• July 29, 2014

The Basics of Cover Letter Writing

Your cover letter and curriculum vita may well be the most important documents you will ever write. They are the first things most academic search committees see, and if you don't want them to also be the last things, you need to take the time to do them right.

Although both your cover letter and C.V. must be able to stand on their own, they are clearly linked and so should be developed in tandem.

In this column we will look at the cover letter. Next month we will examine the science C.V.

Most applicants write poor cover letters that bear no relationship to what goes on in a particular department or school. They are word-processed form letters, and search committees can spot them right away.

"In almost no time we can reject half our applicant pool just by looking at their cover letters," says Susan Lord, associate professor of electrical engineering at the University of San Diego.

You can also be sure that at least some applicants for a given position will write excellent cover letters. As one engineering professor at San Jose State University, put it: "I took the time to tailor my cover letter to the school and department. This took a lot of research, but it paid off." Her letter resulted in an interview, and an eventual job offer.

If the committee receives hundreds of applications, it will probably divide them up so that one or, at most, two members will look at your application the first time around. These professors, whom you are not likely to know, determine whether you are among the 15 to 20 applicants who will be moved to the next stage, or whether you are out of the game. It's crucial for your cover letter to engage and excite the search committee to the point that they look forward to examining the rest of your application material.

So one of your most important tasks in your job hunt is to find out enough about the college to which you are applying to show the connection between what you have to sell and what the college wants to buy. Pointing out this connection in a one-page letter is no easy task and can be time-consuming. But everything you do by way of preparation will be helpful if you are then asked to visit the campus for an interview.

Let's take a look at how one successful candidate (the author mentioned above) approached her cover letter. Below is her letter, with a few minor changes to protect confidential material.

Name of search committee chairperson
Address

Dear Professor:

I am responding to your advertisement in the [name of journal] for a faculty position in the Materials Engineering Department at San Jose State University. I am a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford University in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. My thesis work is in the area of process modeling for semiconductor fabrication and my specific research topic is the diffusion of dopants in gallium arsenide. My thesis advisor is Professor [name], Director of the Integrated Circuits Laboratory in the Department of Electrical Engineering.

I am particularly interested in a faculty position in a department that values teaching. As you may note from my résumé, I have taken every opportunity to teach while at Stanford University, and I have also participated in various educational projects outside of the university environment. These included the Computer Literacy Project, which I founded and directed for three years in a predominantly minority middle school in [city], and Expanding Your Horizons at San Jose State University, a workshop for young women interested in pursuing careers in math and science. At Stanford University, in addition to being a grader and teaching assistant in several electrical engineering courses in semiconductor processing, I helped design and teach a materials science and engineering laboratory course. I also designed and co-taught a new course for undergraduates entitled Electronic Materials Science.

In addition to teaching, I am looking for a research opportunity that would allow me to continue my work in electronic materials processing, structure and properties. At Stanford University I have accomplished original research in pursuit of my degree, as well as contributed to the development of a fabrication line for GaAs digital technology. While working at [name] Corporation I designed and supervised construction of a thin film laboratory research facility and initiated a research project in amorphous semiconductor thin films.

I expect to finish my degree in [date]. I have enclosed my curriculum vita, including a list of publications, a list of references, and a copy of my passport as proof of U.S. citizenship. Thank you for your consideration. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Very truly yours,

name/address/telephone number

What are the general principles shown here that can be applied to most cover letters?

  • Notice that the letter is addressed to a specific individual using his or her correct title. (If the advertisement for the position says only, "Chairman, Search Committee," try calling the department secretary for the name of the chairperson.)

  • In the first paragraph the author explains how she heard about the position ("Your announcement in ... " At the suggestion of ..."), and who she is ("I am completing my Ph.D. in ... under the direction of ... ").

  • In the second paragraph she explains why she is interested in the position and the department. Through her background research (discussions with San Jose State faculty members and perusal of the university's Web site), she knows that the institution places a high value on teaching. So she goes into some detail on her various teaching experiences, including such things as the design and development of a new course.

  • In the third paragraph she provides a more detailed overview of her research, including her industrial experience.

  • The key in both the second and third paragraphs is to highlight your achievements and qualifications, especially those that make you the right person for the position. You want to connect items in your background with the specific needs of the department.

  • At smaller colleges or universities you should try to point out your interests in the institution as well as the department. At larger colleges or universities such as San Jose State, you can concentrate more on your interests in the department.

  • In the final paragraph the author indicates what she is enclosing and offers to provide extra materials or additional information. She thanks the committee for its consideration and indicates that she is looking forward to meeting with them in the near future.

  • Ideally, the cover letter should be one page, and while content is more critical than style, how you write as well as what you say is certainly important. In all cases, use simple, direct language.

  • It is also critical that your letter be free of errors. This may seem obvious, but search committees see plenty of letters with mistakes. The readers will assume you had all the time you needed to put the letter together and so are likely to be unforgiving of typographical and spelling errors. Have it proofread by at least one other person.

The above example and general comments are just guidelines. Each letter must be tailored to the specific circumstances of each position. However, if you follow the principles outlined here, you significantly increase the chance that the search committee will take the next step of looking for your enclosed C.V.

How to make your C.V., the document that prompts the committee chair to pick up the phone and invite you to an interview, will be the subject of next month's column.

Richard M. Reis is director for academic partnerships at the Stanford University Learning Laboratory, and author of Tomorrow's Professor: Preparing for Academic Careers in Science and Engineering, available from IEEE Press or the booksellers below. He is also the moderator of the biweekly Tomorrow's Professor Listserve, which anyone can subscribe to by sending the message [subscribe tomorrows-professor] to Majordomo@lists.stanford.edu

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