The cover letter is the face of an academic job application: It gives search committee members a first impression of you. Will they be eager to know more? Or will they lose interest and move on to the next application? A thoughtful and well-crafted cover letter can help your application reach the “yes” pile for further consideration. Ideally, it will serve to secure you an initial interview.
The successful cover letter does several things in one to two pages:
- It introduces you to the search committee as a scholar and potential colleague.
- It shows that your background and strengths make you a fit for the position (and for the department and institution too).
- It provides a narrative to shape the reader’s sense of who you are and how your application materials fit together.
- It highlights relevant aspects of those materials and explains your interest in the job.
The successful cover letter also shows your professionalism, attention to detail, and verbal communication skills. The letter is thus a writing sample—but it’s also a reading test. It shows a search committee how well you understand the position advertised.
In this post, I’ll explain how to write an effective letter of interest for those on the academic job market in the humanities and social sciences, particularly for early career scholars applying for their first job as an assistant professor.
Before You Begin
Writing a great cover letter takes time. You will want to revise it more than once, with feedback from your adviser and other trusted readers.
In order to have a solid draft of the letter to work with, you will need to do some research and consultation. Begin by looking into the norms in your field for formatting, font, margins, and length. Then you should research the position you’re applying for and ask yourself the following about why you would be a good fit:
- What are the strengths and needs of the department and school to which you are applying?
- What excites you about the place, its people, its programs and culture?
- What tells you that you would thrive there as a scholar, a teacher, a community member?
- What might your contributions be?
Exploring these questions is well worth the effort. It will help you tailor your letter to particulars of the institution and persuade readers (and yourself) that you would be happy there.
Parts of the Cover Letter
From top to bottom, the cover letter’s structure is fairly standardized. Here are some specifics and suggestions about what to write and where.
Heading: Date, followed by employer’s name and address
Salutation: “Dear [contact’s name] and members of the search committee” or “Dear
Members of the Search Committee”
Introduction (1 paragraph): Open by identifying what you are applying for, including the position’s exact title and the names of the department and institution where it is. Say what you do now and where. If you haven’t completed your doctoral project, indicate its status and when you expect to defend it (prior to the new job). Your letter’s introduction is also a good place to summarize your education, expertise, teaching specializations and interest in the position.
Body (5-8 paragraphs): The cover letter’s main body should touch on topics that the other application materials elaborate in more detail, including qualifications, accomplishments, strengths, research, teaching, and academic service. Whatever the search committee needs to know about you, say it here!
The general focus of your letter’s body should vary depending on whether research or teaching is more important to the search committee. Research may be their primary interest. If so, talk about your current primary project. Mention any sources of support it has, as well its contribution to the field and resulting publications and conference papers. A secondary or anticipated project could be important to bring up, as well. Consider drawing points from your Research Statement, such as your research vision, its relevance and viability (funding), and how it fits with the position, department, and school. Further down in the letter, do give some attention to teaching. What have you taught? How does it relate to your research and to the department’s needs?
For jobs where teaching is the priority, emphasize your classroom experience and successes. Give specific course titles and pedagogic examples that will have meaning for the position advertised. Summarize your approach to teaching (elaborated in your Teaching Statement). Indicate your effectiveness as an instructor. Mention, as evidence, awards and/or increased teaching responsibilities. Quantitative evaluations may also be useful here. Be sure to state your commitment to undergraduate teaching. Say why you would like to teach at the specific institution you’re applying to. What subjects listed in the job description have you taught? What courses would you like to develop? How do those interests fit in the larger “picture” of you?
As for your research, a description of your dissertation or current project is important. If you can connect your research with your teaching, do so!
Closing: Briefly reiterate your interest in the position, department, and potential colleagues. Express enthusiasm, but maintain professionalism. Thank the committee for its time and consideration. Say you look forward to hearing from them soon. “With best regards,” “Sincerely,” etc., [YOUR NAME]
What the Search Committee Is Looking For
The search committee is a small group of individuals. Most or all of them will be faculty members. They will not all be specialists in your field; some may even not belong to the department to which you’re applying.
Each will read your cover letter with some subjectivity. And they may have as little as five minutes for it. Initially they will seek ten to twenty applicants for further consideration. At the same time, they will look for reasons to exclude applications. Your qualifications for the advertised position will be important, as will be your sincere interest in the position and your ability to communicate. But those things will not be enough.
What else will the committee look for? Asking around can yield insight. Your research into the department and institution may also help. The committee will likely give particular attention to applicants who sound like future colleagues who are motivated to make meaningful contributions to the department and who have informed ideas about what program needs (beyond what the job description says) and what they themselves can do. What else about your work, approach, and plans might “sing” to search committee members?
Things to Avoid
Your cover letter may inadvertently undermine its own persuasive power. This can happen in several ways. For instance, if you come across as too humble or self-inflated, search committee members may be put off.
Other points deserve mention too:
- Avoid inconsistency and sloppiness. Use the same font throughout your application. Skim for missing and repeated words. Eliminate all editing remnants, misspellings, and grammatical errors.
- Keep the language clear and concise. Don’t be overly verbose.
- Omit jargon and clichés. Find ways of talking about your research that show you can communicate with people outside your field.
- Don’t concede limitations you think you have. Maintain a positive, confident attitude (without veering into hyperbole or superlatives).
For a short document, the cover letter carries serious weight. In order to be effective, it demands preparation, reflection, organization, and revision on your part. Developing it can seem overwhelming. But remember, help is out there! Consult with your adviser. Ask fellow students/colleagues to review a draft.
Also, consider Flatpage for its academic job application evaluation and coaching services to assist in your search for an academic position. We can give you personalized feedback on your application materials and assist in the interview process, as well.
About the author
Matt Shoaf is a former associate professor at a liberal arts college, where he served on several academic search committees (and chaired a few, too). At Flatpage he is a developmental editor.