That Crucial First Impression

Brian Taylor

October 11, 2010

A cover letter is one of the most important—and most often botched—elements of a community-college job application. Assuming your materials arrive on time and you're actually qualified for the job, an effective cover letter can do more than any other part of the application to help you secure a coveted interview.

Now is a good time to discuss the features of an effective cover letter, since many applications for positions at two-year colleges are due around the end of November. But first let me offer some general advice for people who are either new to the job market or have never given their letters much thought.

First, understand that the cover letter—and not your appearance in person—actually constitutes the first impression you'll make with members of the search committee. Long before laying eyes on you, they will learn a great deal about you from what you say in the letter, and how you say it. Just as you would dress well for an interview (probably better than you normally dress), so you should take pains to dress your cover letter appropriately.

Second, tailor your letter to fit the position you're applying for, especially if you're applying to both two-year and four-year institutions. A letter to a research university might focus heavily on your dissertation, while a letter to a community college should mention it only briefly. And not all two-year colleges have the same requirements, expectations, or needs, which means that a simple form letter won't suffice. You may have a basic template that you follow—in fact, I'm going to show you one—but be prepared to adapt it, as necessary, to make the best case for each job.

The way to achieve that tailored effect is to do your homework. Read the job announcement carefully, more than once, to make sure that your cover letter responds to specific job requirements or preferences, such as experience teaching online. Spend some time surfing the institution's Web site to gain a feel for its culture and values. If you know someone who teaches there, or someone who knows someone, don't hesitate to work the phone.

Finally, don't neglect the visual impact of your letter. I've always liked the clean lines and businesslike appearance of simple block format. Print the letter in black ink on good-quality white or ivory paper, using a decent laser-jet printer. I recommend 12-point Times New Roman font for its size (remember the middle-aged eyes of the search-committee members) and professionalism. The letter should be at least a page long, and no longer than two. And for heaven's sake, make sure it's as free of typos and grammatical errors as you can make it. If necessary, hire a copy editor. And now, as promised, I offer a basic template that you can adapt for any academic cover letter. I didn't invent this template, but I've employed it quite effectively over the years in my own job searches. (One dean told me that I got an interview because my letter was one of the strongest he'd ever read.) And yet, among the hundreds of cover letters I read every year as a search-committee member, I rarely see the kind of specificity and organization I look for. Most letters are too long, too short, too dry, too scattered, or too irrelevant. In short, they're bad. When I do see a good letter, it stands out.

The salutation. One of the first mistakes applicants make is not addressing their cover letter to anyone in particular. A letter should be written to a person, not to a committee, a department, or an institution. "Dear Department of Human Resources" or "Dear Search Committee" is simply too impersonal. "Dear Human Resources Officer" or "Dear Search Committee Chair" is not much of an improvement. With a little time and effort, you should be able to identify a specific person whom you can address by name and title in the letter, such as the director of human resources, the chair of the relevant department, or even the chair of the hiring committee. If a Web-based search does not yield that information, try making a phone call or two.

It doesn't matter, by the way, if the person you address the letter to is not actually the person who receives it. In reality, the recipient might be a clerk. But there's something about addressing your letter to an actual human being that turns it from another mindless exercise in bureaucracy into a form of genuine human communication.

The opening paragraph. Your goals here are to let the reader know what job you're applying for and to assert your suitability for it. You will, of course, expand on that second point later in the letter.

Open by stating, in a straightforward manner, that you're writing to apply for such-and-such a job, using the specific title given in the job announcement along with the position number, if applicable, in parentheses. Also, mention the institution by name and say where you saw the job advertised. Then assert what I refer to as your two primary claims on the job: your education and your experience, not necessarily in that order.

The body. It will probably consist of three paragraphs: two that expand upon your claims to the position, and one that adds any other pertinent information.

Whichever of your claims is stronger—your work experience or your education—is the point you should make first. If you have significant teaching experience, especially at a community college, you should always lead with that, because nothing else you say will make a more positive impression on the committee. Here is also the place to talk about any special pedagogical training you might have received, or any other relevant teaching skills, such as experience with educational technology or online teaching.

If you don't have a lot of experience, you'll need to make that your secondary claim and try to beef it up as much as possible. One way to do that is by talking about specific courses you have taught—especially to the extent that those courses mirror ones you will be asked to teach in the new job. Mention any experiences you had while teaching those courses that made you a better teacher.

If most (or all) of your experience has been as an adjunct, and in particular if you have a great deal of adjunct experience, you should make the connection for the committee by pointing out that teaching three courses a semester for five years, for example, is the equivalent of three years of full-time experience.

Under education, if that's your primary claim, you will want to list your graduate degrees and the institutions where you earned them, along with any additional course work you may have completed. But don't use the education section to talk about your thesis or dissertation topic, unless it relates specifically to the job at hand. (For instance, if you're applying for an English position at a community college with a large international population, and you wrote your master's thesis on teaching composition to non-native speakers, then mention that in the letter.) Otherwise, focus on the specific courses you took as a graduate student and how those courses will enable you to perform this particular job effectively.

If you have a great deal of teaching experience, education should, of course, become your secondary claim, and you need not go into such great detail. Just make sure the committee members know you have the appropriate credentials.

The last paragraph in the body of the letter should be a kind of catchall in which you include any relevant information that you haven't had a chance to mention. The key word is "relevant." This might be the place for you to mention your dissertation topic, although you still shouldn't do much more than that. There's no place, in a cover letter to a community college, for a detailed summary of your research.

Other items you might list in a catchall paragraph include any additional training that may relate to the job, teaching or research awards, publications and presentations, and any significant institutional or community service. In short, add anything that you think might help you get an interview, without seeming to brag or cross over into the realm of the trivial or inconsequential.

The "ask piece" and the closing. Another common mistake of applicants is failing to come right out and ask for an interview. In fund raising, a document that is produced specifically for the purpose of eliciting a donation is referred to as an "ask piece." I recommend that your cover letter include an "ask piece" as well.

Near the end, after you have thoroughly expanded on your claims and listed any other relevant information, you should reiterate your fitness for the job—"For these reasons, I believe I would be an excellent fit at XYZ College." Then write something like, "May I travel to [name the city] to discuss this position with you in person?" After that, state that you are available at the interviewer's convenience and reference the contact information in your résumé or CV. End your letter with a note of thanks and an expression of hopeful confidence: "Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you soon."

In your closing, you can say "Best wishes" or "Warmest regards," but I've always preferred a simple "Sincerely." Be sure to leave room to sign your name, although if it's an electronic application, you might not have that opportunity. And below your printed name, type the word "Enclosures," to indicate that you have included other documents, such as your résumé, CV, transcripts, teaching statement, and the rest.

With hundreds of qualified people out there applying for each job, nothing and no one can guarantee you an interview. But a cover letter that is professional-looking, well written, and relevant to the position will certainly give you a leg up on the competition.

Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English and director of the Writers Institute at Georgia Perimeter College. He blogs at and writes monthly for our community-college column. If you would like to write for our regular column on faculty and administrative careers at two-year colleges, or have a topic to propose, we would like to hear from you. Send your ideas to