Writing & Documents for Career Builders
We seek to graduate students who have learned quite a lot about expository writing. However, job hunting or graduate school applications require new written genres, and can pose new challenges for students.
We recommend to any VCU student who is concerned about their resume, cover letters, personal statements, or other written materials which support the building of a career to seek support through the Department of History and also through VCU Career Services, both of which offer workshops which may be of value. We have also found the following resources to be of value to students:
1. CV and resume writing: The following links lead to sites with information on resume generators. But before you try to write a resume, be sure to revisit our page discussing the goals and skills of the History major, to remind yourself of the skills you bring to the table!
2. Cover Letters: Cover letters are often the first point of contact between a job seeker and an employer. It is difficult to offer one-size-fits-all advice for the content of a cover letter, because they should be adapted to the position and field for which you applying. These resources may be of value:
- VCU Career Services offers workshops and support.
- Free Cover Letter offers this how-to guide for conceptualizing cover letters.
- Free Cover Letter also offers templates and samples for a variety of careers and job types.
3. Personal statements: Many forms of graduate education require a personal statement as a part of the application – and unfortunately, historians are not well-trained to talk about themselves. The following resources may be of help to students applying for graduate programs:
- Writing Personal Statements Online is a guidebook written by a professor from Penn State, and it provides an excellent all-around resource for writing in this genre.
- Writing Tips: Personal Statements from the University of Illinois Center for Writing Studies is less in-depth, but provides a good place to start.
4. Recommendations: Letters of recommendation from instructors, employers, or others who can evaluate a student's work are important for jobs, graduate school applications, and even scholarship or study abroad applications. A good letter of recommendation is an expression of a student’s achievements, professionalism, and relationship with mentors. Unfortunately, on the surface, the process looks like a series of meaningless bureaucratic forms. If students treat recommendations in this way, they harm their chances to make the most out of their past efforts. What follows here is a series of tips intended to help students approach the professors or other mentors from whom they intend to seek recommendations as professionally and productively as possible.
- Prepare yourself to ask for a recommendation. The professors you intend to ask for recommendations may or may not remember you, depending on how long it has been since you took their classes and how large those classes were. They may also know nothing at all about the program for which you are applying. Before you seek out recommenders, prepare a current resume, gather up any papers and tests from the class you took with that professor, and prepare copies of or links to descriptions of the program you’re applying for. Be ready to give all of these things to the potential recommender. That way, he or she gets a chance to refresh his or her memory about your work, catch up on what you’re doing now, and gear a letter towards the program you’re applying for.
- Ask, but do not assume that you will automatically get a recommendation. Recommenders stake their professional reputations on the students the recommend and the truth of what they say about those students. Since the process affects the careers of recommenders, no professor or mentor is ever under an obligation to recommend any particular student. The appropriate way to seek a recommendation, then, is to ask whether or not a professor or mentor is willing to offer a recommendation. It is rude not to leave a potential recommender the opportunity to decline your request, if they feel ethically unable to fulfill it. It is not appropriate to simply send someone a set of forms, or leave them in a work mailbox or email in-box, assuming that he or she will recommend you just because you handed over the forms. Please note that this holds true even if that professor or mentor has recommended you at some time in the past.
- Communicate professionally about the recommendation. The best way to ask for a recommendation is in person, bringing with you all of the materials you’ve gathered. Your recommender may want to ask you some questions about the program, your educational or professional progress, and so on, and a face-to-face meeting is the best venue for such a discussion. If you cannot ask in person because of time conflicts or distance, an email is acceptable. This email should be written like any other business letter, in clear and formal prose, addressing the professor with his or her preferred name and title, and signed with your full name and address.
- Make the job easy for your recommender. Provide plenty of information, but also leave as much time as possible between your request and the application deadline. Provide your recommender with all the relevant forms/online links, and a clear understanding of where the letter should be routed and how (digitally, in hard copy, etc.) If the deadline date or the destination of the letter is not clear on the forms, be sure to include that information in a cover letter/email which also thanks the recommender. Furthermore, where possible, you should investigate the content and functionality of any digital forms before you send them along to a recommender. Is the .pdf writable, or will your recommender need to print it off and fill it out in hard copy? Does the recommendation form, though digitized, contain a section that you, the applicant, must fill out before the recommender begins his or her work, and how must you fill it out (i.e., digitally or in hard copy)? All of these things will affect the flow of work in getting the recommendation completed.
- Contact your recommenders about outcomes. It’s polite to let your recommender know afterwards if you were given the job, scholarship, internship, etc, and to thank him or her for supporting you.