Cover Letters

The job application letter is the most important part of your application.  People differ a good deal on how long a letter can be.  Our opinion is that it should be no more than 2 pages, but definitely more than 1. 1.5 or just at 2 pages is lovely.

The tone of the letter is crucial.  It must be thoroughly professional; remember that you are speaking as a potential colleague.  In addition, do not worry about repeating things from your CV or your writing sample.  Few people read all three documents with care.  Finally, be sure to have your letter read by at least one faculty member for matters of content and by at least one person who sincerely cares about typographical errors.  Be sure to spell the name of the chair correctly.

While you will probably have one or two models from which you work, you must tailor each letter to fit each job. Job letters typically follow a kind of five-paragraph format + conclusion, with the order of paragraphs switched depending upon the focus of the department (research or teaching):

1.  The introduction paragraph.  Name the position for which you are applying and where it was advertised.  Give your current status and the title of your dissertation.  If you have not completed  your degree, explain that you will submit the final draft of (or defend) the dissertation in ____ (March, say) and receive your degree in ____ (May is good — August would make them nervous).

2.  The dissertation paragraph.  This is the most important paragraph of your professional life if you are applying to a school that cares whatsoever about research.  I recommend a single paragraph, though others suggest two.  (I fear that many readers may not make it to the second paragraph.) In four to six sentences you must show what makes your dissertation compelling and original.  Do not, however, waste time situating yourself among other scholars.  If you have room, you might end this paragraph by referring to an enclosed one-page summary (see post on Dissertation Summary).  Remember: People from outside your specialty will be reading this description—and you should emphasize the aspects of the dissertation that fit the particular job.

4.  Publications, papers, awards.  Basically, point out that you have had the chance to share your work with scholars outside the ISU community and/or that your work has received some recognition. Another thing you can include in this paragraph, especially for research schools, is an idea of your research agenda; i.e., what projects you have on the table past the dissertation, where you’re going next. 

4.  Teaching paragraph (s).  This paragraph — you can have one or two — should include three things: a one or two sentence explanation of your teaching philosophy (you might show how your teaching relates to your research here), a description of your teaching experience, and information about the kinds of courses you hope to teach in the future.  This last element, obviously, is one that you can and should easily tailor to the specific position. For teaching-focused schools, this paragraph may go before your dissertation paragraph or between the dissertation and papers/publications paragraph, but be very careful in assuming that a school won’t be interested in your research. If you’re not sure, keep your dissertation paragraph concise and then spend two very detailed paragraphs on your teaching to show how engaged with and dedicated to it you are. 

5. Service paragraph. Here’s where you note all those administrative positions you may have held, your job at the CTLT, your work with the tutoring center, your editing work for a publication, your computer experience (if you’ve digitized texts, run blogs, etc.). Be selective in what you list, choosing what you think says a lot about you and how well you’re going to transition to a job that asks you to balance your research, teaching, and service.

6.  Final paragraph.  If you have instructed Career Services to send the dossier, say so here.  Mention that you will be at MLA (or appropriate academic conference), that you would welcome the chance to meet with this committee there, etc.  If there’s any place that you will be in December that is not listed on your CV, give the information here.

Other Quick Tips:

  • The real trick to writing these letters are the transitions between paragraphs.  In other words, you are going to have to think hard about the connections between your research and your teaching.  But the better you can articulate those connections, the better off you will be in the interview stage.
  • Work on your writing style and, if you think it might pay off, take calculated risks. For example, I mentioned in the first paragraph of one letter, for a school that served many first-generation college students, that I am also a first-generation college student.
  • Remember that in the letter, at least, it’s about what you can do for them, not why they will be good for your research or your career.
  • Do your research, but don’t go nuts and spend more time than you need to. Prioritize. For job letters, you can find everything you need during a 20-minute internet search of their school and department. On the university/college level, I looked quickly for the following: the type of student population (how they characterize their students), diversity, interdisciplinary emphasis or not, commuter vs on-campus, enrollment size, technology use, location, and mission statement. On the department level, I quickly looked for: what the department offers, where the gaps are, special interests or programs, courses they offer in your area and courses you think you could teach (choose 1 from each level), and faculty profiles.
  • One last tip: readers seem to love the Garamond font in letters, especially when it’s 12 pt. A subtle thing, but it just seems to look professional and is very easy on the eye.