Hacking the Academic Job Cover Letter


‘Tis the season of the academic job search. Thousands of job candidates are putting together applications, hoping to make an impression on search committees. While ProfHacker has covered two important components of a typical job application—CVs and recommendation letters—we have, surprisingly, given the cover letter short shrift.

Our lack of attention is by no means a measure of the importance of the job letter. The cover letter could be the most important document of the entire job application. It is your chance to introduce yourself to the search committee and explain how your precise qualifications and experience make you an ideal candidate for that specific position. And if the search committee only accepts applications through one of the standard HR online interfaces, your cover letter will literally be the first thing the search committee sees when they open up the PDF of your application.

What makes a good cover letter?

Chad Black, a historian and friend of ProfHacker, has written an excellent guide to Writing a Job Letter. Chad makes the obvious but essential point that you should customize your letter for the job. In other words, there is no one-size-fits-all job letter. Chad even provides some broad-strokes template to help you tailor your letter for the kind of institution you’re applying to (say, an R1 school or a teaching-focused liberal arts school).

The rest of Chad’s guide is so thorough that I have little to add here. Except for the following points:

  • Be precise and concise. Two pages seems to be the ideal length. If your job letter is too long, you are not doing the search committee any favors. And consequently, you are not doing yourself any favors.
  • Proofread, proofread, proofread. While we all make mistakes, we also should go to great lengths to eliminate those mistakes in such an important document. Misspellings, grammar errors, typos, and stray words from bad cut and paste jobs—all should be fixed by having multiple people proofread your letter.
  • Use letterhead if you have it. When I was in grad school a disagreement broke out in the department between faculty who advised students to use the school’s letterhead and faculty who were opposed to this. The argument against letterhead was that, as one professor put it in an email—which I still have, nine years later—using university letterhead “trades on a status that accrues to standing faculty.” Pointing out that the same letterhead gives status to graduate students, who get jobs, who then give status to the department, the other side won the debate. And so, I’ve always been in the use-letterhead camp, which certainly benefited me as a graduate student. And if your university doesn’t have digital letterhead available, remember that Brian walks through the steps of hacking your own letterhead. (But please don’t use this method to fake your institution!)

Do you have your own advice on cover letters to offer? Please share in the comments! And if you’re writing a job cover letter, be sure to check out Chad’s Writing a Cover Letter post.

Letterhead image courtesy of Flickr user Nick Sieger / Creative Commons Licensed

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