Applying for Jobs at Two-Year Colleges

December 12, 2003

Encouraged, I hope, by my first two columns on teaching at community colleges, you've searched the job listings and identified the faculty positions that interest you. Perhaps the location of the campus caught your eye, or the specific job description. Maybe you have a contact there.

In any case, your next objective is to land an interview. And the best way to do that is to impress the search committee with your application materials.

Perhaps I should re-establish my bona fides: I've been a faculty member for more than 16 years, at four different two-year colleges. I've also spent nine years as a department head. In the last decade, I've served on at least a dozen search committees, chairing about half of them. So I have a pretty fair idea of what it takes to get an interview.

I've also seen a lot of truly awful applications, enough to convince me that people who have spent the last five years in a research-oriented graduate-school environment often don't have the foggiest notion of how to make themselves attractive to search committees at two-year colleges. Fortunately, it's not that difficult. It just requires a little work, an understanding of your audience, and a willingness to adapt.

The first step is to break down each ad thoroughly, paying special attention to three items: the minimum job requirements, the specific documents requested, and the application deadline.

If you don't meet the minimum requirements for the job, don't apply. The committee will not consider you, so you're merely wasting its time as well as your own. If you're not sure -- for example, if the ad calls for a speech degree and yours is in communication -- call the academic vice president's office and ask.

Be sure to include in your packet all the necessary documents, which may include an application form, a cover letter, a résumé or CV, transcripts, and letters of reference. The list will vary from campus to campus. If you're applying for several different jobs, it's a good idea to set up a table or flow chart, listing the colleges, the various materials requested by each, and the deadlines. That way you can make sure each packet is complete and mailed on time. Human-resource departments usually discard late or incomplete applications, and if they don't, the committee will.

The most important element of your packet is the cover letter. Under no circumstances should you omit this letter, which is your first opportunity to make a good impression on the search committee. Do everything in your power to portray yourself as a viable candidate who should be taken seriously, as a scholar who thinks and writes clearly, but is not in love with his or her own words, as someone who understands the mission of the two-year college and might well be a "good fit."

The application letter should be no more than two pages long and should summarize the key information about your education, your teaching experience, and any other relevant professional activities, even if that information appears elsewhere in the packet. It should be written on a word processor and printed with an ink-jet or laser printer on good quality paper. (Yes, I have gotten hand-written cover letters. Not a good idea.) Use a standard business-letter format.

Avoid writing a terse, single-paragraph letter that merely refers to your attached CV. Such letters tell the committee very little about the writer other than that he or she is probably lazy and perhaps arrogant as well. Some applicants seem to believe their wonderful CV will speak for itself. It won't. The committee wants to know more about you than that: how you communicate, what you think is the most important of your qualifications, your attitude toward the job as apparent in the tone of your letter.

Address your letter to an actual individual, not just to some faceless, generic entity, such as "Search Committee" or "Office of Human Resources." If the ad doesn't name an individual, take a few moments to look up the name of the college's director of human resources on the Internet. The ad may direct you to address your application packet in a certain way -- such as "Attention: History Search Committee -- and by all means do that. But you should still try to find out the name of the faculty member leading the committee (a phone call or two should be sufficient) and address your cover letter to him or her.

The body of the letter will vary somewhat depending on the institution and the exact job for which you're applying. Don't send a form letter to every college on your list. Take the time to customize each letter, tailoring it specifically to fit the job description and the institution. Mention the college by name. The committee members will be impressed that you're applying for their job, not just for a job.

In your opening paragraph, identify the specific job for which you are applying and tell where you saw it advertised. Then, in a paragraph or two, emphasize your primary claims on the job, i.e., your experience and your education. If you have teaching experience beyond being a TA -- and especially if you have experience at two-year colleges -- be sure to feature that prominently. If not, lead with your academic qualifications and play up whatever experience you do have. List some specific courses you've taught. You're trying here to convey the impression of someone for whom teaching has been a central activity.

In a few sentences about your education, mention not only your degrees and where you earned them, but also name some specific courses that you've taken, especially those that relate to the job in question. Whether or not you're minimally qualified has already been determined before the committee members read your letter. Now they want to know whether your education has been relevant and whether it makes you a good fit for their institution.

Next take a paragraph or two to mention any other professional accomplishments: your dissertation, conferences you've attended, publications and presentations, memberships, awards. These items have the potential to impress the committee and perhaps even set you apart from other candidates. But don't dwell on them; that will make it seem as though you're really looking for a research job. Whatever you do, don't spend the bulk of your letter synopsizing your dissertation or regaling the committee members with details of your latest research project. They'll simply wonder, "Why is this person applying here?"

Conclude your letter by thanking the reader for his or her time, stating your availability (be as available as possible), and asking for an interview. ("May I come to Centerville to discuss this position with you in person?") Hey, it doesn't hurt to ask.

The second most important document in your application packet is the résumé. Note that I've referred to this as a CV above; that's because graduate students are accustomed to thinking in those terms. When you're applying to a two-year college, however, you should use a résumé instead -- the difference being that a CV is a detailed account of your academic career whereas a résumé merely hits the high points.

There are scores of résumé formats available online and in various textbooks. For your purposes, any decent format that employs a good balance between print and white space will do. The main thing is to put the most important information -- your education and teaching experience -- right up front. In the experience section, be very specific about what you've accomplished: what courses you've taught, what your other responsibilities were, what additional tasks you took on.

Then you can list your other professional achievements separately, under such headings as "Publications and Presentations." Here again, don't go into too much detail. The fact that you have a few things under each category will work in your favor, but overemphasizing your research and scholarship at this stage might cause the committee to question your suitability.

Finally, be sure to list references, including detailed contact information, at the end of your résumé -- even if the ad doesn't ask you to. Those references should be current, people who know you well and who can address your teaching abilities. A professor who observed you in the classroom, for example, makes a better reference than one who supervised your dissertation.

If your application packet is complete and on time, your letter well written, your résumé concise and specific -- and if you're just a little bit lucky -- you may very well get an interview. And that's why you'll want to be sure to read my next column, on how to surmount that last and most daunting barrier.

Meanwhile, good luck with your applications.


Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English and chairman of the humanities department at the Lawrenceville campus of Georgia Perimeter College.