• August 31, 2015

How to Make Your Application Stand Out

In preparing composition students for our state's writing-proficiency exam, I always begin by explaining how their work will be evaluated. I've found that knowing what raters are looking for helps students better understand how to prepare their essays.

I'd like to apply that same approach to another sort of proficiency exam: the job application. Having served on many search committees at two-year colleges, I have a pretty good idea how applications are evaluated. My objective is to help you understand the process, too, so you can craft your documents accordingly.

The first thing you should know is what happens to your application once it arrives. At most two-year colleges, job applications go directly to the human-resources office, rather than to a dean, department chair, or search committee chair. An HR clerk logs and files them by position but usually doesn't make any other judgments about them, except perhaps to note if they're complete. Some HR departments let applicants know if something's missing, but others simply file the application as is, or discard it.

When I chair a search committee, my second priority (after hiring the best people) is operating efficiently, which means not taking up any more of my colleagues' time than necessary. I try to streamline at least the first part of the process by eliminating, early on, any applications that don't strictly meet the stated requirements.

If an application doesn't contain all the materials we requested in the ad, I toss it. (OK, I don't literally throw it away, but I do relegate it to the "incomplete" pile, which means it won't be considered.) If an applicant isn't actually qualified for the position—doesn't hold the relevant degree, doesn't have enough credit hours teaching in the field, doesn't have the required experience—I toss that person's file, too.

What happens next depends on the number of applications. Essentially, each committee member is trying to narrow down the number of applicants whom we'll talk about when we meet. With just a few, we'll discuss all of them. But if there's really a large number—I've had as many as 175 for an English position—it helps for each member to identify, say, a top 10. Given natural differences of opinion among committee members, that means we'll probably end up discussing 30 or 40 applications and trying to narrow that pool down to the eight or 10 people we'll invite for interviews.

Your objective as an applicant, then, like a character in some sort of fantasy role-playing game, is to make it past each of those watchers: the HR clerk, the search-committee chair, and the committee members.

That means, first of all, that your application must arrive by the stated deadline. If it doesn't, HR will most likely not even file it with the others, and the search committee will never even see it.

Second, your application must be complete. Read the job ad carefully, then read it again. Include exactly the documents requested. Does the ad call for a CV or a résumé? (There is a difference, and examples of both are available in numerous reference books.) Does it ask for actual reference letters or just a list of references? Does it specify official transcripts or just copies? How about a statement of teaching philosophy? If you don't understand what the ad is looking for, call the college's HR office and ask. But don't just leave something out.

Third, make sure you're actually qualified for the job. If the job ad asks for "a master's degree with 18 graduate semester hours in accounting," that's what the committee wants. Perhaps, with a master's in mathematics and three or four accounting classes under your belt, you could easily teach the introductory courses offered at a two-year college, but that's irrelevant. If you don't meet at least the minimum requirements stated in the ad, you won't be considered.

My advice up to this point has been pretty basic. But trust me: If you follow it, your application is already looking better than many. There's a good chance you're now in the "to be considered" pool. To take the next step into the "to be invited for an interview" pool, there's one more thing you need to do: Write a killer letter of application. I say "letter of application" because it should be precisely that, and not just a brief "cover letter" noting what's contained in the rest of your application. This letter is your opportunity to set yourself apart from other applicants who meet the basic requirements. Your letter must be long enough to contain real substance but not so long that it becomes irritating. Write at least a page, single spaced, but no more than a page and a half.

Your letter should also be professionally produced, using a decent printer, good-quality paper, and a standard business-letter format (again, available in numerous references). The grammar, spelling, and punctuation must be perfect and the writing clear and engaging.

In terms of content, the letter should begin by identifying the specific job you are seeking and naming the college. (Yes, that means writing a separate letter for each job—something you should always do, anyway.) End the first paragraph by stating that you believe yourself to be a strong candidate and hope to be given serious consideration.

Use the next two or three paragraphs to expand upon your claims to the job—namely, your academic credentials and teaching experience. Even if you don't have a great deal of teaching experience, spend some time talking about the experience you do have. We want to know that you actually enjoy teaching and that you have some idea what you're getting yourself into on our campus.

If you have a doctorate, that's great, but don't spend more than two or three sentences discussing your dissertation. By all means, let us know you wrote one (that's still impressive) and tell us what it has to do with your teaching, if anything. But no lengthy exegeses, please.

Once you've covered those important areas, you can add a paragraph detailing any other relevant accomplishments, such as teaching awards, publications, and involvement in professional groups. Conclude by referencing your CV or résumé, and asking for an interview.

As a serial committee member, I can tell you that if you do all of those things, your application will definitely wind up in my "to be discussed" pile. And that's right where you want it to be.

Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English and director of the Writers Institute at Georgia Perimeter College. He blogs at www.academicleaders.org.


1. shakirahussein - November 23, 2009 at 08:20 am

Any tips for online applications?

2. ksledge - November 23, 2009 at 08:56 am

I'm surprised that the advice is to spend a paragraph listing accomplishments when that information is in the cv already.

3. dunstan - November 23, 2009 at 09:28 am

ksledge, the CV is a flat, two dimensional document. The letter is where you add the third dimension. By discussion your accomplishments in the letter, you can relate them to this particular position and its responsibilities and in addition mention briefly how they may have changed your approach to teaching and research.

4. wmanthony - November 23, 2009 at 10:14 am

Of course one person's "killer" application letter is another's bloviated sales pitch. Hit those high points with as few adjectives as possible and you'll be singing in key. State don't elevate. In other words: Try not to sound like Michael Bolton.

5. ianative - November 23, 2009 at 10:30 am

And please, please don't tell the hiring committee that "it's their lucky day" because you are applying. I actually had someone begin his letter with, "Congratulations!" He then went on to explain how thrilled we should be that he deigned to apply. I didn't bother reading past the first paragraph. Obviously, few people are quite that brazen, but if your letter simply has this attitude you're likely to turn off the committee.

6. robjenkins - November 23, 2009 at 11:16 am


If the online application allows you to attach or upload documents, like a CV or a letter, then approach those documents just as you would if you were snail-mailing them in hard copy. Treat the online form itself just like the paper form some institutions still send out as part of the app packet.

If you can't attach or upload, then all you can really do is provide the information they ask for. In that case, you might consider following up with hard copies of your CV and letter, unless the site specifically asks you not to. There is some risk involved: If they really didn't want hard copies, they might not appreciate the extra paper. Call the college's HR department and ask if you can or should send hard copies.

Best wishes, and good luck,

7. mlevendusky - November 23, 2009 at 02:38 pm

I think people looking for jobs with two year colleges should remember the mission of two year colleges and submit appropriate materials. We do not want to read your dissertation, enjoy photographs of you playing the drums when you are applying for a position teaching accounting, or read numerous letters from bishops and priests saying what a good Catholic you are when applying for a job at a state school. Those things do not make you more human and relevant, but rather are irritating when we are wading through applications. Those are things we may be interested in while getting to know you personally after you are hired, but are not relevant to the job, and in fact, make me wonder if you understand what the job entails.

8. laoshi - November 23, 2009 at 03:17 pm

Thanks for the insider scoop!

9. scottiehr - November 24, 2009 at 09:33 am

Rob Jenkins' advice is on the money! I am the HR Manager at a small, rural community college in Kansas and he describes our application process exactly. The only other piece of advice I would like to add is that, if the process requires that you also complete an application form, please do so. Do not write "See Resume" in the blanks. The purpose of the application form is two-fold. First, it has your signature which means that you are stating what you have written is true. Second, it provides the committee with a quick, standard way of comparing applications. Certainly, they look at your resume and other supporting materials, but when they are looking at 175 applications and trying to narrow it down to just a few, the application form is the easiest way to make those comparisons. If yours says "See Resume", you have not made a good impression. Think of it this way: The application process is your first job assignment. If you don't follow the directions on this, what would make us think you would be a good employee?

10. drj50 - November 24, 2009 at 12:20 pm

If your school has an application form, it should be a pdf file into which applicants can type answers and it should not ask academic applicants to reproduce a great deal of information already provided in a required CV/resume.

By far the vast majority of schools whose openings I have looked at in recent years no longer require a lengthy paper application. The best take the electronic CV (Word document), extract items and put them into a database you can check for accuracy. Almost as good, however, are those that require a very small number of personal questions be entered manually online into their database (e.g., name, contact information, perhaps degress and schools) and then let you submit a cover letter and CV/resume as Word or PDF files.

One issue is time. My handwriting is not as clear as I wish, so I found myself typing (yes, on a typewriter) answers on a 3-6 page form. Each one took more than an hour. And then I still had to customize the cover letter and CV/resume. (These were academic or professional positions for which a cover letter and CV/resume were also required.)

Whatever the schools were hoping to accomplish, the message I got was that they were out of touch technologically, stuck in an earlier decade in terms of institutional procedures, and not really interested in encouraging applications. It made me wonder suspect that the experience woudl be similar for employees and made me question whether I wanted to work there.

But in the end it was the time commitment that made my decision. I could apply to three other schools in the time it took to complete one application that required an application form. Unless there was something very special about both the position and the school, I decided that those requiring a form weren't worth the trouble. If they didn't value me as an applicant, why should I value them as a potential employer?

11. chelsea_morning - November 24, 2009 at 01:15 pm

Thanks for this article. It helps to understand how search committees work. But some of the advice contradicts advice my job placement officer has given me. My cover letter (which I understood is the expected length) is nearly three pages single spaced. Also, I started out with a shorter account of my dissertation, but was advised to expand significantly. I'm wondering whether the advice here applies to liberal arts colleges but not to research institutions?

I would never end my first paragraph by saying that I believe that I'm a strong candidate for the job---that would seem presumptuous by my thinking (and a bit pointless. obviously, everone applying thinks that he/she is a strong candidate.) That having been said, I haven't been successful at applying for jobs thus far!

12. major_energy - November 24, 2009 at 02:18 pm


One can take a scanned paper form and paste that as an image in Powerpoint. Then one can use the text editor in Powerpoint to place the needed text in the correct location.

Once you have the final product one can print, sign, then scan, or paste a signature image in the appropriate block and save the file to print. Looks great, and saves frustrations in typewriting.

I used this technique alot in the mid / late 90's. Honestly I don't know if some cities / counties many times cannot afford the .PDF writing software, or if its just a knowledge gap.

13. drj50 - November 24, 2009 at 03:10 pm


Thanks for the suggestion. I'll keep it in mind.

But I still think that it's unwise for schools to make it hard to apply. Good people will apply first to the schools that are easy to apply to rather than still using a static form for academic and professional positions (other positions like clerical or maintenance staff are another issue). And I still suspect that an HR department that still uses a static form is likely to be out of date and inflexible in other ways -- and that makes me wonder whether I want to work there.

14. cwinton - November 24, 2009 at 05:54 pm

One other suggestion I'm surprised hasn't been mentioned: review your web presence to see if you have any silly stuff that might bring your application into question before you begin applying. A search committee may be making cold calls and it may be reviewing your Facebook page (or personal web page for that matter).

15. robjenkins - November 24, 2009 at 07:16 pm


My advice is meant specifically for people applying at two-year colleges. If you're applying for a job at a research institution, by all means include a thorough discussion of your dissertation. Just be sure to write a separate letter--one that leaves out the lengthy discussion of the dissertation--if you're also applying at two-year schools. That's one of our collective pet peeves: people who apply at our institutions as a fallback position. . . and make it obvious by the fact that they don't even bother to craft a letter specifically for us.

Also, what I'm recommending at the end of the first paragraph is not a naked display of egomania, but rather something like this: "I hope you will consider me for this position, for I believe I have the education and experience you seek." Then go on, in the ensuing paragraphs, to tell the reader about your education and experience.

Best of luck in your search,


16. guyburton - November 30, 2009 at 09:26 am


Thank you for this article and the comments. They were/are extremely useful. One thing though, which would help us non-US applicants though is knowing what to do about referees and letters of reference.

I note that a lot of the US colleges ask for letters upfront, whereas in the UK we usually are only asked to list details and the college contacts our referees. When they do ask for letters of reference it's considered better form to ask referees to send them directly themselves, so applicants waive the right to see what is written about them.

Given that applications usually end up at HR, does not sending the letters of reference with the rest of the materials count as incomplete/rejected? Would that explain why I've not heard back from any of the colleges I've applied to this year?!

Thank you once again.


17. robjenkins - November 30, 2009 at 02:26 pm


When colleges ask for reference letters to be sent directly to HR, those letters are (or should be, at least) filed with the candidate's other materials and then passed on to the committee along with everything else. Assuming those letters are received by the announced deadline, there shouldn't be a problem.


18. trainer12 - December 04, 2009 at 10:20 am

Rob Jenkins suggestions are right on the money. The only thing I would add is that at some institutions, at least for faculty and senior administrative positions, the screening and interviewing are done by the the departments involved. HR only gets involved after a candidate has been selected and has accepted the position. Having both a CV and a resume in paper as well as digital format is imperative as well as writing samples, portfolio, list of references with contact information, awards, continuing and professional education credits, professional memberships, transcripts etc are critical to have with you to leave behind at an interview and to send with a thank you letter to all members of a search committee if you are lucky enough to get to that stage. Remember if you are interviewing with a HR Director, search committee, a director, Department Chair, Dean, Assistant Dean, Vice President or President, and the job really does exist, you are qualified. What you and the people you are meeting with are trying to determine is whether or not you will fit in and be successful. Will there be a successful chemistry or not. All the rest is luck and timing.

19. jbcroft - December 04, 2009 at 12:14 pm

ksledge@2, another reason to duplicate the information on the resume in the cover letter is that people on committees have different learning styles. Some people get more information from the organized, chart-like format of the resume, while others are distracted by information in the resume not relevant to the current position; some get more information from the narrative of the cover letter, while others find it harder to dig out the nuggets they need. If you have the relevant information in both places, you've covered your bases with both types of readers. And you've also shown you can communicate effectively in two different written styles.

20. amnirov - December 09, 2009 at 09:09 am

Don't write a long letter, it makes you look insane. Keep it to a page and a half. Also, make sure that your CV is tailored to the institution you are applying to. Keep real world jobs to the barest minimum. Be truthful because we will be checking out your publications and conference presentations (the latter are frequently incorrectly documented). For that part, make sure that you use correct disciplinary style on your CV. If you cannot master enough MLA to document a conference presentation correctly, your paper was probably not worth hearing. If you're documenting teaching experience, Course Number and full title is sufficient. If we have questions, we'll look it up online. And you're probably guaranteed that someone on the committee will be snooping around on ratemyprofessors.

21. allens - December 13, 2009 at 08:23 pm

aminirov: In terms of teaching experience, how about as a TA? And there's the difficulty on some courses that they've changed - the professor who ran the course retired when I graduated (he was on my committee), and the new guy is running things differently.

Regarding application forms: I sometimes don't have much choice about putting in "See CV" if the silly thing doesn't have enough room to put the information they're wanting. I see the same thing even more with online forms, with limits on what it'll allow to be put into a space.

Letters of recommendation/reference: What I find the most frustrating are the places that want letters instead of requesting them themselves (a sign of laziness in the HR department), and want letters for _each and every position applied to_, even if one has applied there before for the same position, just a previous year's version of it. This sort of thing is most discourteous to the people writing recommendation letters... and wanting _me_ to have them on hand and upload them, when other places yet want recommendation letters that the candidate specifically _hasn't_ looked at? The latter is also an argument against the response to wanting one set of letters for each position that they want to see different letters - recommenders aren't reasonably able to send me a set of letters customized for each position ahead of my putting in each and every application!

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