How to decode job postings and customize your applications

There have been a fair number of posts on HLS about job searching including two incredible ones from the last week by Emily (Congratulations on the new job!) and Vince. I wanted to take a different bent on the topic, though, and look as some explicit tips on how to read and dissect a job ad to figure out what the hiring managers want you to show them or how to customize your application materials in the best way to pull that off. Job hunting is obviously a huge part of library school and it’s why we’re all here so we can be prepared to find jobs as librarians. They won’t teach you how to go about doing that in library school, though; which is why so many of us write pieces on how to do it!

Now, I don’t consider myself an expert, but my friends would probably say that’s my imposter syndrome talking, and they might be right. I spent several years studying LIS job ads to post on‘s Ontario page. I have applied for probably 50-60 LIS/LIS-related roles since I stepped into the industry in 2010 as a library technician student, and I have kept every single application package and filed them by which ones got me interviews and which didn’t. I’m also a long time avid reader of Ask a Manager and I advocate that EVERYONE needs to read Alison Green’s advice because it completely changed my understanding of job searching and applying for jobs, and it can help you get into the mind of a hiring manager. I’ve also helped several friends re-vamp their applications over the years and helped them land interviews, and I’ve been hiring student assistants to work on my team at a academic library for the last three years.

Now that that’s out the way, what tips do I have for you? Well, let’s start with a generic tip, if you haven’t already done this please make a note to immediately start working on both a master resume document and a master CV. Every single application package you send in must be customized to match what is being asked for in the job ad. Your application package is your marketing document and if you’re not tailoring it, then you’re going to have a tougher time selling yourself. These master documents should just contain EVERYTHING you’ve ever done, and ALL of your accomplishments. Page limits be damned — these are your master files to be chopped and rearranged as required. Having these files ready to go will save you HOURS of prep work. They take a long time to set up initially but the long term ROI is worth that work. [pro tip: these documents also make annual performance appraisals super fast!]

You need both a resume and a CV because different libraries will ask for one or the other depending on their preference and how they classify a certain role and it’s not easy to turn one into the other so it’s best to have both ready to go. So, now that you know you need to have these documents at the ready, what comes next? Now it’s time to learn:


Every job posting is going to be broken down into sections so we’ll work through this section by section. I’ll point to key information you need to pull out and tell you what the hiring managers want to know. First and foremost to remember is pay attention the language and terminology they’re using, as you’re going to need that information when we get to the customization phase.

The Company Profile

Whether it’s a library, an archive, a museum, an information service provider, a company, etc. every job posting will start with a description of the company. Unless, of course, it’s a blind job posting, but I don’t trust those myself because hiring should be a two-way street where you’re judging if the organization is a good fit for you at the same time that they’re working on figuring that out about you. Important information to pull from here includes:

  • The organization’s values
    • They want to find someone who values the same things they do
    • You would use this information best in your cover letter
  • The purpose/focus of the job, key statements indicating this are things like “this role will be integral…” or “this role is responsible for…”
    • You need to make sure the accomplishments and experiences you include highlight this point in both your resume and your cover letter
  • The communities/user groups they serve
    • So you can highlight any experience you have with those groups or any transferable experiences

The Responsibilities

This section of a job ad describes the job as the organization has envisioned it, in theory only, while in practice it might only match the job description really loosely on a day to day basis. But, you have to work on the assumption that they’re actually asking for the things they want in a new hire. This section of the job ad is where you should be focusing the bulk of your decoding and customization efforts. If you can show through your accomplishments and experiences that you can pull off 70% of the listed responsibilities then you should be applying to this posting. Have the confidence of a middle-aged, straight, white, man – you don’t need to be 100% qualified to apply.

Every item in this list is something you want to spend time reading and understanding. When it comes to decoding these responsibilities think about then very broadly/generally. When they mention specific programs or processes, like SharePoint or records training you think more generally about those things, SharePoint becomes collaborative and records management systems and records training becomes training in general. When you reframe those things broadly, it’s easier for you to spot your transferrable skills and experiences and apply them in your customization.

The Qualifications

You’d think this would be the hard and fast section, and you would be right—most of the time—but actually it’s been my experience that in a lot of cases you can have a little, or a lot, of wiggle room here depending on the position. The obvious exception is for jobs that do require an ALA-accredited master’s degree, or equivalent. Some positions do say they require this and some say preferred. Many organizations are realizing that a degree isn’t necessarily the full story of someone’s experience anymore and, according to Alison Green, it actually gets less relevant the higher you go in the ladder of an organization’s hierarchy. Years of experience are also more of a guideline than a hard and fast rule. If you’re a stellar employee and you can show case an impressive collection of accomplishments in 3 years as opposed to 6 they’re not going to immediately discount you because you only have 3 years of experience. The years of experience tend to more roughly signify the kind of salary you can expect them to be offering. Although, a good employer should be posting that information explicitly, not hiding it. Remember to think about the specific experiences they list here generally again so that you can apply transferable experiences that closely align but don’t necessarily match exactly. Like, if they say you need 2 years of higher education instruction experience and you only have 6 months, but you also have 5+ years of instruction in another setting, that’s still super applicable here! Don’t discount that experience, you just need to explain it. Which brings us to the how:


As I said above, you should not have one boilerplate resume or CV that you are spamming every job you see. You need to tailor your materials to the individual ads. The basics, you take your master CV or resume file, you take the job ad, you start making notes on the ad about where your experiences line up. Then, you take those notes and you start customizing. Here are my tips for customizing an application package:

  • Focus on accomplishments instead of responsibilities
    • Instead of saying “Supervised the circulation desk staff” use, “Supervised 6 staff members working on the circulation desk including overseeing the lending and return of materials and providing direction and developing a new-hire training program”
    • Why? It takes it from generic to specific and explains what the responsibility actually entails, you never want to leave a hiring manager guessing about whether or not something is relevant
  • Quantify everything you can
    • If you shelve books try and put a number to how many you can do on average in an hour
    • Numbers break up the flow of a sentence and draw a spotlight to how good you are at a task
    • Hiring managers love when you quantify your experience, you’ll notice when I edited the above example I added the number of staff the person oversaw
  • Use the language of the job posting
    • Pay attention to the words they use for things and parrot those exact words back, their language is what an applicant tracking system will be keyed to pick up on; if they say user, don’t say patron or customer and vice versa!
    • Find the keywords and use them for the same reason, the more keywords you can hit on the better! But use them meaningfully do not fall for the trap of just including them at the bottom of your document in white font
  • Take time to read really good cover letters from sources like Ask a Manager
    • This helps you get a sense of what a good cover letter includes
    • But you still need to practice to find your own voice and style because cover letters are and should be a very individual thing
    • Remember that not EVERYTHING in your cover letter needs to appear on your resume and vice versa, one should never regurgitate the other they are meant to complement and build on each other
  • Ignore the pagination advice*
    • I don’t mean just go ahead and submit your unedited master file, but don’t kneecap yourself, either
    • If you have enough relevant experiences and accomplishments to fill up 1.5-2 pages for a resume then DO IT, the advice about a 1 page resume is dying out. Some people will tell you new grads and young professionals should never exceed a single page until they have about 5 years of experience and that is BULLCRAP. I know new grads and new professionals who are rock stars who would be doing themselves a disservice if they followed that advice, and I also know great senior staffers who have been there for 15 years who could only fill up a page. You do what your experience dictates! For CVs you probably don’t want to be exceeding 4-6 pages for junior roles and 8 is the upper limit I’ve seen tossed around for senior roles
  • If you feel comfortable having this information on the web flesh out LinkedInor create a dedicated portfolio site that includes your resume or CV, why?
    • Because then you can post the entire full master document with no worries about pagination and then link to it on your application package to drive hiring managers to it 😉
  • Ask for help
    • I never submit an application package until I’ve had at least 1 other set of eyes on it
    • Find someone you trust who will be honest, but brutal with you

I hope you find these tips useful and I’m always happy to talk job apps if you want to hunt me down on socials!

In addition to being a Contributing Writer here at Hack Library School, Lauren (she/her) is currently working towards her MLIS part-time, online, through the University of Alberta, she expects to graduate in Spring 2022She holds an honours BA in English/Religion & Culture and a BEd, both from Wilfrid Laurier University. Her interests are copyright, open education; accessibility; and diversity, equity, and inclusion in LIS. Lauren is the Copyright and Reserves Supervisor at Wilfrid Laurier University, serving on the Library’s Accessibility Committee, and the Student Advisory Council. She also co-hosts a bi-weekly Twitter chat on library issues and trends (#lisprochat) and is a research assistant on the Opening Up Copyright project. Find her: @rendages, @lisprochat |

Categories: Job Searching

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2 replies

  1. Just a piece of advice – resumes and CVs are usually very different lengths. CVs are for academic libraries and they tend to include a lot of additional, different information, like major committee service, anything you have presented or published, grants you’ve gotten or participated in, and more. I’ve seen CVs that run 10 pages or more for very experienced people; I’ve been in academic libraries for over 20 years, and mine is 6 pages. I’ve never seen a CV that was under 3 pages.


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