Friday, 5 February 2016

Letters of Note

Next weekend will see the first WomenEd residential 'UnConference' spring to life, focused on making next career steps. While I am sad not to be able to be there in person to share in the fantastic community that has been created, I am really delighted to have been asked to offer a virtual workshop on writing letters of application.

Like many at any level of leadership, I have spent many hours reading letters from prospective candidates.  Sometimes it is heartwarming to see the passion and enthusiasm they transmit. Other times it is depressing to see that an 'insert name of job and school here' approach has been taken. Often, I have been taken aback by how little I know about someone even though they have spent two sides of A4 telling me what they think is notable about their skills and experience.

So, the wonderful Hannah Wilson of WomenEd asked if I might share some tips and here they are...

Read the job specification. While this might seem rather obvious, a letter that doesn't convince me that you really want to do the job I need you to embrace, shape and excel in is not going to make it onto the 'yes' pile for interview.  If you didn't need to know the job details, school or department context and any other information you have been sent, assume that they wouldn't have been given to you. 

Read the 'essential' column of the person specification and don't be put off. These are going to be the non-negotiables and more about qualifications, specific skills or essential experience, the sort of thing you would cover in your application form. If you don't have them, will you by the time you start the post? Are you being proactive in ensuring you will? Do you need to explain this in your letter? Yes, is the answer. It's worth taking a different view of the 'desirable' column. Research has shown us that all too often, women feel that if they can't tick every single box on a person specification then they will be put off applying. Don't be - use your letter to demonstrate what already fits, what you are working on and what else you can offer to the post. Remember that your capacity and potential to fit many aspects of the role will be given a chance to shine through at interview. So, convince them on paper that it is worth finding out!

Be yourself. You have about 8 paragraphs to show me who you are as a professional, what you value as your best achievements and skills and what you are going to bring to the table in my school.  This is different to listing your career stages, telling me about everything successful that you have single-handedly achieved and asking me for the opportunity to do the same in this new role.  Don't be scared to write about your passion and what drives you (although if you read it back and it sounds like power ballad lyrics, tone it down). Think of achievements or successes that relate to the job specification and relate these honestly, whatever your part in them was. Don't say you led if you didn't, there is nothing wrong with having been part of a team that made something work, quite the opposite. Identify any relevant challenges and how you (and your team) overcame them, particularly if this will chime with issues the school is trying to address. 

Use the language of an emotionally intelligent professional. It is absolutely fine to 'feel' and to 'believe'. Equally, go on, be 'passionate' and 'excited'. Have you shown 'concern' or 'support' for a colleague, students or a situation?  Were you 'challenged' or 'inspired' by a problem, person or goal? Did you work 'with' and 'alongside' people? Did you 'lead a supportive team'. You get my point. I have read letters and sat in interviews where candidates have been very eager to make sure that I know that they alone achieved great things, that they simply told other people what to do and then spent no time at all thinking about how these feats of leadership happened. It is, of course, a fine balance between making sure that you take credit for your skills and underselling yourself. If you think about your letter being a reflective, relevant account of yourself rather than a shrieking sales pitch, you will give a much fuller picture of yourself as an individual.

Don't claim anything that you can't back up with evidence face to face. Remember that your goal is to actually be called to interview. Then remember what it feels like to be interviewed. I will just illustrate this one with a real example. The letter said, "I led a department-wide initiative to introduce new classroom-based learning assessment techniques. It led to excellent outcomes."  The interview answer to a question exploring this was, "I made coloured lollipop sticks for a couple of us to trial with our classes in plenary sessions and the kids loved it."  I would have been really impressed if the letter hadn't made bigger-sounding claims in 'clever' words and had just referred to trying out simple techniques with colleagues that had successfully engaged the students. It certainly would have made the moment less awkward.

Jargon isn't clever. Too much, the overuse of current education buzzwords, or heaven help us, 'management speak' that would be great in the City but not in a school - these all just come across as diversion techniques covering up a small amount of substance and not so much of the good stuff. 

Spelling. Spelling. Spelling. Many people will just put your letter on the 'no' pile if you make spelling mistakes.  Oh, and while you're at it, get the name of the school and the person you are writing to completely correct as well. This really helps.

The only other thing I can say is that you have to believe in yourself and know that you really want to do this job you are applying for. However hard you try to disguise it, any shakiness over this being the right move for you, right now, in the right school will climb out of every sentence you write and jump up and down at the person reading it.  Follow your heart and your instincts and you will be well on your way to achieving your goals.  Good luck. We need people like you.

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  1. Great post, Rosanna - sorry I'm only just getting to this now, with the residential over!

    One of the things I do quite a lot of these days is give feedback on draft letters, and I'll be passing on your advice. I see quite often letters that just read like "a list of things I have done in the past". In actual fact, the selection panel is more interested in what you might do in the future! So show the match between what the school/post requires and what you have to offer, using your past achievements and experiences as examples of your transferable skills. It's all about demonstrating that you're a good fit. Link your letter/application to this particular post and your potential rather than simply regurgitating what you have previously done - even if you're proud of it!

    Hope to see you at an event when you're next over here, perhaps. It was good to meet you at the #womened day in October,

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