While your long range goal is to get a job, your more immediate goal is to use the cover letter to get on the shortlist of a dozen people who will be invited to submit more writing samples and have references checked, followed by the shortlist of three or four people who will be invited to interview for the job.
So how do you write a cover letter that will put you closer to your goal? Here are five rules that may offer some guidance.
Rule 1: Write like a colleague, not like a student. All other rules follow from this one. The hiring committee is not admitting you to a program of study – they’re looking for someone who can help RUN a program of study. Without being arrogant, be firm, confident, and forceful. Don’t make excuses for what you didn’t do or don’t know. You’re an expert in your field. Write like one.
Rule 2: Keep it professional. Use the letterhead of the department with which you’re affiliated. Demonstrate that you are a functioning professional by showing your mastery of proper letter writing etiquette and format. Address the letter to the chair of the search committee or department. Use a clear, readable font and limit the length to two pages (that’s right – two pages). Members of the hiring committee aren’t likely to give your cover letter more than five minutes of their time. A two-page letter that succinctly presents your achievements and your brilliance without undue verbiage shows respect for your future colleagues’ time (and eyesight).
Rule 3: Organize the letter logically. Demonstrate your ability to think in logical sequence and to emphasize the kinds of things a hiring committee wants to know. Here’s one possible organizational plan for your cover letter:
- Paragraph 1: Position you’re applying for and short self-introduction. Start by making it clear why you’re writing. Be straightforward: “Please accept my application for the assistant professor of sociology position currently open at State University.” Be sure to use the precise language from the job ad for the position, department and institution. Identify your general field, subfield, area of specialization and the name of your university.
- Paragraph 2: Your primary research. Succinctly explain what you did/are doing, where and how you did/do it, and achievements arising from it, such as publications, conference papers, presentations, panels, and grants. If you're still working on your dissertation, mention when you expect to be awarded the degree. Also mention how many chapters have been completed and accepted, how many are in draft version, and your schedule for completion.
- Paragraph 3: How your primary research contributes to the field and discipline as a whole. Don’t spend a lot of time rehashing your dissertation. Explain—briefly!—how your research pushes boundaries, engages in dynamic new debates, and enlarges the discipline. Try to compress your dissertation description into a single paragraph, then explain how your work is changing the face of your discipline, engaging the leading thinkers in your field, or inspiring your teaching.
- Paragraph 4: Your publication plans. Indicate any articles in press or in process and where you plan to submit them. If your plans include publication of a book, mention the presses with whom you are in discussion, and set a timeline for the book, with a publication date ideally within 5 years of your hiring.
- Paragraph 5: Your next project. It’s imperative to have a second research or book project in sight, one that arises organically out of the first. The committee will see the added value you bring to their institution when you can show that your expertise crosses boundaries and that you can teach in more than one area. You’ll come across as someone who’s going to keep up the work schedule through six years, into tenure, and beyond.
- Paragraph 6: Your teaching. Briefly describe courses you’ve taught (as they tie in to your research), courses you’re interested in teaching, and courses you’d like to develop. Describe innovations in your teaching, students’ responses to your teaching, and the value colleagues place on your teaching.
- Paragraph 7: Your unique qualifications for the job. Within a few sentences, address your general research focus and course work and point to your experience teaching in the domains mentioned in the job description. Frame your paragraph in such a way to show how you’d bring unique experience and dedication to the position. (Consider this paragraph your “elevator speech” – what you would say in the space of less than a minute to a member of the hiring committee whom you unexpectedly meet in an elevator.)
- Paragraph 8: Options for following up. If you’ll be attending a professional conference in the near future, offer to meet there with the committee chair or one of her colleagues. Even better, if you’re presenting a paper at a conference, alert the committee so they can see you in action. Otherwise, indicate that you look forward to hearing from the committee soon, provide a phone number and email address, and close politely.
Rule 4: Show, don’t tell. Your cover letter should include evidence, not empty claims. For example, to say “I love teaching” means very little to a committee bent on finding a colleague who fits their department’s culture. Cite evidence that shows how passionate you are about teaching – did you introduce your students to field research that led several of them to publish articles? Did you use social media in your classroom in a way that led to innovative discussions? Did your colleagues adopt any of your teaching strategies? If you make a claim, substantiate it.
Rule 5: Do your homework. Show that you’ve researched the department, know the faculty, have read their work, appreciate their contributions, and know the focus and specializations of their specific program. To help your readers see you as a perfect match, quote what you have found on the institution’s or department’s website and connect it to your profile. Mention one or two faculty members by name as potential collaborators (but don’t call them Professor So-and-So – use first and last names. See Rule 1 – you’re applying to become their colleague, not their student.). Be sure you tailor your cover letter to the specific position for which you’re applying. You can create a general cover letter template, but craft each letter specifically for each job to which you’re applying.
As with any crucial piece of writing, ask a trusted editor or advisor to proofread your letter, using these rules as a checklist. If your cover letter ticks off all the boxes, you can be confident you’ve gotten your job application off to the best start possible.
Kelsky, Karen. “Why Your Job Cover Letter Sucks (and what you can do to fix it).” The Professor Is In. August 7, 2011. .
Howard, Philip N. “A Dozen Sentences That Should Appear In Your (Academic) Job Application Letter.” The Mentor Memo, University of Washington.
OWL Purdue Online Writing Lab. “Job Search Writing.”
Durand, Alain-Philippe. March 11, 2011. “Keys to the Cover Letter.” Inside Higher Ed.
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