• April 18, 2014

The Importance of Cover Letters in a Community-College Job Search

In my first column, I emphasized that applying for a faculty position at a community college is vastly different from seeking one at a four-year college. Without question, this applies to the application materials. Although most candidates know that their cover letter, vita, and references will determine if they will be asked to campus for a face-to-face interview, few really understand how to put together an effective application package that stands out from the rest.

In a community-college job search, the cover letter is, by far, the most important element of all your application materials, even more important than your CV. Think of this letter as your personal dialogue with the hiring committee: It should articulate clearly why you are the perfect person for this faculty slot.

How do you do this? Luckily, the hiring committee has already given you a good guideline for your letter -- the job vacancy announcement that the institution posted on its Web site, published in The Chronicle, or made available in other media. You should think of the announcement as a writing assignment from the hiring committee. The job responsibilities and qualifications listed in the announcement are the criteria the committee must use to evaluate whether you are suited for the job. Use your letter to explain precisely how you fit the criteria.

The committee is looking for very specific information. How many times have you become exasperated when students failed to follow the very specific, detailed, written instructions you provided for an assignment? Likewise, hiring committees get annoyed when job applicants address everything in their covers letters except the information contained in the job ad. Give the committee members what they are asking for; tailor your letter to the job announcement.

Applicants with Ph.D.'s -- especially those who have recently earned the degree -- tend to get off track the most in writing the application letter. Rather than explain how they are prepared to teach freshman and sophomore survey courses, they write paragraph after paragraph about their brilliant research projects, or they talk at length about their dissertation topic. Now I'm not disputing that the incidence of athlete's foot among soldiers during the Peloponnesian War is relevant scholarly research. However, it is important that you realize from the outset that you are being hired to teach, not to conduct research.

While job announcements vary from institution to institution, most ask that you discuss your academic preparation (the degrees you possess), teaching experience, and your ability to advise students, sponsor student activities, serve on institutional committees, and engage in community service. My advice is that you devote most of your letter to discussing your teaching experience. Begin talking specifically about your teaching background early in the letter, say, beginning in your second paragraph. (Of course you should devote the first paragraph to the basics, like identifying the position you're applying for.) Talk in detail about your ability to teach the various types of students who attend community colleges. Two or three paragraphs are not too much to devote to your teaching experience. And if you've had experience teaching online courses, don't hesitate to mention that too. Many community colleges have invested heavily in Internet instruction, so having this experience is a definite plus.

After discussing your teaching credentials, you might next address your ability to work with students outside of class, either by sponsoring clubs and organizations or through academic advising. If you've had experience with these sorts of endeavors, spell this out for the committee. If not, perhaps you could write about some personal interests you have that you might be willing to share with students. For instance, maybe you're an avid softball player, and you would like to be a faculty sponsor of intramural teams. Mention this in your letter. As far as advising is concerned, it is true that if you've never had a full-time faculty position, chances are that you will not have had this experience officially. But most teachers have had the opportunity to help students on an informal basis; if you have, point it out to the hiring committee. If nothing else, it will alert the committee that you understand the nature of the job you're seeking.

Your letter should also mention any public-service work you've done on and off of campus. Even if you haven't worked full time at a college, you have probably had some experience on campus committees. Perhaps in graduate school you were on a committee looking into improving health benefits for teaching assistants. This would certainly be worth mentioning in your letter as an example of institutional service. More than likely, you have done some sort of volunteer work. If you've helped the Girl Scouts sell cookies or staffed the hotline at a shelter for battered women, mention those things, because they are precisely the sort of activities in which community colleges want their instructors to be involved. Make it clear that you understand that one mission of the community college is to reach out to the community, and that you're already doing that.

By now, your cover letter has started to get long. Don't be alarmed if it's more than a page long; mine have been typically a page and a half. Unfortunately, scores of academic advice books mislead job seekers into thinking that their letter should be limited to one page. That may be true for positions at four-year colleges, but not for those at community colleges. In fact, you probably won't be called for an interview if you write a very short, general letter that says, "I'm interested in the English position. My vita is attached. See ya." Your letter should provide the committee with a clear narrative of your professional experience. Do not rely on the bulleted items in your vita to articulate to the committee what your credentials are. Your letter should do that for the committee even before they turn to your CV.

One final issue about cover letters: If you're working at a college already, do not use that institution's letterhead for your cover letter. It may be tempting -- you may feel it would add some measure of prestige -- but resist the impulse. You aren't representing your employer on official business; you are promoting yourself in a personal job search. I have never disqualified an applicant for this, but chances are you may alienate a committee member who finds your use of the institution's office supplies inappropriate.

I haven't touched on the vita here because I believe the letter is what will make or break you in terms of landing an interview. A vita for a community-college job should list your degrees first, perhaps under the heading of "Education." Immediately after that describe your teaching background, listing your most recent experience first, followed by a section describing your committee work and community service.

While you can certainly include scholarly work on your vita, you should obviously avoid making it the primary focus of the document, the way it would be if you were applying for a tenure-track university position. If you dwell too much on your scholarly interests, the committee members may decide that you are better suited for a four-year university than a two-year college.

Try to remember, for both the cover letter and the CV, it isn't necessary to invest in fancy paper to impress the hiring committees. Just use the ordinary multipurpose printer paper you work with every day. Think about it: Are you any more impressed with your students' papers when they put them in colorful folders? The same rule applies here.

The final element of the application packet I want to address here is your letters of recommendation. Without question, these letters of reference should be pretty recent -- no more than a year old. Ideally, they should be written by people who can speak specifically about your teaching abilities.

For most positions, it's acceptable to send copies of your letters yourself. In fact, I would advise sending all of your application materials together because this minimizes the likelihood that some part of your packet will get misfiled and you will be disqualified for having an incomplete application. Most institutions won't mind if you send copies of your letters of recommendation yourself. Believe me, if you are a serious contender for the job, the institution will call and check your references anyway, so it really isn't necessary that the letters be sent by a third party.

Next: You've made the initial cut and have been called for a personal interview. Now what?

Dana M. Zimbleman, an assistant professor of English at Jefferson College in Missouri, is writing a series of columns on how to go about searching for a community-college job.

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