I stumbled upon Career Peer Advisor (CPA) Stephanie Wang ’17 off-work, doing her homework in Trotter. I needed help on a Cover Letter (CL) I had written for various newspapers, online publications, superegos, Twitter followers, Facebook friends. Like any of Swat’s generous CPAs, she was glad to help a Swattie out, no questions asked. “The reason,” after all, she “wanted to work at Career Services (CS) was because I just wanted to help students.” Little did she know the CL would be this article.
“Well,” began Wang, as though my being a journalist was irrelevant, “I can tell the difference between good and poor quality resumes, and CLs. There are a couple elements, and you ask yourself certain questions.”
As the Phoenix’s most popular journalist last fall, I’d obviously written articles before — Opinions even — scandalized many, outraged most. But this was different. The facts weren’t the same: as a senior, my audience shifted to the people above me, with the power to dangle job security like a dollar bill on fishing line. The goal of writing was no longer to tickle the fancies of peers, or to garner their likes on Facebook while haphazardly capturing those same peers’ realities in satirical, tongue-in-cheek summaries of campus events. The goal was now to produce the 4 Ps of marketing, the person, place, price, and product of content: me, first and foremost as an employable tool. Only the price was for free. So desperate, I wrote for the Phoenix unpaid.
“So, um,” Wang continued, “a resume we typically define as a fact sheet.” Check.
There’s a poignant moment in a Rolling Stone article written by David Foster Wallace where the writer points out, writing on board a campaign bus during the 2000 Republican primaries, that candidate Senator John McCain, the man, had become secondary to the story of McCain the candidate. McCain had become “the campaign’s narrator and the campaign’s narrative at once.”
Likewise, in Wang’s narrative of narratives on CLs, I witnessed my own goal, insofar as it was myself, employed, become the cover letter’s unemployed narrator and the cover letter’s employable narrative, “at once.”
“We want to know what kind of impact you made, an informative account of what exactly you did and how you contributed, or what kind of skill set you acquired. You look to see if it was just a straight-up description of the jobs you did, and how well you did them; and what kind of a difference you made. A CL — how you tell the difference between a good CL and a bad CL — is whether or not it’s a repeat of your resume, or whether or not you elaborate on the certain skills you developed in a certain job that you describe on your resume. Why those skills would make you the best possible candidate —”
I was a little bit confounded as I found myself caught in the middle of a balancing act, like most Swatties, trying, in one fell swoop of a full-time education at Swat, to get a job with the skills I was narrating in the article-CL, in the same gesture as I was utilizing those skills to narrate me.
Like McCain, Swarthmore’s CS serves as the campaign vehicle of our mutual election to the great beyond: employment, promotion, 401ks, social security checks. It is the introduction to the job market that signifies the worth of many students’ educations. Some of us are more on board than others. But, as an additional narrator and the narrative, “at once,” of a certain intertextuality, Swat’s Career Services, like any journalist, serves as a crucial and emblematic educational function, only it ain’t academic.
“The cover letter,” concluded Wang, who spoke now, not merely to me, per se, the job-seeker, but from my perspective, to the employers I seek, “sparks your interest; explains why your specific skill set makes you the best possible person. You’re marketing yourself.”
Swat’s CS not only teaches students how to professionally narrate themselves but how to become narratives of themselves via CLs, resumes, and networking. In addition to a series of rooms in Parrish, the CS is also a career in and of itself for senior CPAs, like Aldo Frosinini ’15.
“Overall,” clarified Frosinini, taking the mature tone of a supremely professional and well-practiced artisan, more teacher than student: “students are becoming more serious about the job hunt, but not in a way that is Wharton [University of Pennsylvania’s School of Business]-esque, but just being more aware of the resources that are here [at Swat].”
The increasing value that is placed in and performed at Swarthmore’s CS, ranging from the editing of CLs to personality quizzes, may be directly opposed at some level to the inherently decreasing value placed in Swarthmore’s academics, which is directly in proportion to faster-than-inflation increases in tuition and fees. But classes, tuition, and the CS at Swat are intrinsically linked, like the backstage to the opera and its orchestra. The performance, the growing backstage and infrastructure of CS, in which students increasingly find themselves drawn to clothe themselves, as with costumes, in the value-added, action-oriented vocabularies and scripts of job seekers, are at the very core of Swarthmore College’s changing culture, and therefore the future of its purpose.
Class-wide, the amount of students with summer internships went from “59 to 71 percent in the last four years,” said Frosinini, pointing out one of the figures advertised in Swat’s CS.
There’s certainly a powerful performative aspect, something to which Frosinini’s friends and ‘clients’ willingly attest when asked about his talent for CL construction. It’s the art that Frosinini and his fellow CPAs — as is the custom with most Swatties — choose to master.
“That’s the draw of it for me,” said Frosinini, now both narrator and exemplary narrative, “at once” of the CS’s purpose. “That’s why I try to make it so personable when [students] come in. Every intro is a little canned. Like, how can I help you. Because people are worried about something I’ll see on their resume, not only the resume, but also their GPA, and all this history. So you try to make it as personable as possible. We’re trained to make the process inherently empathetic.”
The stages of Swat’s CS and its various spotlights, LinkedIn profiles, case study practice sessions, and informational interviews are intimate and confessional. The work, GPAs, leadership roles, internships, programming languages spoken with one’s fingers, and value-added actions and contributions all appear more valuable in the opera of the CL under the expressive light of CS.
“But isn’t that kinda fake?” I asked Wang, considering the consequences of sending this in with my application.
“Depends how far you spin it,” replied Wang, calculating the appropriate response before responding confidently, tone unchanged, “It depends on your skills as a person. Like if you’re going for a job that you know you’re not very interested in, or one you don’t know that you’re not interested in, perhaps, and you know that you can do it. I think the only fake thing there is probably your intention, your intention in doing something that you don’t want to do. The point of resumes and cover letters is to showcase what you have. So it’s never good to fake anything in that sense. Because everything you put on there should be a reflection of you.”
“Sure, there’s a certain ‘artificiality,’” she concluded, using my word, “to it, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. You have to market yourself, especially in certain fields.”