I’ve always had students in my English 358 Writing in the Humanities and Social Sciences class write a resume and a cover letter in response to a job ad. I did this because of two main reasons 1. It is good practice for when they will do it in real time and 2. It fits the criteria for the course where they have learn about professional writing.
While most students appreciated the practice, they often gave me the feedback that they would have liked to spend more time on a job packet. I muddled over this for some time until I was talking with my friend Josh and he told me that he often has them write a research memo along with the job ad. The research memo basically functions as a rhetorical analysis for the cover letter and resume. The student details the job ad, what he or she could bring to the job in detail, and analyzes the audience and contexts of the job situation. To give you a better idea, here is the description I have about it from the assignment sheet:
Research the organization to learn more about the nature of its business, its values, its corporate structure, its history, its accomplishments and any other information that is relevant/helpful in the construction of the cover letter and résumé. The student will then write a Research Memo that summarizes their research and provides a rhetorical analysis of the job posting that they are responding to. The memo should be designed in proper memo format, and should run between two to three pages in length. A copy of the original job posting you are responding to should be included with this document. This should be 2-3 pages, single spaced and have all the conventions of a memo.
By adding this component, I found that students did the following:
- They spent more time, overall, on the project. This just didn’t happen simply because I allowed more time for it, but also because of the added requirement. They realized there was a research component to it and so that made them spend more time understanding the potential audiences and contexts. I even had one of my students tell me, “yeah, I couldn’t do any of this last minute because of that research memo.” Thanks, student.
- They wrote better cover letters in general. One thing I had noticed previously was that the cover letters I received sounded generic. They lacked personality. They lacked real understanding of the organization or company. By having them write the research memo first, and then use that information to compose the cover letter, they had stronger, more detailed cover letters. I think the reason the cover letters came out sounding generic the first time was also because their is a specific formula that tends to work for writing cover letters and so a student may think, oh, ok, formulaic writing when really it is much more than that.
- Some students claimed they enjoyed writing the research memo and even said they would do it again. This shocked me, to be honest, at first because, essentially, it is extra work plus proof of that extra work. However, one student was so enthusiastic about it that she said she plans to do it when she applies for jobs in real time. I did warn her that doing so may be time-consuming, but it would be a good idea to keep notes on hand that responded in a similar way to what I had outlined. But if she had time for such a task, all the more power to her.
I would be lying if I said I still did not receive generic sounding cover letters, however. I did get a couple of those. I also did receive research memos that weren’t well done, basically because people wrote them last minute or whatever. But, looking at the results overall, the assignment seemed to go over well and students claimed they learned quite a bit from the exercise.
For this, I actually don’t have a lot of improvements in mind, if any. I have been thinking of spending greater time talking to them about the research memo and then spending a day or two talking about the cover letter and resume. Another improvement I could make is to ask for the research memo first, grade that and give some feedback, and then have them turn in the cover letter, resume with a revised research memo to make sure they understand the assignment thoroughly. I think this latter critique might make for some stronger job packet examples. This would also be a good exercise for students to complete when teaching English 320 Business and Professional Writing this spring and I do plan to teach it next semester English 320.