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Don’t Blow Your Cover Letter

Search committees often place a great deal of importance on cover letters when they’re reviewing candidates, but I’ve yet to meet a job seeker who has received much training or mentoring on how to write one. So what differentiates good cover letters from weak ones? I’m sure readers of The Chronicle have a lot of wisdom to share on this topic, but here are a few suggestions to get things started.

1. Be specific. Generic cover letters are a no-no. Tailoring your letters to particular positions sounds daunting when you’re frantically applying to a lot of jobs, but it is worth taking extra time to address the desired qualifications listed in each job advertisement. Talk about how your experience matches the specific courses or areas of research listed in the ad; describe what fund-raising (or faculty-development or curriculum-planning) work you have done, if the job requires that kind of expertise. If your experience doesn’t precisely fit the ad description, draw connections so the committee has a sense of how you expect to contribute to the program or department.

2. Don’t rehash your CV. Your letter shouldn’t merely list all of your accomplishments; your CV already has that information. Your letter should provide a context for those accomplishments of yours that are relevant to the job to which you are applying. Your CV should answer the question, “What has this applicant done?” Your letter should answer the question, “How is this applicant a good fit for our program?”

3. Be concise. The recommended length for cover letters usually ranges from from one to four pages. While longer letters might appropriate for some jobs — e.g., program director or dean — shorter letters are generally better, provided they address the qualifications listed in the ad. In my time on search committees, I’ve read letters as short as 6 lines and as long as 18 pages (single spaced!). The very short letters weren’t very helpful (see no. 1), and the very long ones lost my interest.

This advice seems obvious, yet every search-committee member has tales of applicants who have hurt their candidacy by failing to follow it. Search season will be upon us again soon. What suggestions would you offer to those preparing cover letters in the coming months?

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