Cover Letters

The cover letter is an opportunity for you to discuss your interest in the position you are applying for and personal fit for the employer, including highlights from your experiences and skills/qualities that relate to succeeding in the workplace. It is a chance for you to “come alive,” so to speak, and hopefully get the employer    excited about reading your résumé and bringing you in for an interview.

The cover letter is also a “first assignment” of sorts, where the employer is judging your ability to effectively communicate in writing, including coherent structure,   content, grammar, and spelling, that is targeted to the subject at hand – that is, the specific position you are pursuing.

Tips for an Effective Cover Letter

When writing a cover letter, consider the following:

  • Tailor your letter to the position, employer and industry—do your research.
  • Assess the employer’s needs and incorporate into the letter using your most relevant experience, education, skills, etc.
  • Focus on the value you can bring to them, not what they can bring to you.
  • Promote your most relevant accomplishments, but not in a pretentious manner.
  • Utilize a positive, professional tone.
  • Differentiate yourself.
  • Personalize as much as possible – discuss why you are enthusiastic about applying, including why there is a strong fit between the position, the employer, and your career trajectory.
  • Use business letter format and keep it concise – typically no more than one page.
  • Have your cover letter proofread by several people.
  • Always send a cover letter with your résumé, unless you are specifically instructed not to or the system does not allow it. Note, though, that if you are only asked to submit a résumé, the employer may not have time to read a cover letter, so make sure to include all relevant content on your résumé.

Tips for Writing an Academic Cover Letter

Considering the following points can help you write an effective cover letter:

Know your Audience
  • Know what is most valued by the institution and department you are applying to (e.g., research, teaching, interdisciplinary, working with diverse students, quantitative vs. qualitative focus). Go through the website carefully and spend time doing your research.
  • Read the job description carefully and use it as your guide for points you need to address.
  • Consider additional qualities you may bring beyond those listed in the job ad.
  • Include a clear statement of your research and teaching interests (reference the job description so you know what gaps you may be able to fill for them).
Know your Research
  • Be able to briefly describe your research in a way that describes the depth of what you do but in a way that is broadly understandable. This will be tough, but it is worth your time to do this well.
  • State how your research does or could impact the field and why it is important.
  • Get feedback from your peers and advisors on the readability and importance of what you write.
Communicate Value
  • Have a cohesive message and develop clear themes to address.
  • The body of your letter should communicate what you can do for them and how you would be a good fit in the department. Your networking and extensive research on the department should pay off in this section as you address your expertise and how it fits into their needs.
  • Include specific traits you bring and avoid generalities or vague statements.
  • If applicable, discuss obvious/overt shortcomings, and explain how other experiences, interests, or skills still make you a good fit/ “off-set” deficits.
  • The level of detail and style depends on the department you are applying to. Generally, for larger departments, you can be less detailed. However, if you would be coming into a department where no one else does what you do, then more details on the significance of your work are probably        warranted, and you need to make your case more explicitly.
Be Engaging
  • After reading hundreds of cover letters, committee members remark that reading a letter that is engaging can offer a good appeal to the reader. However, it is important to remember that you should never sacrifice clarity for wit.
  • Write an opening that clearly communicates why you are writing and addresses why the reader should care.
  • Don’t give too much detail or discuss each of your career choices. It is not necessary to respond to every requirement listed in the job description.

Exit with Grace

  • End on a positive note and with a clear description of what you hope happens next (i.e., a meeting or interview). If you are going to be at a conference that is well-attended in your field, mention that you will be there and could meet with them then.
  • Let them know what is enclosed in the application and any letters of recommendation that may be coming if not included in the packet you sent (you could mention your referees by name so they can be aware).
  • Do not add additional documents unless the ad specifically states that you can.
What not to do
  • Don’t copy and paste cover letters to institutions. Sure, you have to cast a wide net given that the competition for tenure-track positions is tough. But if you really want a job, you need to take the time to personalize your documents. Get started on this process early and do your best with trying to personalize each cover letter.
  • Don’t restate what is in your CV, Teaching Statement, or Research Statement.