Crafting Academic Cover Letters: A Reminder

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I know I’ve written about this before, but just a quick reminder for those on the market for the late arriving community college job openings:

  • Please re-read the job description and make sure you meet the minimum qualifications: you WILL be weeded out if you do not, and since HR is overwhelmed, faculty designees, such as myself, are doing the weeding, and it makes me quite grumpy to find several folks a day who think they alone are qualified despite not meeting the minimum qualifications, though I do sometimes enjoy the verbal gymnastics that some candidates go through to try to make themselves appear to meet the minimum qualifications. My advice: if you wish to argue for meeting a qualification that you truly do not have, at least concede in the value of that qualification rather than dismiss it as irrelevant.
  • Please tailor your letter to the position:An eight page cover letter that includes a detailed overview of your current research, and a  list of graduate students you have worked with, by name, with their research project titles?   For a position teaching first and second year students? No. A cover letter that is only one paragraph long is too short; one that is over 3 pages is probably too long (and there is debate about 3). A letter that does not even mention the name of our college, or the position you are applying for, is just not going to make it clear to us that you truly want THIS position.
  • And yes, I know the software requiring you to upload documents is cumbersome, but you may want to double check before you hit submit: one candidate submitted hir cover letter 4 times (instead of including hir CV, for example).
  • You may want to update your reference letters, fyi: one candidate submitted letters that were all addressing a four-year old job opening at an entirely different type of institution. 
  • Yes, this one is a true oddity, so I mention it only for kicks and giggles: a cover letter written in the third person is very funny, and truly bizarro.  I’m curious: what professional fields require or encourage cover letters written in the third person?

Dear Search Committee,

Candidate Archie Simpson is simply perfect for your college. He has years of experience, and an admirable education to boot!  Let me tell you more about Dr. Simpson in as much detail as possible, and, while you read this fascinating description of Dr. Simpson, imagine you are hearing a big, booming radio personality voice reading it aloud to you. Believe me: you WILL hire Dr. Simpson after reading this letter!

It made me laugh at least!

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12 responses to “Crafting Academic Cover Letters: A Reminder

  1. Ever since I’ve read this I’ve been trying to figure out how I could shorten a cover letter to a paragraph. I don’t get how that person did it!

    There’s a lot of advice about how to get noticed in a cover letter, maybe the third person was an attempt on that? Then again, I just had a student do a paper about himself…all in the third person. No one else did that but him.

  2. Those one paragraph cover letters are basic form letters, usually written by those who are not currently working in academia. Usually. They say nothing of value, of course. I assume that these people think the application/CV is the most important document?

    On the other hand, we also receive many 9-11 page cover letters. Those folks usually rush through the application thinking the cover letter is the most important piece, ignoring that many HR programs start with the application for pre-screening.

    That thir d person cover letter (the only one I’ve EVER seen in 2 decades of this) was from someone with an entertainment background: and for that field, yes, it makes a little sense (think Billy Crystal writing a cover letter;).

  3. Now that you mention it, the student who did the third person paper has a theater background. Hmmm.

    Honestly, I hate cover letter writing and the online apps. Most of the online apps want such crazy information, (you really want to know where I was working the last 20 years? Even if it was in the food service industry as a teenager? Can you contact my supervisor from there? No the place is closed.), and all the important stuff if already on my CV. I wish it could be one or the other. One of my favorite questions is the exact date of graduation for high school and college. I have no idea. I really don’t know how I’d find out exactly what day either since everything I have has a month and year. But I couldn’t proceed without filling it in.

    What I really want to write is “Please just interview me. I’m much cooler in person than on paper.”

  4. Do the apps ask for the last 20 years?? I’m going to make sure our app does not since I agree, that’s crazy;0-) I thought it said only relevant employment?

    I admit that I go straight to the CV and cover letter, but there are enough people who have BIG discrepencies between their CV and their application that I check that, too, by necessity. It’s almost as if the CV was crafted for an ideal world and when they fill out the app reality strikes. Of course I’m talking about the minority of applicants–but those are the ones that I deal with first when I’m charged with any pre-screening (our HR folks are too overwhelmed so we are selecting comm. members to prescreen this year).

    Other applicants basically copy and paste from their CV or, having filled out many applications, they have that information saved as a separate file and they may be copy and pasting from that document (I’m guessing but since our app asks for job duties, some folks have an incredibly detailed list, so they are either creating it just for our app., or, more likely, have created it already in preparation for all apps).

    I love your last line, RL, (“I’m much cooler in person”) and I bet at least half of the last pool I was involved in ended cover letters with some variation on that theme! Alas, since we can’t interview everyone, the goal of the cover letter writer is to somehow make us think that without you having to say it! Now that would be a magic trick, no? I’ve pulled out 3 fabulously written cover letters from the last search I was on, and I’m going to try to figure out what made them special (they weren’t all necessarily interviewed for other reasons–such as not having the minimum qualifications–but I simply adored the cover letters and argued for at least a looksee based on that!).

  5. Undine, Yes, I will! But I fear I’ll sound like a composition instructor, trying to explain fluidity, style, voice, and a something almost risky in the presentation of one’s self—these are so subjective, that I don’t know how to explain what made them fabulous without quoting from them, and doing that, of course, can’t be done. But I’ll think on it;-)

  6. There’s definitely nothing risky in my letters. I am going to try to be more risky in the two letters I plan on sending out this week, which makes me really nervous, but what do I have to lose at this point?

    Even just copying and pasting from the resume is a pain for those online apps since they tend to have character or word limits. Add to that that my relevant job experience is only so long. Am I supposed to add all my jobs since I started working because it asks for the full job history? By not including it or having it incomplete, I suspect they’ll be able to tell how young I am.

  7. RL: I certainly don’t mean that you need to do something “risky” in your letters to be noticed: it’s just something I find memorable, something that helps you stand out but in a good way.

    BUT, others on the committees I’ve been on prefer the standard cover letter (identify the position, and how you meet the qualification, highlighting those parts of your background/experience/education that best illustrates that, concluding with a “looking forward to….”). They did not notice the “risky” elements of the letter in either a positive or negative way, but when I pointed it out, they DID appreciate it.

    For example, one candidate for an asst prof position wrote a 3 page cover letter (usually considered too long) but his description of his experience with a learning community not only impressed us, but also addressed a relatively recent (so not in the job description) goal of our college. So it was risky of hir because it was not part of the job description to have LC experience, but it was a risk that got hir application noticed.

    If you want to email me, RL, please do.

    As for the application, ignore all the spaces for job history: I wouldn’t add all of your jobs to the app. unless they were full time, professional positions outside of academia (so don’t add Starbucks, ie). It IS a way for us to see if you have had a series of full time teaching positions which you left right about when tenure would have been conferred, but that’s all.

    And young? In aging departments that need youngsters this won’t hurt you. Besides, your CV will reflect your teaching experience: a college that wants more than 3 years full time experience will draw that line, while others will be open to those will less experience.

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