Cover letters for administrative jobs

May 05, 2000

For most candidates in most searches, the first communication with the search committee is the résumé or the C.V. and cover letter describing your interest in the position. The most critical element of information conveyed in these documents is certainly your experience. But once readers have decided that you have enough of the right kind of experience, they typically turn to the cover letter and make some important and highly subjective decisions about your candidacy.

How can you make your cover letter a more effective tool in achieving your goals of getting an interview and getting the job? Here are some things to consider:

  • The cover letter must contain NO ERRORS. Even the best letter from the strongest candidate will be harmed, sometimes fatally, by having the wrong institution in the address (one of the hazards of word-processing) or by containing errors in spelling, grammar, punctuation, or typography. Most committees have at least one member who will say that if a candidate presents himself this way in a search, he or she can't be counted on to represent the institution well. These errors, no matter how minor, can be hard to overcome, so the best thing to do is to be sure your letter has none.

  • You may think that the cover letter is about you, and to some extent it is, but it is also about the institution you are interested in. They are interested in you, of course, but only for what you can bring to them. So, before you begin to write, immerse yourself in everything that you know about the institution and the position, and describe yourself in that context. For example, if there has been no systematic planning effort in the office you're interested in, write about the institution's need for planning, and your experience with planning; if they need better communication between academic affairs and student affairs, write about your experience and skill in bringing disparate groups together.

  • Cover letters should be tailored to the type of institution you are applying to, as well as the specifics of the position. Public and private institutions, large and small institutions, individual campuses and system offices all have their own issues and concerns. Your letter should show that you understand these issues and preferably that you have had successful experience working in comparable institutions. So in your letter, it's not enough to say, I want to be a residence-hall director; you have to explain how you could do that job in this particular kind of institution. For example, if the position is at a huge public university, talk about your skills at building community in generally anonymous and impersonal high-rise residence halls. If the position is in a small private college in an isolated location, share your ideas for linking students to opportunities and activities in the local community.

    If you have never worked in an institution of this type, the members of the search committee will probably be asking whether you will understand them and be able to work comfortably in their environment. Give them a convincing answer.

  • The cover letter should not repeat the résumé. The letter is your opportunity to highlight and interpret the résumé, showing how your experience makes you a great fit for the position. For example, you may have degrees from a small, private liberal-arts college, a public regional university and a major research university. Your letter might say, "My own education in a very varied set of institutions gave me a broad perspective on American colleges and universities, and I am eager now to return to the kind of institution that shaped my own character as an undergraduate."

    Or, you may have chaired committees on curriculum revision, residence-hall policies, and accreditation; instead of listing them in your letter, you might say, "I have provided leadership on issues affecting the entire institution and have brought together individuals with very different perspectives, helping them to find common ground and reach productive conclusions."

  • The cover letter shouldn't exceed three pages. This is not simply an arbitrary page limit; it is a discipline that forces you to give your letter careful thought and focus. It is more difficult to write a short letter than a long letter because you must choose the points to include rather than saying everything you can think of. How should you choose? Put yourself in the reader's position. What does he or she need to know about you? If you can't think of a reason why the reader needs to know what's in a particular paragraph, then it shouldn't be in the letter.

    From a more practical perspective, committee members are reviewing dozens of letters and lose patience with those that seem endless; you don't want to become the butt of committee jokes or the object of readers' annoyance.

  • The cover letter reveals something about how you think. Be sure that what you are revealing is what you intend. If the job requires broad conceptual thinking, don't fill your letter with details, but focus most of your comments on issues of policy, institutional direction, or other broad matters that you have dealt with. If the position requires working closely with and earning the respect of the faculty, avoid a corporate vocabulary that frequently alienates faculty. (In fact, jargon of any kind should be avoided.) If the position requires creativity and entrepreneurial spirit, show in the letter that you have some new and interesting ideas.

Related to this point, one reader asks whether cover letters should lay out a vision for the position. "How strong, and how detailed, should one be?" he asks. "If you're too weak you look like a lightweight and if you're too strong you might step on some wrong toes." This writer raises an interesting point about the dilemma between self-promotion and self-effacement. Here are some additional points to consider:

  • Be positive about your accomplishments and readiness for this position, but don't be excessively self-promoting. Personally, I don't like letters that say, "I'm the best person for this job." I'd rather see a letter that documents your qualifications and lets the reader draw his or her own conclusion.

  • At the same time, be careful about undermining your own case. Instead of saying, "I have no experience in information technology," you might say, "One of the projects I am committed to working on in the coming year is my own professional development in information technology; I have already identified the key sources of information and mapped out a plan of study." Of course, if you say this, you have to mean it.

  • Be careful about offering specific prescriptions for change. Unless you are an internal candidate, it is generally presumptuous and foolhardy to think that you know enough about the institution and the position to offer your plan for restructuring the office, revising the curriculum, etc. You can certainly discuss the general approach you prefer or have taken in the past, but unless you happen to lay out exactly the plan that everyone on the search committee is in favor of, you're likely to be walking into a trap.

Having said all this, I have to conclude with a disclaimer: The letter that seems very appealing and appropriate to one committee member may seem uninteresting and unsuitable to another. Even more disconcerting, committee members occasionally confess that the first time they read a particular letter they didn't like it, but on second reading they thought it was quite compelling -- or vice versa. So in the end there is no sure formula, and you'll need to use your own best judgment.

Jean Dowdall is vice-president at A.T. Kearney Executive Search, which handles searches for senior academic administrators. In the last year, she has assisted with searches at Northern Arizona University, Rowan University, and the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. She has also been a faculty member, dean, vice-president, and president at both public and private institutions.

Ms. Dowdall welcomes comments and suggestions for future columns at