the best phone number to reach you during the day. Yes, this information is already on your letterhead and your resume, but it doesn’t hurt to include it on everything you send, so contacting you is as easy as possible.
Presenting the best possible you—online and off
Your parents, best friend, and jogging partner aren’t who potential employers are seeking in a reference. They’re talking about former and current professors, the teacher/librarian that you interned with, supervisors, and colleagues. They all make excellent references. Let each reference know that you’re listing them on your resume, and for goodness sake, make sure you know what they’re going to say. In fact, feel free to give them pointers. “I would love for you to say that I work well collaboratively. Remember the interdepartmental program we did with teens?” When someone asks me to be a reference, I always ask for the job description and what experience they’d like me to highlight. On your list of references, make sure to include each person’s name, place of business, email address, phone number, and their relationship to you.
If you don’t have a personal business card, head on over to Kinkos or Staples and have one made immediately. Why? Because you never know whom you’ll meet. There’s always someone who knows someone—and that’s the time to whip out your business card, not your resume. “May I give you my card?” is the appropriate way to offer your professional contact information. The card should list your name, home address, telephone numbers, and blog and email addresses in a plain typeface, and it should be on heavy stock. That’s it. Ditch any cutesy cartoons of pets, fancy fonts, colored paper, or made-up job titles like “cybrarian.” On that note, now’s the time to create a plain-vanilla email address and save the firstname.lastname@example.org for your friends. If it’s not already taken, use your first name and last or an initial with your full last name. If all that is available is Tomjones640@gmail.com, try including a middle initial or middle name to create a distinctive address.
Now’s also the time to clean up your online presence. And that includes your Facebook page. According to a 2005 survey of 102 executive recruiters by ExecuNet, an executive job-search and networking organization, 75 percent of recruiters use search engines to uncover information about candidates, and 26 percent of recruiters have eliminated candidates because of information they found online. Don’t be surprised if pictures of body piercings, crazy drunken photos, nudity, and objectionable language turn off a recruiter or human resource manager. Even your political views can push you aside as a candidate. Yes, nothing is private. So take down any potentially embarrassing photos. Stop arguing. Just do it.
You’ll also want to Google yourself. Put your full name in quotes like this, “Lisa Von Drasek,” and see what pops up. It isn’t easy to get rid of stuff that’s already out there. If you ranted something embarrassing on a blog six years ago and now it’s the first thing that comes up, you can actually bury it to a second page by creating your own blog. Then, ask your friends to click on your blog when it appears in a Google search. Doing that will move the negative stuff to the second search page, and someone doing a quick search will likely miss it.
The same applies if you want positive information about you to move up in the search engine results. Again, search for your name in quotes. Then, click on the link that you want to move up in the rankings. Get your friends to search and click on that link. Want your LinkedIn bio to move up? Uh-huh, click on it. (If you’re asking, what’s LinkedIn? Beeline to www.linkedin.com and set up an account.) Does your name appear in a report from a conference that you attended? Click on it. Keep doing it until those items become the most popular—and therefore the most visible—search results. For more savvy tips, check out “Manage Your Online Reputation” on Lifehacker.
Some say that a blog is the new resume. There’s no doubt that it can be a powerful tool for self-marketing. So don’t blog about anything you wouldn’t do or say in a job interview. What should you post on your blog? Professional-related interests, software, apps and/or book reviews, recent author readings, upcoming local events of interest, links to libraries that you love, thematic bibliographies, or a compelling academic interest. A posting can be a link to professional articles that you find interesting, a library website that you appreciate, and blogs that you enjoy. A few sentences are enough for each post, and try to update the site often. If you went to a local meeting of children’s librarians, blog about it. Set up a Google alert with your blog’s name, your own name, and topics of interest. Whenever your name or topics are mentioned on the web, an email with a link to the site will appear in your inbox. If you’re lucky enough to have a blog on a work website, plaster your name and byline all over it.
Every job-seeking librarian should create a professional portfolio that includes writing samples such as press releases, newsletters, memos, recommended reading lists, and any renovations your oversaw. It’s also a good idea to include sample curriculum, assignments, and copies of student work. For the interview, prepare a folder of leave-behinds: a copy of your resume, a sheet with professional references, links to websites that you’ve created, a writing sample (a book review would be great), and a lesson plan that includes goals, the state standards addressed, and the cooperating classroom curriculum that it supports. If you’re seeking a public library position, it doesn’t hurt to have a copy of a program plan, a press release, a friend of the library newsletter, a summer reading announcement, and an annotated book list. By the way, if you’re not already reviewing and writing for professional journals, start now. It’s one way an applicant can stand out and demonstrate enthusiasm.
One great way to spruce up your portfolio is with pictures. If you’re student teaching or doing a practicum, don’t let a day go by without using a digital camera. Document students’ work, book displays, and students working—but avoid photographing children’s faces or crop them out and never use students’ names. Post your images on your blog. This won’t guarantee that you’ll get the job over another applicant, but it does demonstrate that you’re pretty tech savvy and can document your work—two things an interviewing committee will definitely take into account. I’m sure it didn’t hurt when I applied for my current position and left behind photos of kids in my library enjoying the Writing Box program that I created and included program notes for other librarians to re-create the experience. (If you’d like to learn more about my project, visit http://webstaging.bankstreet.edu/gems/library/writingbox.pdf.)
Many applicants for school positions may be asked to teach a lesson to demonstrate their competency. What most committees are looking to see is your teaching style, how you interact with children, and your classroom management skills. I’d advise preparing at least three 45-minute lessons—say, one for preschoolers, another for elementary school kids, and a third for middle schoolers. You might want to use a picture book with the lower grades, and for the upper grades, you could focus on a facet of information literacy, such as teaching online search skills. Bone up on your classroom management skills. Speak in a low voice using direct sentences. Be courteous. Use “please” and “thank you.” Ask children to say their names when they speak. Repeat their names back to them.
Of course, you don’t want to wait until the day before the interview to prepare. If it’s been a while since you’ve stepped in front of a class, Chip Wood’s Yardsticks: Children in the Classroom Ages 4–14 (NEFC, 2007) can provide a quick refresher on kids’ developmental levels. Since some schools won’t allow potential job candidates to interact with actual students, be prepared to present your lesson to a panel of adults.
If you’re a current classroom teacher, you’re in luck. Become good friends with your school librarian. Help out with shelving, circulation, and processing. She’ll be a great reference when you’re going for a job interview. If you don’t have a school librarian, start advocating for one right now. Join the American Association of School Librarians, a division of the American Library Association, and take advantage of its advocacy resources. Show an interest in current literature, be visible to the principal, write a memo about why students at a comparable school are doing better than yours. The job that you create might be yours to step into. Don’t scoff, this just happened to a classroom teacher who called to request a meeting with me because her school is moving to a new space and there will be a library in 2012.
Work part-time evenings and weekends at a local public library. Remember, budget shortages often mean they’re short staffed and may be hiring part-time help. Reference experience is the most valuable. Keep up with current literature. Read School Library Journal, The Horn Book, Voya, and Booklist. And keep tabs on book- and teaching-related blogs. Some of my favorites include “A Fuse #8 Production,” “A Chair, A Fireplace & a Tea Cozy” (both at blogs.slj.com), and “EarlyWord” for publishing news and reviews, “no flying, no tights” for the latest on comics and graphic novels, “Heavy Medal” for the skinny on Newbery contenders and “NeverEndingSearch” (both at blogs.slj.com) for cutting-edge information on technology and teaching, and “Reading Rants!” for YA reviews.
Sign up for and read LM_NET, an online discussion group for school librarians, to keep up with the latest news on school library concerns and issues. Go to regional meetings, like those hosted by the California or Massachusetts Library Association. Be aware of hot curriculum issues. Visit as many school libraries as you can (even if it’s after your own school day) and network with the librarians you meet. They’re the first ones to know of any openings, such as who’s going on maternity leave or who just decided to retire. Don’t ignore the obvious job-hunting sites like ala.org or libraryjournal.com or your graduate school’s career counseling office. If you’re working full-time, see if you can get student teaching experience in a library at least one day a week. Did a library school professor ask for help with an event? Did you see a professional event at the public library that will be a good place to network with colleagues? Show up. Go early, stay late. Yes, I know: you have a life, you have other things to do on a Saturday afternoon at 2 o’clock. Show up anyway. Have your business cards in hand. Walk up to the speaker afterward, introduce yourself, and thank them for their presentation.
Dress for success
Even if everyone wore blue jeans and T-shirts at your last three jobs, you need to demonstrate that you know how to dress for grown-ups. The rule of thumb is to dress up one step above the present corporate culture. Do a little recon work by finding out what teachers look like when they leave the building. If they’re dressed in jeans and cardigans, put on a blazer. If you see them in sharp blazers and khakis, be sure to wear a suit for your interview. Never worry about overdressing.
Schedule your interview with a half hour to spare. Give yourself plenty of time to visit the restroom to wash up or reapply make-up and check your appearance. If you’re running late (stuff happens, a kid just threw up on you, there was an accident on the freeway), call to let them know and ask if they want to reschedule. This demonstrates good judgment. (I once called to reschedule an interview when there was a sudden downpour; it was on my lunch break, and I was 10 blocks away. I did get the job.) When you do arrive, if you need a moment to go to the restroom, say so. Recently, we had a candidate who arrived soaking wet, as it was 105 degrees in the subway. Take a minute.
Bring a checklist of materials with you: reference sheet, three copies of your resume, a folder of materials to leave behind, a professional portfolio, two working pens and a notepad, a children’s book. Turn off your cell phone when you arrive. Pack an emergency kit in your bag with a bottle of water, breath mints, hand sanitizer, hand wipes, face powder, a comb, safety pins, Band-Aids, and a high-protein snack like an ounce of nuts or a breakfast bar. Hey, you just never know.
How to ace the interview
Now that you’ve landed an interview, it’s time to show them your stuff. Review the job description and address each point. How will you meet these expectations? What relevant experiences and special skills do you have? What evidence do you have to show that you go the extra mile? Practice with a friend. Really practice. Have your friend ask tough questions like, “Why does the school library need novels when each of our classrooms has a collection of books for independent reading?”
Have a few three-minute stories prepared. Can you give an example of a successful teaching moment? Can you talk about a negative parent interaction and how it was resolved successfully? Has anyone ever challenged a title—how did you handle it? Did you ever have a lesson go south—what did you do?
Think about how you fit into the school culture. Here’s a true story: A candidate for a teacher/librarian position was asked, “What would you do if a class was consistently late for library?” He replied, “I would let it go once, then I would march down to the classroom and insist that it should never happen again. That teacher needs to respect my program.” Wrong answer! How about making an appointment with the teacher and finding out why the class is always late. Demonstrate your ability to play well—and collaborate—with others.
Prepare questions to ask about the school. Make it clear that you’ve visited its website. Does the library host a book fair? What’s its annual materials budget? How long was the previous librarian in the position? Is there a fixed or flexible schedule? One way to make a poor impression is to say, “No,” when the interviewer asks, “Do you have any questions?”
If you can’t answer a question you’ve been asked, it’s perfectly acceptable to say, “That’s something I need to think more about.” Then direct the conversation to a point you’d like to make, such as an example of a successful collaboration.
Don’t forget to say thanks, formally
During the interview, ask for all of the interviewers’ names and collect their business cards. If you’re uncomfortable doing that, get their titles and the correct spellings of their names from the school’s website. Don’t be shy about calling back the same afternoon or the next day. Introduce yourself to the school secretary, state that you had an interview and that you wanted to confirm the spelling of the names of the hiring team members. Handwrite thank-you notes to each person whom you met. There will be an “oh, I wish I had said that, or why didn’t I tell them” reflection. The thank-you note is the perfect place to say an additional positive comment. “I noticed that when your students…”; “I thought more about your curriculum questions…”. Put it in the mail that day or the next. Even better, have a stamped envelope addressed before the interview. Go to a nearby coffee shop. Write the text on a notebook page, recopy it in a clean neat hand on good stationery, and drop it in the nearest mailbox. Some say that it’s acceptable to email a thank-you note, but why not go the extra step? Do you want this job? Write thank-you notes. I knew someone who had a phone interview, then an interview with a local recruiter, and finally was flown to another city as one of three finalists. After she returned home, I asked how it went. She said great. When I asked if she had sent thank-you notes, she said not yet. I had a hunch that she really didn’t want the job. And you know what? She didn’t get it.
Don’t be discouraged
The truly discouraged are those who have sent out many a resume and received nary a bite. They are those who have made it to the final round of interviews but received no offers. Those who think there’s no hope, no jobs, and ask, “What does a person have to do to get a position?”
The truly discouraged should buy and diligently study Richard Bolles’s What Color Is Your Parachute? (Ten Speed Press). Treat the search like a full-time job. Follow all of his suggestions and do the recommended exercises. Bolles knows what he’s talking about: his practical job-hunting strategies are based on years of research, and best of all, they really work.
If you can’t concentrate at home, go to the public library every day with Parachute, a blank notebook, and a handful of sharpened pencils. Job seekers who are paralyzed by disappointment and anxiety should bookend the day. By bookend I mean call a friend, state your planned activities for the day, and at the end of the day call them back and report in. If you can’t do it alone, find an action partner, another job seeker may need similar support. The exercises in Parachute will help identify your job-related strengths and preferences and how your own experiences inform your career. Don’t worry about how many rejections you’ve gotten. As Bolles is fond of saying, you only need one “yes” to land the job of your dreams.
When preparation meets opportunity
Sometimes getting a job is pure luck—being at the right place at the right time. Take advantage of those moments by being prepared. Always be ready with that 30-second commercial about yourself: Who are you? What’s your experience? What job do you want? That person you meet in line at the museum whose five-year-old you amused during a five-minute wait might be a parent from a private school that needs a librarian, and—surprise!—it turns out that she’s on the library committee. Of course, you have your crisp, clean business cards easily accessible. You might even suggest that you’d love an opportunity to meet with the principal. Who knows? This could be the job you’ve been waiting for.
Lisa Von Drasek (email@example.com) is children’s librarian and coordinator of school services at Bank Street College of Education in New York.
Sample Cover Letter
Elizabeth Warrington Ray
65 Hill Street
Mankato, MN 56001
cell phone: (555) 555-5555
Great Girls Preparatory Academy
555 Blue Earth Way
St. Peter, MN 56022
Dear Search Committee:
Having recently completed my MLIS at St. Catherine University, I was pleased to see your advertisement for an elementary school librarian in the St. Paul Pioneer. I know that Great Girls Preparatory Academy provides a rigorous academic experience for economically challenged students, and I would be honored to become part of your community.
My internship in the Minneapolis Public Schools at the Fran Tarkenton Elementary School has provided me with the experience of supporting fifth-grade teachers in their work in Reading Recovery as well as in stretching limited resources. During my time with Ms. Katrina DiCamillo, I student taught pre-K through fifth grade and had the opportunity to booktalk genres to the entire fourth grade. As a reading response activity, the students created video trailers for their favorite fantasy novels with two flip cameras donated by our local Target. We also created a book discussion wiki as well as a donation request list for summer reading. My second placement at John Coy Middle School gave me an opportunity to work with students in grades six through eight and participate in Ms. Joy Sidman’s mock Newbery curriculum.
Attached, please find my resume, as well as my professional references as requested. I look forward to hearing from you. I can best be reached at (555) 555-5555 or, if email is more convenient, at Betsywarringtonray@gmail.com. Thank you for your consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.
• Be high-handed or disrespectful to a member of the support staff
• Complain about your present job or anyone you’ve worked with
• Gossip about colleagues or parents at your school
• Talk about how hard it has been to get a job
• Criticize the school, the building, the educational philosophy, the collection (yes, I know the 900s need weeding)
• Seem unaware of curriculum, state standards, or current issues in information literacy
• Say you don’t know how to teach different learners or students with special needs
• Can’t name a new or recently read children’s book
• Can’t express enthusiasm for teaching
• No eye contact, weak handshake
• Reek of cologne or perfume or cigarette smoke
• Talk about politics
• Say you’ll never be able to stay after school
• Say you don’t have time to read
• Use foul language
• Show up late
• Bring a friend to the interview
• Show up unprepared
• Don’t follow directions
• Answer your cell phone or text during the conversation
Recessionwire was started by media professionals who were laid off during the big purge of 2008. Although the blog doesn’t pay contributors, it provides writers with an online place to show their work to prospective employers. Take a look at the sections “Make lemonade,” “Laid off 101,” and “Get a Job Guide.”
Evil HR Lady Ever wonder what those human resource professionals are thinking? Suzanne Lucas spent 10 years doing corporate HR, and she’s hired and fired folks for several major companies. She gives no-nonsense but often entertaining advice to job seekers and working stiffs.
BNET—Life at Work This business resource covers a variety of topics, including “12 Ways to Turn Around a Terrible Day,” “10 Resume Errors That Will Land You in the Trash,” “5 Things That Are Wrong with Your Resume (and How to Fix Them),” and “Carefully Hone Your Resume Accomplishments for Better Job Opportunities.”
Pathfinder Careers is the brainchild of Dawn Rasmussen, president of Pathfinder Writing and Career Service, who offers unvarnished advice to job hunters.
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