At the Teaching the Teachers Conference this past May in Portland, Oregon presenters Michelle Hook Dewey (Georgia State University College of Law) and Heather Simmons (University of Georgia School of Law) discussed integrating exercises into classes to make students truly practice ready. One assignment idea that stuck out to me in particular from this session, was the idea of having students draft a cover letter. Since we are teaching in a professional degree program, it makes sense to try and integrate the type of document drafting one has to do to secure a job in a professional setting — which often is a cover letter. The session discussed potentially having students draft a letter to take the course itself, and have the Professor review the letter and give feedback.
This fall was my first semester teaching the Advanced Legal Research for Business course at Cornell Law School. The cover letter assignment idea seemed like a natural fit for this type of course so I decided to integrate it in with some tweaks. In library school, one assignment I did for a class was to record my ‘job talk’ for a position I was aiming for — that is to articulate why I wanted the job I wanted and why I was a good fit for the role. I opted for the business class to combine this assignment with the cover letter assignment I learned about at Teaching the Teachers.
Here, I had students find an entry level position they could see themselves applying for after graduation. Then they drafted a cover letter as if applying for this role. I provided track change feedback on each letter, then sent it back the student to incorporate the feedback as they saw fit. I stressed to students that I was not likely to be the hiring manager for the role they were applying for, so they could feel free to ignore my suggestions if they felt strongly in their previous writing choice.
After incorporating my feedback, the student sent the letter back to me where I removed the identifying information of the student. I then gave each student another student’s letter to review and provide constructive feedback. I felt the anonymous peer review was an important component of this assessment for a few reasons. First, the student would be exposed to another individual’s cover letter writing style. It often is difficult to gauge whether or not one is writing a cover letter well because it is difficult to review other people’s examples. This allowed students to see and compare their own work to another. Second, this also allowed students to practice a difficult skill — providing constructive feedback. These students will likely be hiring managers or supervisors themselves someday. Working successfully as a manager entails the delicate responsibility of providing feedback in a constructive way, which can be difficult to do well.
Students thus left the course with a template for a hypothetical position they hopefully can adapt down the line. They also left with more exposure to other individual’s approach to drafting cover letters. Finally, they learned how to provide feedback in a constructive and professional manner. Before the first draft of the letter was submitted to me for review, I had the law school career services folks come to the class and discuss tips for a successful cover letter. This was helpful for a number of reasons, including exposing the students to this office if they happened to not be aware of them. Career services offices often allow students to make appointments to get advice on things like their cover letters. Students would now have a personal connection with this office to ensure they could fully utilize this office’s services in the future.
Having this be a semester long assignment was also helpful as we worked our way through different research methodologies and platforms. For instance, when learning about analytics we discussed how these types of tools could be used to investigate potential hiring firms to see if the type of work they do is a good fit for the student.
This is an assessment that could work in many different legal research oriented courses. Students often do not get the chance to practice doing this type of basic professional document drafting and hopefully these students will be more practice ready for it.