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Author Topic: The "Tailoring Application Materials" Institute  (Read 2516 times)
leobloom
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What kind of man reads CHE Fora?


« on: December 24, 2012, 6:26:27 AM »

I am opening this thread as I am about to tighten the screw even further, to increase my hit rate for initial phone interview selection. Naturally, I would like to find ways to make my application materials a better fit for the job description and for the school and its department which has the opening I am applying to.

I am sure that others may have similar issues to the one I will write right after the jump, i.e. in the next message, and my hope is that experienced faculty members (especially the ones with experience in search committees) could shed light into the specific problems which will be signaled here by us greenhorns.
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leobloom
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What kind of man reads CHE Fora?


« Reply #1 on: December 24, 2012, 6:39:51 AM »

My current issue is called "Plain Vanilla School".

That is, I am looking at a couple of applications which will go to medium-sized (~3000 students) private comprehensive schools, mostly teaching institutions. They're actually pretty good schools for what they are (one in particular). One doesn't even have a major or minor in my field, the other one has a minor. The first one has my position in a composite field, whereas the other at least has a small department in my field.

There is really not so much very specific about the department or the school, I mean nothing that I don't already address in my cover letter for this type of institution. Yes, I can emphasize teaching, or exploit the curricular areas of interest, but even those are pretty vanilla and if I were to change the template (most certainly I will at this point), they won't differ too much between them, they will both be based on this new template, with minimal changes.

On the other hand, another department I plan to apply to, which has a few unusual projects (like a unit on Second Life, or a troupe of Basketweaving theater), made me generate about a page of new text to go into the cover letter.

Can you please give some suggestions in this matter? Thanks in advance!
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seniorscholar
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« Reply #2 on: December 24, 2012, 10:22:26 AM »

I'm at a R-1 in a fairly attractive location, and in general "tailoring" of any kind is not really needed: we're arrogant enough to assume you want this job and (since you have a PhD) understand what a big university with many doctoral students is apt to be like. If you do have a really special reason to want to be here (i.e., using  the archives that are in the city or nearby, family in one of the local immigrant communities, etc.) that might be of some interest, but not nearly as interesting as your teaching and publication record.

The big big MISTAKE we often see in the application "tailoring" is that it's entirely wrong for this particular university. For example, since the university's name doesn't include a state or city (though it's a public university), applicants hoping to move from a small regional public with a large teaching load (and not enough publications) say things such as "I look forward to the research opportunities provided by a private university where I will be able to publish." Others are eager to cooperate with Professor Not-so-famous (who retired six years ago and is listed as "emeritus" on the website).

In other words, beware of over-tailoring, which is as creepy as a smarmy approach in any other relationship.
« Last Edit: December 24, 2012, 10:25:56 AM by seniorscholar » Logged
aysecik
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« Reply #3 on: December 24, 2012, 10:51:46 AM »

I have not yet been on search committees, but there is one thing I can say: During my job search, the places I got interviews from were those I specifically customized my application to, and places I genuinely was interested in. There were some I applied with generic materials (I panicked I wasn't applying enough, periodically) and no response from those. It could be luck, but maybe not. I was also applying more to research universities of various rankings. Specifying which "strategic area in the school" I fit in made a difference I think (now in my department, I am aware this is an important thing, especially for the dean who is relatively more involved). So perhaps you can look through the websites of the school and department, and see if there are any specific initiatives in your field?
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zuzu_
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« Reply #4 on: December 24, 2012, 11:44:24 AM »

The key to tailoring is to use the exact terms and phrases that are in the job ad and EXPLICITLY connect the dots between your experience and these values/ideas. So for example, if the ad says something like, "experience with under-prepared students," an applicant might think "well yes, I described my teaching style, and of course this shows I can work with under-prepared students," whereas the SC may not be able to connect the dots so clearly as they quickly skim your cover letter. In this situation, I would advise an applicant to specifically address "under-prepared students" and to use this exact phrase in the cover letter.

I am at a CC, and I am shocked at the number of applicants whose cover letters do not explicitly address the items in the job ad.

Of course this is not a perfect system, since the job ad does not always represent what the SC is really looking for. But it is often the best clue as to what they seek in a candidate.
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sagit
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« Reply #5 on: December 24, 2012, 11:54:48 AM »

The key to tailoring is to use the exact terms and phrases that are in the job ad and EXPLICITLY connect the dots between your experience and these values/ideas. So for example, if the ad says something like, "experience with under-prepared students," an applicant might think "well yes, I described my teaching style, and of course this shows I can work with under-prepared students," whereas the SC may not be able to connect the dots so clearly as they quickly skim your cover letter. In this situation, I would advise an applicant to specifically address "under-prepared students" and to use this exact phrase in the cover letter.

I am at a CC, and I am shocked at the number of applicants whose cover letters do not explicitly address the items in the job ad.

This all holds for my department at an R1 as well.  We provided a list of minimum qualifications for the job we recently advertized.  If we can't find where you meet those qualifications, we're not going to be able to put you on the short list.  So I agree - connect the dots - but don't do it in a way that is too heavy handed.  Your cover letter should reflect your writing ability, after all.
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seniorscholar
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« Reply #6 on: December 24, 2012, 4:31:44 PM »

Oh yes, this has been said often here. The best approach is to make sure every single specific in the advertisement -- whether it's degree, area, teaching underprepared students, able to get research funding, or "interest in Etruscan antique websites" -- is mentioned in the FIRST PARAGRAPH of the cover letter with some specific that provides evidence that you have it, and then that each item is expanded in the paragraphs of the letter. Somehow that's so obvious that I don't even consider it "tailoring"!

Cover letters that say, in the first paragaph, "I am interested in applying for the job you advertised in the MLA joblist" and then move on to the research and teaching in standardized paragraphs, go in the "no" pile before we even get to paragraph three. (I must admit that as an English professor, my first question is: which is it -- you're interested in applying? or you are applying? be specific.) So everything you write should be both specific and provide examples and evidence.

The brute 1st paragraph of the silly ad I just made up above should say something on the order of: My December 2012 Ph.D. in Etruscan Studies from the University of Lower Slobovia and my experience tutoring underprepared students through the university's writing center prepare me for the position as Assistant Professor of Etruscan advertised in the October MLA Joblist. In addition, I have experience in preparing data for the successful grant application that my doctoral supervisor, Professor Not-Quite-Famous, received from the Lost Classics Association to institute a contributors' website for the Etruscan subfield of the Association.
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erzuliefreda
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« Reply #7 on: December 24, 2012, 4:50:32 PM »

At my teaching university the first paragraph need not be so action-packed. First, we read all the CVs. If your experience is compelling, we will read your letter. We draw around 100 applications per position, but consider this an important part of our jobs and take it seriously. You should explicitly draw the connections, and you should lead with paragraphs on teaching, not research. Past that, the format is less important.
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lottie
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« Reply #8 on: December 24, 2012, 5:39:11 PM »

Bookmarking.
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tuxedo_cat
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WWW
« Reply #9 on: December 24, 2012, 6:15:15 PM »

First of all, zuzu's advice here is golden:

The key to tailoring is to use the exact terms and phrases that are in the job ad and EXPLICITLY connect the dots between your experience and these values/ideas. 

And given this . . .

That is, I am looking at a couple of applications which will go to medium-sized (~3000 students) private comprehensive schools, mostly teaching institutions. They're actually pretty good schools for what they are (one in particular). One doesn't even have a major or minor in my field, the other one has a minor. The first one has my position in a composite field, whereas the other at least has a small department in my field.

. . . I would advise that you look up the requirements for the major in the hiring departments and make a credible case for your ability to teach the lower-division required courses in that dept or courses that their department appears to teach for the university's Core Curriculum.  Look for courses that are taught in multiple sections every year.  At teaching institutions, this is a very important responsibility often assigned to untenured folks.  You can even look at the course descriptions in the university catalogue.  When I was on the job market, I usually tailored the end of my teaching paragraph to say, "I have taught (or TA'd) a survey on X and Y, and I am prepared to teach courses on P, Q and R."  It was usually just one sentence, maybe two.  You don't need the actual course titles from their catalogue, but something generic enough to make it clear that your teaching experience and skills will be a good fit for the courses they enroll regularly.

That was my "connect the dots" technique that zuzu recommends.
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totoro
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« Reply #10 on: December 24, 2012, 6:21:51 PM »

At my teaching university the first paragraph need not be so action-packed. First, we read all the CVs. If your experience is compelling, we will read your letter. We draw around 100 applications per position, but consider this an important part of our jobs and take it seriously. You should explicitly draw the connections, and you should lead with paragraphs on teaching, not research. Past that, the format is less important.

This is exactly how I look at applications. First the CV and then the cover letter (or selection criteria statement here in Oz). So, it is very hard to know how any individual faculty member will read your application.

I don't care how things are written as long as your English is reasonably grammatical etc. But I'm in the social sciences. If someone has a strong CV then that is all that matters to us unless there are indicators that they are nuts.
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shadowfaxe
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« Reply #11 on: December 24, 2012, 8:05:01 PM »

Thoughts from another job candidate: some universities have open access to all of their course catalogs for the last few years; one school in the Mid-Atlantic has course catalogs from the 1980s, to include instructors' names.  That makes it easy to get a feel for typical course offerings. 

In the past, I used to worry about verging into a faculty member's "territory" by pitching courses that others might teach.  But even that can be a toss-up; I've talked to some search committee members who are (understandably) possessive when it comes to protecting their own offerings; others are willing to share courses.

In my own experience, meeting the basic qualifications of the ad seems just as important as having publications and grants.  A lack of publications is the kiss of death in my humanities field, anyway.
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leobloom
Where Planted
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What kind of man reads CHE Fora?


« Reply #12 on: December 25, 2012, 10:54:11 AM »

Excellent comments, thank you. I am in the process of incorporating them in my updated cover letter.

Since there are others reading and even bookmarking the thread, I will mention another source, which has already been discussed several times here:
http://theprofessorisin.com/2011/08/07/why-your-job-cover-letter-sucks/
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drnobody
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« Reply #13 on: December 25, 2012, 6:04:51 PM »

I appreciate this thread, as well. Bookmarking.
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prof_twocents
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Did I miss anything important?


« Reply #14 on: December 27, 2012, 5:33:35 PM »

An easy cover letter mistake I see is not changing the emphasis on research vs. teaching based on the university you apply to. A big R-1 might love seeing three pages about your research and will largely skip over the three sentence paragraph at the end in which you present all your teaching views. But if you submit that same letter to a teaching-oriented institution, you go instantly on the reject pile. I'd also recommend that when applying to teaching oriented schools, you talk about your teaching in your cover letter before you discuss your research.
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