Making It Past the First Round

In narrowing the pool, search committees often look to see which candidates have eliminated themselves through missteps

Gwenda Kaczor for The Chronicle

October 14, 2013

For a high-school basketball coach (as I was in a previous life), the hardest part of the job is making the cuts—especially when there are more deserving kids than uniform jerseys, and the differences between the 15th player and the 16th are minuscule. But when you walk into the gym on the first day of tryouts and see the dozens of hopefuls, most of whom have no chance of making the team, all you want to do is eliminate as many as possible, as quickly as possible, so you can get down to the hard work of making a final roster.

I've experienced similar feelings as a search-committee member, looking at 150 or more applications for three or four full-time positions. Of course, far fewer of the candidates are no-hopers, and the qualities that distinguish one from another can be even more subtle. As committee members, we aren't necessarily trying to eliminate people. We are looking to see who might have eliminated themselves so we don't waste our time.

Faced with such a large pool, search committees at community colleges normally employ a four-step process—essentially, a series of cuts. First we toss out any applications that don't meet certain basic criteria. Then we narrow down the remaining pool to the 30 or 40 best candidates, which is a manageable number for a committee to sit around a table and discuss. Next we select 10 or 12 of those people to interview. And finally we conduct interviews and forward our hiring recommendations.

My objective here is to help you advance at least into the second round, because if that happens to you consistently, then eventually you're going to get an interview and, at some point, a job. (Another difference between the search process and my basketball analogy: On the job market, you get to "try out" over and over again, and for several "teams" at once.) Based on my 20-plus years of experience serving on and chairing search committees, I recommend the following steps to increase your chances of making the cut:

Nix the "shotgun" approach. Once upon a time, job seekers would apply for any and every position for which they thought they might be even remotely qualified. I might have recommended that approach to some folks in years past.

Not anymore. The competition is just too fierce, and the job ads far too specific. Before you apply for a position—even if it's something you'd really like to do, or think you'd be good at, in a part of the country you'd really like to live—read the ad carefully and make sure that you clearly meet at least the minimum qualifications. If not, don't apply.

What could happen if you don't meet the qualifications and apply anyway? Maybe nothing. But you're wasting the committee members' time. They're going to see at a glance that you aren't qualified and toss your file onto the (virtual) slush pile. When a position opens for which you are qualified at that college, some of the same people may well be serving on the hiring committee (which isn't unlikely). If they happen to recognize your name? Well, that's not exactly the reputation you want to have.

Besides, someday you may be one of those committee members slogging through 150 applications. Do you really want people wasting your time on a whim?

Meet deadlines. All deadlines. You'd think that would go without saying, but sadly it was one of the first points I thought of when I was mapping out this column. You would be amazed (or maybe not) at the number of people who think that being a day or two late doesn't matter, or who want to call up the HR director or the committee chair and explain why their materials aren't in yet.

News bulletin: We don't care why you're late. We've got 100 other people who want the job badly enough that they did whatever it took to turn everything in on time. If you're not in that category, we're not interested.

That applies equally, by the way, to documents that other people are supposed to send on your behalf, such as letters of recommendation or placement files. Most academics will do their best to meet such deadlines, but you've got to organize your application process so as to give them the maximum time (along with the requisite information) to submit those materials.

At most colleges, late applications are like the ballplayers who show up the day after tryouts began. They are not even considered.

Give us what we want—and nothing more. I've told the story before about the applicant who included in her materials—this was back when people sent actual envelopes containing pieces of paper—a self-published volume of poetry ... with a nude picture of herself on the back cover. That was, quite literally, too much information.

As you read over the job ad (again and again), note carefully which application materials it's asking you to submit. Don't send anything the committee hasn't asked for, even if you think the members might like to see it, even if other ads asked for it, even if you're really proud of it.

Not all colleges or departments require the same materials. Almost all of them want a CV or a résumé and a cover letter, but some ask for a teaching statement and others don't. A few might ask for something more specific, like your philosophy of community colleges or a sample of a test or essay that you've graded. Most won't. Again, if they don't ask for it, don't send it.

At the same time, be careful not to leave anything out. The surest way to be rejected in the first round is for your application to be marked "incomplete." Usually, incomplete files are never even seen by the hiring committee.

Follow directions to the letter. If the ad asks for official transcripts (even though most don't), then send official transcripts, not photocopies. Otherwise your application will be considered incomplete.

Mind your cover letter. Your cover letter is the single most important document in your application file. A lot of things about candidates—their education, their experience—will look about the same. Even most CV's, regardless of format, start to look alike by the time we've read 20 or 30. The cover letter is the one place you can truly set yourself apart.

The tricky thing about cover letters is that different readers may react differently to the same letter. Here are my preferences. For me, the one-paragraph cover letter—that says, essentially, "see enclosed application materials"—is a major turnoff. The letter is one of your application materials, and it should do a lot more than just tell me there's a CV attached. (Really? Who knew?)

I also don't care for extremely long letters, especially those that go on and on about the applicant's research interests. A letter like that, although it may be perfect for a university job, isn't really relevant to a teaching position at a community college. Frankly, I'm likely to stop reading after Page 2.

The perfect length for an application letter is about a page and a half—long enough to show you're serious without making the reader's eyes glaze over.

In addition, remember that your letter should be specific to the job you are seeking. You can use the same CV for every application, but not the same cover letter. That is especially true if you're applying to both four-year and two-year colleges.

In the opening paragraph, make sure to mention the name of the college and the specific position you're applying for. (Don't assume readers will know what job you're applying for. Colleges often run simultaneous searches for multiple positions.) Then devote the rest of the letter to demonstrating how you meet the specific qualifications listed in our ad.

If you're applying to a community college, that means spending most of your time talking about your teaching experience. Even if you don't have a lot of teaching experience, spend a lot of time talking about it anyway.

Don't neglect the Web. By now you should know that colleges, like other employers, search for information about applicants on Facebook and other social-media sites.

Long before you submit that first application, make sure there's nothing embarrassing for us to find online. With any luck, you haven't been too indiscreet. If you have, then do what you can to clean those things up. You might also want to adjust your privacy settings—understanding that nothing online is ever completely private—so search committees won't wonder about your crazy "friends."

Beyond merely trying to eliminate any potentially career-killing content, however, you should also consider the potential advantages of a professional Web presence—what some call an online portfolio. (Yes, I know many of you do this already. You're the wired generation, after all. I'm just here to tell you that it's perfectly fine with us graybeards.)

That's where you can post all those materials you labored so hard to produce but that we didn't ask to see—your teaching statement, your philosophy on community colleges, a complete list of courses you've taught, your research experience. You can also post your CV, along with links to any publications you care to share with the committee and anything else that shows you in a favorable light (such as an article in a graduate-school newsletter about an award you won).

Be sure, near the end of your cover letter, to mention your domain name, note that your site contains additional information about you, and invite readers to visit.

Following those simple steps will not guarantee you an interview, much less a job. There are simply too many people applying for too few positions.

On the other hand, if you don't follow those steps, you may never get a chance to find out how far you could have gotten in the process.

Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College and author of Building a Career in America's Community Colleges. He writes monthly for our community-college column and blogs for On Hiring. The opinions expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.