Writing an effective cover letter: a flowchart for success

I engage in quite a bit of professional development in my classes, and one of them includes the drafting of a cover letter. The students are required to peruse opportunities on a job-posting website (I send them to this one for a nice mix of wildlife and natural resource-related positions) and prepare a letter of application for one of the positions.  Because many of my students are just a few months out of high school, they have the option of mock-applying for something for which they might actually be qualified or pretending that they have qualifications for a more advanced position.

The point of the exercise is threefold: (1) To read through actual job opportunities to develop a better sense of employment opportunities and the skills they will need to develop to take advantage of those opportunities; (2) To develop familiarity with construction of a basic business letter; and (3) To provide me with an example of their best persuasive writing.

I walk them through a typical business letter format:

Student’s name, address, date, etc.

Name and address of the contact person for the position

Re: Letter of application for [specific name of the position]

Dear Mr./Ms./Dr., etc:

Paragraph 1 content: Express your desire to be considered for the specific advertised position. Briefly describe your current status and educational background.

Paragraph 2 content: This is the important one.  In Paragraph 2, you should briefly reiterate the stated requirements and qualifications of the position. The rest of the paragraph should be you making your best case that you meet or exceed those qualifications.  Be as specific as you can.

Paragraph 3 content: Offer your gratitude for being considered for the position and your willingness to be contacted for an interview or other additional screening. This can also be an opportunity to express any intangible qualities that might make you an exceptionally good fit.



Printed name


That’s it.  One page, single-spaced, and probably no smaller than 11-pt. font.

It should go without saying that the letter be proofread and copy-edited to correct typographical errors, misspellings, and obvious mistakes of grammar. I still see way too many such errors despite my ardent pleas for students to check their work diligently. Another issue is a rather puzzling tendency to have multiple fonts appear in these letters, evidently because students have cut and pasted information from some other source and failed to fix such discrepancies before printing. Determining an actual person to whom the letter should be addressed is often a nebulous area for students, too. It is okay to address a letter To Whom it May Concern but I prefer to see a real person’s name and title in the greeting. Just because it is not listed clearly in the advertisement does not mean that the appropriate addressee cannot be known. Take the time to follow links to the organization’s website to see if there is an obvious person to whom your letter should be addressed.

By far the biggest problem, however, concerns the content in Paragraph 2. Only a tiny fraction of students take the time to clearly express that they understand the requirements of the advertised position, and they also tend to be far too vague in describing their suitability to it. I am confident that I meet all the requirements for the position. Ooh, that’s a one-way ticket to the recycling bin unless you follow a vague statement like that with some specific examples of you having performed such tasks. Specificity is the key. Be as explicit as you can be to demonstrate that you have the skills advertised for the position.

Sometimes, we will apply to positions for which we do not meet all the qualifications but the point of the opportunity (an internship, perhaps?) might be to provide relevant work experience. In that case, it is good to acknowledge the skills and experience that you would hope to acquire in the position rather than fumble your way through trying to explain why you should be selected despite your inexperience. In fact, it is a good idea to always make some mention of how you would hope to grow in a position, even if it is one for which you are well qualified.

To help make this Paragraph 2 stuff a bit less mysterious, I have prepared the following flow chart of how to approach your suitability for a position.  Use it in good health, and good luck on that job search!




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eBird News – October 2016

Here’s the latest eBird News newsletter.  Some highlights:

Wisconsin’s second breeding bird atlas is underway, and as we pioneered for Pennsylvania’s second atlas, Wisconsin is using the eBird platform for atlasing.  Looks like it’s working great!


Hurricane Birds

The remnants of Hurricane Matthew are still soaking the Atlantic Coast, but it was last month’s Newton that brought pelagic birds to the Arizona deserts.  Here again, ebird was on the scene with practically instantaneous documentation of extraordinary records.

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HBW Alive Newsletter – September 2016

The latest news from the Handbook of the Birds of the World has been released, and it’s again a power-pack of ornithological information.


For just a taste . . .

screen-shot-2016-09-16-at-8-26-12-amA new study using electroencephalogram recordings of Great Frigatebirds (Fregata minor) flying over the ocean demonstrated that these birds can sleep with either one hemisphere of the brain at a time or both hemispheres simultaneously. The birds in the study slept on the wing only 7.4% of the time spent sleeping on land, indicating that ecological demands for attention during flight usually exceed the attention afforded by sleeping with half of the brain at a time.

Several terns showing the characteristics of the Elegant Tern (Thalasseus elegans) have been reported in Europe since 1974. Genetic analyses have now confirmed that three of four European birds examined were pure-bred Elegant Terns; the fourth was a Lesser Crested Tern (T. bengalensis).

screen-shot-2016-09-16-at-8-26-21-amThe race terborghi of the Allied Owlet-nightjar (Aegotheles affinis) has been known for 52 years just from the type specimen. In July 2016 a group led by Ashley Banwell succeeded in finding an individual of A. a. terborghi in the type locality, an old volcano at Karimui, and also to take some nice photographs and videos at close range!




Finally, yes you want to see that video, yes you want to listen to that recording, and yes you need that book!




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Protesting Anthem protests

There’s a great deal of chatter on social media these days about how people behave during playing of the National Anthem.  That’s understandable and it’s good for Americans to stop every once in a while and really examine who we are. On one level, Colin Kaepernick has achieved a major milestone of his protest – we’re talking about it.

You might be disgusted by Kaepernick’s and others’ show of disrespect by refusing to stand when the Anthem is played. Please understand this part, though: Those who are choosing to protest during the Anthem are not protesting the brave people who have fought, been maimed, and/or died in service to our country. The protestors are, in fact, making a statement that WE civilians are failing to live up to the ideals for which those veterans sacrificed.

If anything, the protestors seek to bring honor to our military heroes by illustrating that we’ve still got work to do to achieve what they were actually fighting for.

Being an American patriot is actually a tricky and thought-provoking job.  Heck, the guys who wrote our Declaration of Independence and Constitution justified our break from England on their desire to not be treated as figurative (and hyperbolic) slaves of the Crown, while they owned actual slaves themselves.  That’s just one of many contradictions that come with the territory as a citizen of the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Personally, I embrace those messy contradictions, but if you act like they don’t exist then you’re not giving enough thought to what it actually means to be an American. We can love our country warts and all, but that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with putting some Compound W on a few of those warts.

So if your counter-protest for the protestors is to highlight the tremendous sacrifice of some military hero then, congratulations!  You have entirely missed the point of the protest.  It sailed right over your head while you were distracted thumping your chest and telling those ingrates to “get out” if they don’t like it here.  If your counter-protest of choice is someone in a position of authority demanding, coercing, or cajoling people under his authority to behave in a certain way when the Anthem plays (i.e., no $%&#@ protesting on MY watch), then congratulations!  You have both missed the point of the protests AND celebrated replacing the American freedoms of those under that thumb with a brand of fascist nationalism that is directly counter to the ideals for which our brave military personnel sacrifice every single day.

When the Anthem plays, I stand.  I remove my hat.  I place my hand over my heart.  And I SING.  I always have, and I will continue to do so.  But that’s my free choice to do that, and that freedom is a beautiful and precious thing. I can scarcely think of something less patriotic in America than forcing someone to stand (or do anything else) when our National Anthem plays.





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Who doesn’t love a watermelon?

I had hoped that by placing a juicy watermelon rind in front of a game camera I’d have some fun photos to enjoy.  I was right.

The neat part is that it’s an independent test of my ability to identify woodland creatures from the sign left behind at the site of their feeding. I was feeling pretty inadequate by my inability to make heads or tails of that sign, however. The photos provided me with some solace.  No wonder the sign is unintelligible when it results from at least four species!

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Conservation is many things to many people


635927434268884923-480894926_Odyssey5I’ve never really entered the so-called (i.e., contrived) ‘debate’ regarding New Conservation, because I’ve always felt in my gut that it was a false dichotomy (turns out, I’m not the only one to think this). For this reason principally, I haven’t really examined the associated to and fro with any great interest or depth.

I will say this though — I was horrified last year in August while attending the International Congress for Conservation Biology (ICCB) in Montpellier during and after the now-infamous plenary debate between Kareiva and Spash on this ‘New Conservation’. Horrified. Yes.

Peter Kareiva, in his characteristic style, attempted to explain his position in what could be called a deliberately provocative and perhaps sensationalist manner. Clive Spash, on the other hand, took an almost quasi-religious idealogy and used it to smack Peter in the proverbial gob. It was a circus from the start, and unfortunately…

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