How to Tailor Your Cover Letters for Faculty Jobs
It’s not easy to customize application letters. You’ll spend a lot of time asking yourself, “Am I doing this right?”
In this year’s hiring cycle, you may be sending out more than a dozen academic job applications, all of which have deadlines within a few weeks of one another. The prospect of tailoring each cover letter to a particular opening is so daunting that you might be tempted to just send out the same one to every department. No one would know, right?
But anyone who has read job applications — and we’ve read a lot of them as experts on graduate career counseling — can attest: A candidate who takes the time to understand the job ad, the institution, and the types of students it serves, and has incorporated that knowledge into a cover letter, is
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In this year’s hiring cycle, you may be sending out more than a dozen academic-job applications, all of which have deadlines within a few weeks of one another. The prospect of tailoring each cover letter to a particular opening is so daunting that you might be tempted to just send out the same one to every department. No one would know, right?
But anyone who has read job applications — and we’ve read a lot of them as experts on graduate career counseling — can attest: A candidate who takes the time to understand the job ad, the institution, and the types of students it serves, and has incorporated that knowledge into a cover letter, is always going to have an advantage over one who doesn’t.
Being able to speak to your fit for a specific faculty position is going to be far more compelling to the department than a general description of your work, especially given that it’s probably overwhelmed with applications. A tailored letter will make you appear both more prepared for the job and more enthusiastic about it. (That’s true of cover letters for other types of positions as well, although their importance varies by industry.)
If that seems like obvious advice, you might be surprised how often job candidates submit generic cover letters. For a part-time position that one of us recently posted, 94 candidates applied but only a few of them attempted to make a connection between the position and their backgrounds and résumés.
The people reading your cover letters know that you are applying because you need work. But so do all the other applicants. Not tailoring your letter shifts the work of trying to understand why you want this particular job into the hands of a stranger. Why do you want to come to our institution? Why are you a fit for us? Which aspects of your experience will help you to succeed here? Stand-out candidates are often the ones who made those connections clear.
In June we wrote about six factors to consider in drafting persuasive cover letters, and in August, about running a tandem search for faculty and industry jobs. We hope you spent some time over the summer developing paragraphs about your research and teaching, and polishing your CV. Doing so will have put you in a much better position as job announcements start to appear this fall. If you didn’t have a chance to do that, now is the time to start drafting your cover-letter template. From there, you can begin to tailor each letter with a clear-eyed view of your own work and scholarly promise.
What is the department looking for in this hire? An academic CV is a comprehensive document. It lists everything. Your cover letter should not rehash everything in your CV; rather, it curates those experiences and puts forward certain ones as proof of what you are promising. Tailoring those experiences to the institution means understanding what the hiring department wants.
While that might seem like trying to read tea leaves, it can be done. A good place to begin is by very carefully reading the job ad. In some instances, it will be full of helpful details about the opening, such as:
- Subfield or area of specialization
- Type of institution (public, private, religious, research- or teaching-focused, etc.)
- Values or mission of the campus
- Type of teaching the candidate will be expected to do (core curriculum, upper- and lower-division courses, or large introductory lectures)
- Teaching load, schedule, and modalities
- Research expectations
- Qualifications, both required and preferred
Unfortunately, some ads will be far less detailed or downright vague. That’s when you’ll need to do some research on the department and the institution to articulate your fit. The Carnegie Classification can give you a snapshot of an institution’s undergraduate enrollment, program types, and general profile. Campus and departmental websites are another source of information that can help you understand how a particular college or university presents itself to prospective students and to the public.
Most important, whether you are dealing with a long, detailed job ad or a short, sparse one, you should be sensitive as to whether your letter should focus on teaching, research, or give equal emphasis to both. The teaching load, if it’s stated in the job announcement, and the type of institution will help you to parse this. A position with a “4-4” load (four courses a semester) is almost certainly going to place a heavy emphasis on teaching. A “2-2” load means the department will probably be more interested in your research — but that doesn’t mean you should ignore teaching in your cover letter, just put less emphasis on it.
Time to start tailoring. Once you have a sense of the job, the department, and the institution (insofar as that is possible), it’s time to think about how you and your work might fit in there. If the job ad is relatively detailed, it can be helpful to read it with a highlighter in hand, making note of words and phrases that jump out at you. Where do your own interests and experience align with the department’s goals — beyond that it has an opening and you need a job? Are there parts of the ad that feel especially relevant to your work? Can you begin to think of examples that might illustrate your fit for this particular position?
Things to consider include:
- Have you taught courses similar to ones that the department has identified as priorities? Have you taught students similar to the college’s?
- Does your area of research complement those already in existence at the institution? Are there centers, research projects, or coalitions on the campus with which you might partner? Archives that might be crucial to your work? (Tread carefully, however, in mentioning specific faculty members’ names, and avoid doing so unless a connection has given you a very good read on the department.)
- Does the institution have a clear focus or mission that threads through its curriculum (service learning, for example)? How might it connect to your teaching and research? What else about the institution correlates to your work?
- Is undergraduate research important to the institution? How would that work with your research agenda?
- Have you done service work during your time as a graduate student or recent Ph.D.? Does your service experience connect to anything mentioned in the job ad or any departmental priorities?
- If you’re applying for a postdoc, think specifically about how you’d achieve your objectives during the duration of your appointment.
Remember that faculty members may be scanning dozens of cover letters, and you have no control over whether they read yours when they are well-caffeinated in the late morning or falling asleep over their desk at the end of a long day. Knowing this, you want to give them a reason to remember you among many qualified applicants.
Many job candidates are afraid of writing an assertive cover letter that will turn off some imagined member of a search committee — a fear sometimes rooted in advice dispensed by their advisers. But the flip side of that fear is writing a letter so bland that you blur into a sea of other applicants.
Don’t be afraid to be distinctive in your application letter. Distinction is memorable, and you want the department to notice you and want to hire you for the ways in which you are different from other candidates.
For that reason, we advise caution in using someone else’s cover letter as a template or using ChatGPT to generate specific language about yourself in relation to an institution. It’s fine to use both as a starting point to create a draft. Just be aware of the pitfalls of overreliance on other people’s letters or on AI bots:
- Repetitive sentence structure. A single reference to “my research, teaching, and service” is fine. But if every paragraph contains the same three-part list, it starts to feel repetitive.
- Overuse of cliched phrases such as “great fit,” “extremely interested,” and “eager to contribute.”
- Producing generally bland writing (“I am a self-motivated and hardworking researcher seeking a tenure-track position”). If a sentence in your letter could describe any Ph.D. student in almost any field, it needs to be rewritten.
It’s not easy to tailor a letter. You’ll spend a lot of time asking yourself, “Am I doing this right?” In fact, you may feel that way about the entire experience of searching for a faculty position. It’s a challenging process that undermines most people’s confidence.
Rest assured, it’s worth taking the time to make a case for yourself relative to an institution’s specific needs and profile. Not only will it increase your chances of being invited for a first-round interview, it will give you a head start in figuring out how to present yourself if you are.