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A letter to our students

One of our alums [1] recently sent me a summary of cover letters and cover emails they had received from Grinnell students who were applying for internships and jobs. They sent them to me because they were concerned about the quality of those letters. I showed that letter to another alum, who said, Yup, Sam, I gotta tell you, in my experience, Grinnell students don’t understand professional etiquette. And so I have drafted this message. One of the recommendations in the message is to have others read through messages before you send them, so I’m asking you to do the same for me.

Dear CS Students,

An alum shared with me some cover letters and electronic mail that Grinnellians sent to their company as they applied for jobs and internships. For each, they indicated things that immediately disqualified the candidate. That concerns me for multiple reasons. First, I’d like to see you get jobs and internships. Second, your bad letters speak poorly of Grinnell and therefore undermine not just you, but also your colleagues. You have a responsibility to yourself and others to present yourself well.

Before I move on to some of the issues, I’ll give a simple recommendation: Have someone from the CLS read over any correspondence you send to a prospective employer before you send that correspondence. Those of you who are first- and second-year students should have a CLS advisor; that’s one of the things that they are here for. (Those of you who are third- and fourth-year students can make an appointment, and perhaps even arrange to have one of the CLS staff be your regular contact.)

Here’s another one: So that you make the best use of your time with CLS staff, before taking your correspondence to the CLS, have a friend read over it first.

And a third: If you ask alumni nicely (see #8 and #9 below), many will also read through your cover letters to give you suggestions.

Okay, now on to some comments and criticisms from the cover letters that were shared with me.

  1. Take the time to make sure that your message uses correct grammar and spelling. I realize that some of you sometimes struggle with both. I realize that some of you think it’s okay to dash something off. But people assume that you will take the time to be correct. A second set of eyes will help. Writing in a text editor that checks grammar and spelling and then copying and pasting into an email message can also help, but the second set of eyes will also help with many other issues. I’m told that some find Grammarly useful, but I have not tried it myself [2].

  2. One of the important things to spell correctly is the name (or acronym) of the company to which you are applying. For example, someone applying for a position at Grinnell probably should not write I appreciate the inclusiveness of the CC Pryde initiative. Spell checkers generally won’t catch these issues; additional eyes will.

  3. Know your audience. At least one of the letters referred to me as Sam. It’s fine to refer to me internally as Sam; I even prefer it. But the rest of the world assumes that you will address professors by their last name. Do not assume that your audience uses the same vocabulary that you do. A second reader helps you check these assumptions. One of the reasons I suggest that you use CLS is they know better than I about things like whether to use 3rd-year student or junior.

  4. Here’s a combination of 1 and 3: From talking to alums, I know that they look at the little details in applications. Why? Because good programmers get the details right. So, put the accents in résumé. If you use a WYSIWYG [4] editor, make sure that you know how to align things with tabs, not with spaces. Get as close to the standard form of LaTeX as you can. (If you use LaTeX to prepare a document, write \latex.)

  5. Express actual interest in the company. At least one of you had a cover letter of the form Although I am not particularly interested in liberal arts education, I am applying for a position at Grinnell College because I like to work with students. Note that it helps if you do a bit of research, too, so that you can speak more clearly to what about the company interests you. I am passionate about liberal arts education, and I am particularly struck by Grinnell’s decision to empower students to design their own approach to such education.

  6. The onus is on you to provide information, not on them to seek it out. Do not write Go to LinkedIn to learn more about me. Certainly, don’t write that without providing a link. Write I am happy to provide any additional information you indicate would be helpful. Do include your LinkedIn and Github (or Bitbucket) links on your résumés for those who want to track down a little bit more about you.

  7. Do not include a picture of yourself. My contact says (approximately): Don’t provide a picture or other information that may lead them to make implicit judgments about you. Let them form an opinion from your strengths and competencies first. This particular issue does not undermine others, but it may affect your own applications.

  8. If you write to alums and ask them for favors, do so politely. Express interest in who they are. Express thanks for their help. Do not write I see you are a Grinnell alum at Company. Here is my résumé. Please direct it to the correct place. In that case, the correct place is the circular file.

  9. If you do get help, please follow up with a note of thanks, even if it doesn’t yield results. If the help does yield results, let the people who helped you know.

I know that you folks are awesome. (Okay, those of you I know are awesome; I assume the same holds true for the rest of you.) Please make sure to present yourselves as such.


– SamR

[1] I am purposefully using the contraction.

[2] I expect that I will play with Grammarly and then write an essay about doing so [3].

[3] No, that endnote will not appear in the message that I send to our students.

[4] What you see is what you get

Version 1.0 of 2017-01-21.