In applying for a position in higher education, the cover letter seems the least important piece of the application materials for many applicants. The curriculum vitae and transcripts provide the core of an application and document an aspiring faculty member’s experiences and training. The letters of reference are from one’s strongest supporters who will paint a strong image of the aspirant’s experience and potential.
However, the key to a successful application is in the details. The cover letter is the way to pull the many pieces of an applicant’s professional record in one place. A strong cover letter provides the opportunity to package the applicant’s materials to the specifics of the jobs and make the job of the hiring committee easy.
A successful applicant will read the job posting carefully and craft a cover letter that addresses each of the qualifications or requirements enumerated in the job posting. The qualifications are generally included in two sections–those required (sometimes listed as minimum) and those desired or preferred. The minimum or required qualifications are usually the bare minimum and are outlined so that the institution will be able to hire someone even if no one meets the “ideal” or preferred qualifications. For instance, a master’s degree in elementary education might be the minimum qualification, but the preferred qualification might be a doctorate in elementary education or a “closely related field.”
A successful applicant should address both levels of the qualifications in their cover letter. A candidate should not assume that the interview committee will make a leap in relating a degree as “closely related.” Speak to the specific coursework and research that directly related to the content area in question. If you do not make the connection for the reader; it may not be made.
Often a qualification is related to a number of years of instructional experience. Make sure this is clearly stated in the cover letter, as in I taught middle school and high school English for seven years. Then ensure that the CV shows the same number of years taught. In cases where the CV and the cover letter or potentially other portions of the application do not align, the applicant’s credibility drops. If one has part time experience, explicitly articulate the percentage of full time that one worked in each role. That allows the reader to calculate total experience without having to guess.
If the job posting states: “Experience in curriculum development, field supervision, and accreditation preparation preferred,” ensure the cover letter speaks to each item articulated with one’s specific experience. For instance, I have developed curriculum for three undergraduate English courses and a master’s level course as well. Again, the CV or other materials should support the assertion as well.
One should craft a cover letter so that everyone in the hiring process can use the cover letter as a road map in gauging how the applicant meets or exceeds the criteria required in the posting. Another consideration is to speak about why one wishes to work at the college or university in question. Generic phrases, such as, I am looking forward working at your university are not as powerful as I am looking forward to working at Winona State University with its long tradition of preparing educators since it was first formed as a normal school in 1858. Do the homework necessary to speak to the things that make the college unique.
There are a few other items to consider regarding the cover letter. Many hiring guides will remind applicants to keep cover letters to less than a page. In general, that might be a good idea. However, in the higher education environment, addressing each of the qualifications is the more important consideration. Be succinct, but there is no need to trim an academic cover letter to a single page. One thing to avoid is putting a cover letter on the letterhead of an applicant’s current organization.
Generic cover letters that do not specifically address the priorities and qualifications outlined in job posting probably do more harm than good. No member of a hiring committee wants to have to shuffle through multiple documents to determine whether the candidate meets a specific requirement. The applicant can save the committee time and improve their position with a clearly articulated cover letter.