Cracking the Cover Letter
Let the demystification begin!
I began last week’s workshop on cover letters by admitting that I hate writing them. I mean, what is a cover letter, anyway? What is it supposed to do? Isn’t a CV enough? Why do we have to write a cover letter on top of that?
We posed these and other questions to Prof. Megan Cook (Colby College), who suggested that, if a CV is like an ‘ingredients list’, a cover letter is more like a menu description: it gives you the highlights a restaurant thinks will be most tempting to you.
At this point the conversation got derailed for a bit while I wittered on about the menu descriptions that will almost always get me to order something (if they include words like ‘truffle’ or ‘chorizo’, I am in). While I’m sure everyone present found my menu preferences fascinating, we eventually got back to cover letters, whose contents should have roughly the same effect that truffles and chorizo have on me: make someone more inclined to choose you (though, in this case, for a long-list, short-list, or interview).
This is probably as good a moment as any for a painful but necessary reality check—namely, a reminder that there are not enough jobs in academia to go around. Even if you tick all the boxes for a particular job, in the end the decision of whether or not to long-list, short-list, or interview you will probably come down to subjective factors like ‘fit’. It’s a lottery out there, folks, and—to quote The Princess Bride—anyone who tells you differently is selling something.
But hopefully the knowledge that so much of the job search comes down to chance can free you from some of the pressure to get that cover letter absolutely perfect. There are better things you can be doing with your life, after all! That said, there are a few things you can do to your cover letter to make it less likely that a committee member will toss your application aside with a snort:
Remember that it’s not a CV in prose.
It’s very hard to avoid getting a bit list-y when you’re writing up a cover letter. You want to include all the things! You don’t want to leave anything out! I get it. But the cover letter is about persuading, not simply listing everything you’ve ever done/taught/written. It can help to give each paragraph a ‘topic sentence’, something that answers the question, ‘What do I want to get across in this paragraph’s description of my research/teaching/service?’
Address your letter to somebody.
I know none of you will open your cover letters with ‘Hello’, ‘Hi’, or—heaven forbid—‘Hey’. But it can still be a struggle figuring out precisely to whom your letter should be addressed! Your best options are to address the members of the search committee (‘Dear members of the search committee’) or to address the chair of the search committee, if known (‘Dear Professor X’).
Believe it or not, you actually need to open your cover letter by introducing yourself. (If introductions make you nervous, check out this post from a few weeks ago!) Explain who you are, what post you are applying for, and a little something about your background (e.g. when/where you received your PhD, or what post you hold now).
Include lots of ‘meat’ in your cover letter.
After the introductory first paragraph, most cover letters follow a basic structure (though the precise number of paragraphs, level of detail, or particular emphasis may vary):
Paragraph 2: Your Major Research Project
This could be your dissertation (if you’re completing it), your first book, or whatever major project you’re currently working on. If you’re transitioning into a new project, you can also include a few sentences or an extra paragraph to describe it.
Paragraph 3: Teaching
This is where you show what kind of a teacher you are, what kind of teaching experience you have, and what kind of teaching you can take on. This is a great place to show off any research you’ve done about the post (‘My experience would put me in an excellent position to teach courses X and Y’), and/or to highlight links between your research and teaching (‘My teaching, like my research, focuses on/is inspired by X’).
Paragraph 4: Service or professional experience.
Prof. Cook likes to call this one ‘the X Factor paragraph’. What other experience do you have that might enable you to perform the service, administrative work, or leadership tasks demanded by the role in question?
Think about ‘fit’.
What might persuade a committee to interview you for a particular position rather than someone else with a comparable CV? Bearing this question in mind will help you determine what to include in your letter.
Summarize and sign off.
In your final short paragraph or so, it’s never a bad idea to indicate what materials you have included, or who is prepared to supply a reference. And make sure that your sign-off is relatively formal. ‘Yours sincerely’ is never a bad choice!
During our workshop’s discussion period, we had some great questions:
How long should my cover letter be?
Prof. Cook and I agreed that cover letters should ideally be around 2 pages long. Much shorter than that and we worry you might not have the necessary experience for the job. Longer, and we worry you don’t know how to edit yourself.
How much ‘emotive language’ is it ok to use?
When it comes to your enthusiasm for a post, try to adopt more of a ‘show, don’t tell’ approach. Point to examples of times when you took the initiative to make something happen, or went the extra mile because you cared. Or describe the kinds of things you would look forward to doing, were you to get the job (‘If appointed, I would look forward to doing X or Y’).
How do you go about making a case for yourself without appearing to have a big head?
Highlighting your biggest achievements can feel awkward. Try sticking to factual statements: saying something like ‘I was the first in my field to be awarded this prize’ is pretty darned powerful, and much less irritating than something like ‘Everybody says I’m the best researcher they’ve ever seen’.
Is there a particular format to adopt or avoid?
You may feel strongly about Garamond vs Times New Roman, but what really matters is making sure your letter will be easily readable to someone who’s been scrolling through dozens of other cover letters on a computer screen for hours. And if there are any style guidelines in a job advertisement, stick to them!
Should you include personal information?
It’s fine to include a brief mention of something like a connection you might have to a particular institution or region, but it shouldn’t be the main focus of your cover letter.
How much should you try to customize your cover letters?
Like we said: it’s a lottery, folks. At the end of the day, it probably isn’t worth spending weeks and weeks fine-tuning each letter you send out. If you cover the basics outlined above, you should end up with a cover letter that can work for most of the academic jobs you apply for, apart from very small tweaks like the name of the organisation, or the courses you might be required to teach. You shouldn’t have to write one from scratch for every single job out there!
Hungry for more information on cover letters? To give you a sense of what a ‘successful’ cover letter can look like (i.e. a cover letter that gets you to the long-list or first interview stage), check out ‘Things That Worked: Early-Career Cover Letter’!