Crafting a Successful Cover Letter
Via Inside Higher Ed : To stand out, a cover letter must be outstanding: smart, engaging, concrete, detailed and polished to perfection. Melissa Dennihy gives pointers on how to do that.
With the academic job market season in full swing, prospective hires are sending off cover letters to apply for highly competitive faculty positions. When search committees are receiving dozens or even hundreds of applications for a single job opening, even a good cover letter is probably not good enough. To stand out, a cover letter must be outstanding: smart, engaging, concrete, detailed and polished to perfection. How to do it? Here are a few of my suggestions.
Start by rereading the job ad. Just as we remind students to review the assignment before they begin writing an essay, job applicants should start the letter-writing process by carefully re-reading the job ad. What type of position is this? What are the stated and implied qualifications and expectations, and how should the letter be developed to reflect a clear understanding of what the position entails? For a faculty job at a research institution, the letter will likely focus primarily on the applicant’s research interests and scholarly achievements and include only a brief discussion of teaching experience. But it would not be wise to structure a letter this way when applying for a position at a community college, where the search committee will probably be much more interested in your teaching experience than your scholarship. If you plan to tailor a “master” letter to different positions and job ads, it might make sense to have two such letters: one written for research jobs and another for teaching-intensive positions.
Learn a little more. If you are using a master letter for multiple applications, take some time to tailor that letter for each position you apply to. Learn something about the department and institution that you can reference in your letter and find a way to say something meaningful about what attracts you to, or makes you a good fit for, this particular position. While you’ll want to avoid parroting the boilerplate language used on a department or institution’s website, as this can make your letter sound disingenuous, do pay attention to the language used on those sites so you can avoid careless errors and tailor your letter more effectively. In applying for jobs in English departments, for example, I quickly learned that it was a bit careless to discuss contributing to the “English major” at every institution, as some departments only offered specific tracks, such as journalism and creative writing, while other departments did not even have an English major. Also, as you hustle to keep up with application deadlines, try to set aside the time such tailoring can take — especially when institutional and departmental websites are clunky, confusing or out of date, necessitating that you dig around for the information you need to focus your letter effectively.
Understand the distinct roles of the CV and the cover letter. While serving on search committees, I’ve noticed that some applicants use their cover letters to merely restate the information available on their CVs. That is remarkably ineffective, and it’s important to understand the different roles the two documents serve. Unless otherwise stated within the job ad (something to pay attention to, as the advice I’m about to give may not apply in every case), the CV should offer a clear, concise, easily readable and digestible snapshot of your academic history and accomplishments: education; positions held; grants, awards and honors; publications and presentations; teaching experience; and service to department, institution and profession. The cover letter is the place to go into more depth, detail and description about your research and teaching, as well as your most notable experiences and accomplishments. If your cover letter reads like a list reiterating the information on your CV, it does not serve any purpose of its own. If the letter is too brief and does not elaborate on the overview that your CV should provide, you are wasting an important opportunity to paint a fuller picture of your qualifications, experience and achievements.
Don’t be too “I”-oriented. Some applicants are so focused on selling themselves that they forget how important collaboration and collegiality are to what we do. Remember to gear parts of your letter toward not only what you have already done but also what you can do in the future for the department and institution you hope to join. What plans or ideas might you have for working with potential students and colleagues to bring about shared success?
Avoid platitudes and clichés. Selling yourself is hard. As you struggle to come up with the words to do so, avoid clichés such as “I am passionate about teaching and am a lifelong learner,” or “I am a great fit for your department because I am a team player.” Instead, demonstrate your passion for teaching or the fact that you are a team player through what you say about your work and your experiences. Show it through examples, rather than relying on clichés or platitudes. A similar suggestion applies to demonstrating how you meet the qualifications of the job ad. Rather than reiterating what the ad states (“I am an ideal candidate for this position because I meet your preferred qualifications of X, Y and Z”), illustrate through examples how you meet these qualifications.
The suggestion to avoid platitudes and clichés seems especially applicable when writing about diversity. Increasingly, job ads describe an interest in candidates who are “committed to diversity” or have “experience with diversity.” In response, applicants may be tempted to merely echo the ad’s words, writing something such as “I have experience with and am committed to diversity, having taught many diverse populations.” Instead, try to explain more concretely what diversity means to you within the context of teaching and learning. Have you worked with students of diverse racial, ethnic, religious, linguistic, socioeconomic or academic backgrounds? What languages, beliefs, cultural practices and educational experiences have students brought to your classrooms that may have shaped your own teaching and learning? How do or will you accommodate diverse types of learners in your classroom — visual learners, collaborative learners, auditory learners, etc.? More broadly, have you contributed to diversity within your department, institution or field? For example, if you designed and piloted your department’s first Latina Literature course, you have contributed to diversifying the curriculum. When it comes to “diversity” — itself a word that has become something of a cliché — it is easy and tempting to give a clichéd response. So instead make an effort to substantively and thoughtfully address the topic.
Polish your letter to perfection. Do all you can to make your materials stand out in a sea of applications, not just in terms of the content of your letter but also the quality of your writing. Since search committees are, in many cases, reviewing hundreds of applications for any given position, your goal should be to do everything possible to make your application exceptional. Even letters that convincingly demonstrate why the applicant is a great fit for the position may not be successful if dozens of other applicants can demonstrate that they are great fits, too. The effort to be exceptional means you should focus on the prose as well as the content of your letter. Do not settle for awkward, clunky or confusing sentences. Take the time to edit and revise your letter until each sentence is at its best. Read the letter aloud and really listen to how it sounds. Ask someone else to read the letter aloud and listen to how it sounds when they read it. Remind yourself that a well-written letter is worth striving for, since it makes delivery of content that much more effective.
On a related note, don’t underestimate the importance of proofreading and the time it takes to do that thoroughly. Once job season starts, application deadlines pop up one after another, and it can be difficult to keep up. But, whenever possible, leave yourself at least several days before a deadline to proofread and finalize your cover letter. If you’re rushing to proofread a letter the night it’s due, you won’t be as sharp or focused as you should be. Also, allow yourself time to print the letter out and read it in hard copy, too — it’s amazing how easily the eye misses mistakes on the screen that suddenly jump out at us when we’re holding the document in our hands. And when it’s time to submit your application, be certain that you’re sending the right materials to the right institution. When you have 14 different iterations of a master letter that you’ve tailored for 14 different jobs, it’s possible to accidentally select the wrong documents. And you don’t stand much of a chance if University of X ends up with a letter in which you discuss how much you’d love to join the faculty at University of Y.
Send what was asked for. Don’t submit materials that weren’t requested in the job ad, and don’t send a cover letter that exceeds the specified length. Committees are often required to read only the materials they have requested; any other documents you submit are likely to be ignored, making it a waste of time to send them. Sending unrequested materials or exceeding the specified length for a letter may also suggest that you couldn’t figure out how to package yourself concisely and effectively. The time for bringing extra materials (such as a research statement, writing sample or teaching portfolio) is during the campus interview, once you know the committee has an interest in your candidacy and wants to learn more about you.
Today’s academic job market is, as we all know, flooded with applicants. The letter you spent weeks or even months writing will be read by search committee members in a matter of minutes. Within this context, some extra effort and preparation can go a long way in making your cover letter stand out in the crowd.
Melissa Dennihy is an assistant professor of English at Queensborough Community College.
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