For most job candidates, your relationship to the search process begins when you present yourself to the search committee with a cover letter, a curriculum vitae, and reference list. What you say and how you say it, and the visual appearance and physical presentation of your words, all combine to form the readeris impression of you.
Without wanting to encourage obsession with fonts and formats, let me offer some suggestions.
Some basic principles:
Begin with the reader in mind. Don't list every single fact about yourself. Instead, provide relevant information in a format that is easily grasped by the reader. Too many candidates provide too much unfocused information -- listing every speech or every task force.
Ask yourself whether each item you list enhances the search committee's understanding of your candidacy for the particular position you're applying for. Different positions require different versions of your material.
Present your accomplishments as well as your ideas. Readers are interested in your philosophy and ideas, but theyire more interested in what youive actually done.
Think about the physical presentation of your information. Do not use paper that is too heavy to feed into an automatic copier. Never hand-write, except for your signature. Leave enough white space to make the materials easy to read. Donit use fonts difficult to read for over-40 eyes.
Proofread meticulously, even after using spellchecking software.
Suggestions regarding C.V.'s:
Provide a clear chronology of your experience. Many candidates make readers work too hard to figure this out. Current experience is normally listed first. Use a format that clearly distinguishes between job changes within an institution (normally viewed as a promotion), and job changes between institutions. If the latter are consistently rapid (moving after less than three years), search committees will raise questions that you should be prepared to answer.
Provide key information about your current institution and perhaps your previous institution. No matter how well-known you may think it is, some readers may want to know its type and size. If your position is in any way ambiguous or distinctive, provide information about whom you report to, who reports to you, and what size budget you oversee.
Thoughts about the cover letter:
Be brief. Cover letters running to 10 pages are typically excessively detailed and unfocused. Two or three pages are enough.
Focus on a few key points. The cover letter is a very important opportunity to show your distinctive features. Donit waste it by repeating information provided in your C.V. unless you are contextualizing this information or highlighting it to make a particular point.
Plan carefully the small number of points you want to make (e.g., you have had more leadership experience than it might appear from your résumé, you have helped an institution to go through downsizing or changed mission or political controversy).
Search committees want to know what you bring to them. Show why you are interested in this particular institution and frame your self-portrait in this context.
Prepare carefully by reviewing the institutionis Web site, talking with colleagues, reading press reports, or otherwise learning more about its mission, current issues, or distinctive character. Be responsive to the advertisement, which may provide some indication of the critical issues.
If there is a search consultant assisting the committee, you can contact him or her to see if additional material is available describing the institution.
Anticipate the questions the search committee will have about you, and use the cover letter to provide answers. For example, if you want to become a president but have no formal fund-raising experience listed in your résumé, use the letter to demonstrate your understanding of how private dollars are raised and your willingness and ability to do it.
If you want to be a provost with responsibility for a wide range of academic programs, but your prior experience has all been within one discipline, use the letter to demonstrate your experience working more broadly (for example, in the faculty senate or on institution-wide task forces).
If you want to move from a private to a public institution but have never worked with unions or legislators, or if youire trying to move from a public institution to a private but have never experienced total tuition dependence, explain how you have prepared yourself for the change.
Consider possible regional concerns. If you are applying for a position in a region of the country in which you have never lived, you might comment on your readiness for that somewhat different culture. For example, if you have lived in a very homogeneous rural community and are looking at a position in a very diverse urban community, comment on why this could be a good fit.
The letterhead question: Opinion varies on whether it is appropriate to use the letterhead of your institution, as opposed to plain paper or a personal letterhead. Some readers may be offended by the use of institutional letterhead. Be aware of this risk.
Should you provide the names of references as requested in the ad? Some candidates are reluctant to provide reference lists for fear that their references will be contacted before they themselves have notified the references of their interest in the position, and they don't want to notify references of every position they might apply for.
You can withhold the list (even though the advertisement requested it) and run the risk that the committee will judge your application incomplete and disqualify you. Or you can submit the list and run the risk that committee members will contact your references before you do, even if you ask them not to.
In general, I recommend that you go ahead and provide the list.
Provide a 360-degree reference list. That is, provide the name of the person you report to (or, if you can't do that until a later stage of the search, the person you reported to in your previous position), someone at your same level, and someone who reports to you.
Provide names of references who are in the constituencies relevant to the position. If this is a presidential search, list board members, donors, community leaders, legislators. If it is a dean search, include faculty members from a variety of disciplines. If you know the composition of the search committee, imagine that every member will want to talk to a counterpart, and provide a list that includes those names.
Provide a very brief note for each reference that describes the personis relationship to you. This is especially helpful if you provide a long list of references, or if many of your references are no longer in the position they were in when you worked closely together.
Limit your use of references who havenit worked with you on a daily basis. Listing statewide or national figures who donit know you well is fine up to a point; it shows that you are active beyond your institution. But donit rely on this for giving committees insight into your relations with faculty members or students or your ability to manage staff.
Having said all this, I want to draw your attention back to much more significant issues. Are you really ready for the position youire applying for? There may be gaps in your background that actually require a long-term effort to expand your skills and experiences, not just a different spin on your C.V.
If you come to realize that you just aren't ready for the position youire interested in, analyze your limitations carefully and get to work on a plan for addressing them so you'll be a more convincing candidate some years from now.
But if you conclude that youire ready and youire going to go for it -- Good luck! Those whose written materials pass the first review will normally go on to an interview. Iill talk about this in a future column.
Jean Dowdall is vice-president at A.T. Kearney Executive Search, which handles searches for senior academic administrators. In the last year, she has assisted with searches at Northern Arizona University, Rowan University, and the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. She has also been a faculty member, dean, vice-president, and president at both public and private institutions.
Ms. Dowdall regrets that she is not able to respond to individual questions. However, she welcomes suggestions for future columns at firstname.lastname@example.org