Post Academic

Stop procrastinating: Write your cover letter!

So we’ve more or less covered what you’ll need to send in a complete application when you’re applying for your typical humanities–OK, specifically, English–tenure-track position.  We tried to get you to contact your letter writers and start the process of herding cats.  And we’ve pretty much discussed CVs ad infinitum over the first seven months of Post Academic.  We could say more about what to do with your writing sample, but you should be set if you have a publication or have something publication-length that you have under review.

The one element of your application package we haven’t gone into is the most fundamental and probably the most important — the cover letter.  Not every application in the initial stages will ask you for recs and/or a writing sample, but you definitely need a cover letter, which is basically the first (and maybe only?) chance to make a good impression.  Well, duh, right?  That’s obvious, but how you want to present yourself might not be so much.  So before you get ready to crank out what’s in effect 50 form letters, take some time to think about how you want search committees to see you, even if it’s for, like, the one minute your evaluators give your application if you’re lucky and good.  As always, the same caveats apply: take my advice for what it’s worth, as someone who could package an application up well enough to get good convention interviews, but could never cash in on my chances with a t/t job.


"Tailor Shop Yau Ma Tei Hong Kong" by Cantona (Creative Commons license)


Format matters: When you’re sending out a job letter, make sure it actually looks like, you know, a letter.  That means to put iton letterhead even if you have to sneak it out of the office, to date it, to address it to the proper person, to make sure your paragraphs and margins don’t look wonky.  Also, be sure your letter is a reasonable length; I never sent in a job letter that was longer than two pages single spaced, though it’s more like one-and-a-half pages after you account for the header, date, and formal address.  I know it’s superficial, but you don’t need a strike against you with a weird looking letter before anyone actually starts reading it.

Tailor and prioritize: Don’t be lazy and just send out the same letter to basically the same kind of jobs within your field.  Tailor your letter to make it appear it’s the only one you’re writing, even if everyone knows it’s not.  Maybe it’s because my research enabled me to try for various kinds of positions — from basic 20th c. American lit to Asian American lit to multiethnic lit — but I was always conscious of targeting my cover letter to the specific parameters of each and every posting.  And even when the areas of interest for the list of jobs you’re applying are pretty much the same, the goals and profiles of the institutions aren’t.

More cover letter to do’s below the fold…

That means moving the sections of your letter around depending on the type of dept you’re applying to: for instance, if it’s a teaching-oriented position, foreground your classroom background, rather than just sending in your default letter that focuses on research and only gets to teaching later on.  Be sure that your letter prioritizes the qualities about yourself that the job call deems as priorities.

Show off your skills: It’s easy to think about the letter as a pro forma thing which almost narrativizes your CV.  Basically, you try to cram as much info as possible about your dissertation, current research, and teaching.  But if, say, you’re in English, you devote your life to studying and teaching language,  you better show you know how to write.  That means not letting your sentences take on a life of their own, particularly long, listy ones that try to cover too much.  Flash some style in your writing, since form and content go hand-in-hand making a strong impression.

Don’t waste the space: Like the point I made above, the cover letter needs to go above and beyond just writing out your CV.  When you only have anywhere from 2 to 5 — letter, CV, sample, recs, teaching philosophy (ugh!) — to get a search committee’s attention, try to maximize every word at your disposal.  That means going a little further in your letter describing whatever it is you decide to include in it.  What you’ve accomplished isn’t just a talking point, so figure out how to thread the needle between economizing your language and having something a little interesting to say about your academic career.

Be detail oriented — but not anal: I actually have a hard time with this, because I get paranoid that I put the wrong versions of the wrong letters in the wrong envelopes right after I seal them and am waiting in line at the post office.  That’s probably going when I cross the line from being detail oriented to being overly anal about my application.  Still, it pays to be careful, particularly in proofreading your letter for grammatical errors and misspellings — save your grace allotment of run-ons and comma splices for your writing sample.  Again, if you’re applying for a job where you teach and work on language, your writing better be spot on.  But that doesn’t mean futzing too much with things, which might actually introduce errors into copy that’s already clean.  And when your own writing doesn’t make sense to you any more because you’ve re-read it over and over again, it’s time to trust that you did a good job a few drafts ago and it’s time to let the letter go.  Just double-check it’s addressed to the right person and that you spelled the dept chair’s name right!

One Response to 'Stop procrastinating: Write your cover letter!'

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  1. Eliza said,

    Good post! I’ve got an IHE column coming out (soon I hope) covering top 10 academic job application pointers and you’ve really hit the nail on the head here. I think the most important point you mentioned is the following: “Tailor and prioritize.” If you can’t give them what they want, and don’t bother to speak directly to the job ad itself, you’re going to bomb. And with hundreds of people in line for the job, you really don’t want to do that.
    . . . Now back to my own tortured process of cover letter writing. Ugh.

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