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…

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Cover Letter Do’s

PhotobucketA few days ago, Gawker offered a potent example of what not to do in your cover letter. Now for a little constructive advice–how to tackle your cover letter. The key rule is to keep it short, so I’ll jump right in:

Match your skills to the job. If your skills and background don’t match the job, don’t send the letter unless you are confident that your skills are in the ballpark and you have a friend at the company.

Don’t get cute. A cover letter structure is basic. Let the reader know what position you want, where you saw the position and what you have to offer. Your life story and your passion are unnecessary. HR is not interested in your life story. In fact, HR is probably inserting your cover letter into scanner software that hunts for specific keywords that match the job description. Return to the importance of reading the job description above.

Suppress your emotions. Save dazzling them with your personality for the interview. Sob stories or rage about how you were laid off will not faze HR. They are looking for skills only, and in this economy everyone has been burned.

More after the jump! Photograph of a stentor (announcer) transmitting a program at the Budapest Telefon Hirmondó, which appeared in the “The Telephone Newspaper” by Thomas S. Denison, in the April, 1901 World’s Work magazine.” Image public domain from Wikimedia Commons.
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Cover Letter Don’ts Courtesy of Gawker

PhotobucketUsually, Gawker’s salty snark is applied to celebrities and politicians, but this week it has been applied to garden-variety Hamsters who don’t know how to write a cover letter. An unfortunate Hamster looking for a job sent a cover letter to a company … which was promptly forwarded to Gawker.

Here’s an example:
DO: Explain that you’re a dedicated worker.
DON’T: “I don’t just think outside the box, I stand on top of it. I aim to appease my employer. If he/she isn’t satisfied with my work, I will sweat blood and tears until I get them the result that they are enamored with. If my employer wants me to be knowledgeable of a certain person, place or thing; I will research that particular subject until I know everything that Google, Lycos, Yahoo, Ask Jeeves and Encyclopedia Britannica has to say about them/it.”

This person is probably already embarrassed enough, so we’ll just glean a few lessons from this incident. First, keep your cover letters short so you can avoid embarrassing yourself. Second, hyperbole is a no-no, especially if you claim you can do the impossible, such as literally sweating blood and tears. If you can actually do that, HR will deem you a health hazard, and you won’t get the job.

More after the jump! These serious-looking individuals are reading a cover letter, and they might be on the verge of laughter if you don’t watch it. Engraving public domain, Wikimedia Commons.
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