By Lindsay Fallon, PhD, University of Massachusetts Boston
Contributors: Robin Codding, PhD, Northeastern University; Anisa Goforth, PhD, University of Montana; Tyler Renshaw, PhD, Utah State University; Amanda L. Sullivan, PhD, University of Minnesota
When applying to faculty jobs, it’s important to craft a compelling cover letter. A strong cover letter conveys your story, integrating your experiences, skills, interests, and accomplishments. It is your opportunity to share with the search committee why you are a great candidate for the position, linking your story to the requirements and responsibilities of the position. A cursory search for tips about how to write a strong cover letter yields suggestions such as writing in a manner that is clear, concise, and free of jargon. Yet there may be more to it than that.
Below, we share guidance from four tenured university faculty members who have chaired search committees. They offer advice about what to do and what to avoid when writing an academic cover letter. We follow their advice with resources for continued reading and learning to support writing a strong cover letter, with the hope that such a cover letter will promote your chances of landing an interview with the search committee when combined with the other advice offered in our other ECF posts on the job search process.
What is important to include in an academic cover letter?
RC: An academic cover letter is usually the first impression you give to the search committee. This letter gives you the opportunity to indicate how your professional experiences and goals align with those advertised in the job posting. It is your opportunity to tell the story of what you have done and how you will contribute to the university, college, department, program, and profession. The cover letter also gives you the opportunity to explain and summarize the experiences listed in your CV and tie them to the position you are applying for.
AG: The academic cover letter is my first opportunity to get to know the applicant. As someone who has chaired or been a member of a search committee in our Department of Psychology, it is an incredibly valuable way to get a full picture of the applicant. It is an opportunity to understand their passion, their vision, and their experiences. It is so important that I often begin my review of an applicant with the cover letter.
Thus, I recommend that the academic cover letter convey the applicant’s story. This story moves beyond what is listed in the CV, but highlights the major themes of their academic and professional life. The thematic approach to storytelling is really helpful for me, as a reviewer, as I can see how their clinical work (e.g., internship, post-doc), research expertise, and teaching experience tie together, and how this would contribute to our program’s needs.
Take for example an applicant who is seeking an academic position after internship or post-doc, in which they conducted their dissertation research related to progress monitoring and reading interventions. During practicum and internship, the applicant had the opportunity to implement CBMs and reading interventions in the schools, as well as to provide consultation to teachers. In the cover letter, the applicant could discuss the theme of “importance of academic assessment and intervention for students,” and highlight their dissertation research as well as their clinical experiences within this theme. Perhaps the applicant didn’t have graduate-level teaching experiences in this area, but they could indicate their excitement about teaching related courses. They could also highlight their vision for their work in the next few years that ties to this theme. Thus, the theme (i.e., academic assessment and intervention) guided the applicant’s broader story.
TR: Sometimes position announcements will say what they’d like you to include in the cover letter. If they do, make sure to at least cover that content. I also think it’s important to cover three main topics, regardless of what else might be included: (a) describe your training background and work history in the field, (b) talk about how you meet the required and preferred qualifications for the position, and (c) say why you’re personally excited/interested in the position. I suggest leading with (a), spending the most time on (b), integrating (c) throughout your discussion of (b), and then strongly emphasizing (c) again at the end of the letter.
AS: To me, the cover letter is a crucial part of the application materials because it gives each candidate the opportunity to describe exactly why they are a great fit for the position. Be sure to respond to each specific posting rather than using a form letter for all applications. This may just be my own preference, but I don’t think generic letters serve candidates well because they generally mean that committee members have to infer why the candidate may be a good fit when a candidate’s fit with required and desired qualifications isn’t clear. One thing I observed several years ago—and that’s been repeated many times since—was that committee members will come to wildly different interpretations of the extent to which given criteria are met if the candidate doesn’t make it explicit, especially if the details are basically buried elsewhere in the application materials that can include dozens if not hundreds of pages of materials per candidate. It’d be great if every committee member had the time and inclination to pour over every word of the application materials, attending to every detail, but that’s simply not the case. Instead, cover letters are a great opportunity to shape readers’ interpretation of your qualifications, particularly those that are more subjective (e.g., criteria related to potential contributions or leadership), and to make them want to spend the time to really engage deeply with the other components. So as a candidate, you should take the time to tailor your letter to each position’s required qualifications and specified roles. Tell the search/hiring committee why you’re a strong fit for the position—and be as direct and explicit as possible. Don’t hope or assume they’ll make certain inferences from the materials as a whole. Use the cover letter to tell them exactly why.
How might an individual convey they are a strong candidate for the position within the cover letter?
RC: Provide context for the accomplishments and experiences listed in the CV and align those with the job posting. Including and highlighting (using bold or italicized font for example) words from the job posting as opening sentences for each paragraph of the cover letter ensures that you are addressing the key responsibilities that are posted.
AG: My biggest recommendation is to look closely at the position announcement and align the cover letter with each of the points in the announcement. As a search chair, we work very hard to write those announcements—often hours of deliberation with our colleagues, administration, and current students! Sometimes we’re very specific—we are looking for a particular area of expertise, while other times, we write it purposefully broad. If there are specific requirements, it is helpful to indicate that within the cover letter.
For example, as a program in the Department of Psychology that is APA-accredited, we often require that the applicant be eligible to be licensed as a psychologist in our state. We don’t necessarily require them to be licensed immediately, but that they are eligible (side note for those interested: some programs like ours provide post-doctoral supervision in order for our faculty to be licensed). Thus, it is helpful if the applicant has done some homework by looking at the Board of Psychologists licensure rules and indicates whether they are eligible in their cover letter.
TR: I appreciate when applicants just tell you—straightforwardly—why they believe they’re a good fit for your position. The cover letter takes care to clearly connect the dots, so the search committee doesn’t need to spend time deliberating about the goodness of fit. This includes both (a) outlining how you meet the required/preferred qualifications in the position announcement as well as (b) talking about how you see your background or interests or expertise as adding value to the current faculty/program. I think the tricky part here is being straightforward while preventing arrogance or misunderstandings. Job ads and websites can only tell you so much, and they don’t provide insight into program history, culture, or context. So, there’s always a chance that what you think about your goodness-of-fit or value-added is wrong (because of incomplete info or bad assumptions). I suggest using first-person phrasing that conveys how you are seeing the situation, as opposed to telling them how it is. Starting sentences with “I believe …” and “I hope …” can be helpful. For example, instead of saying something like, “Your program could benefit from my expertise in X and Y,” you might say something like, “I hope I might add value to your program by X and Y.”
AS: I recommend explicitly addressing how you do or could fit each of the minimum requirements/qualifications and as many of the desired/preferred qualifications as possible.
Candidates often prepare a general cover letter or template to be tailored for specific positions. How would you go about developing a cover letter that can be used for multiple applications? How would you tailor letters for specific institutions when applying to multiple positions? In particular, which areas of the letter should be tailored?
RC: A template is a great idea! The basic cover letter begins with the opening paragraph that describes why you are an excellent candidate for the position. Then, for a traditional academic position, the three following paragraphs might describe research, teaching, and service, with the goal of explaining and highlighting the contents of your CV. The closing paragraph might add an anecdote that you did not already discuss that once again emphasizes why you are an excellent match for the position. The order of the three traditional paragraphs might change according to the type of academic position you are applying for and the job posting can serve as a cue for which aspects of your experiences and aspirations you should emphasize.
AG: If the cover letter is the applicant’s story in which they share their passion, their vision, and their experiences, then that should be the foundation for applying to any position. That is, the most important thing is for the applicant to reflect on themselves first, and develop a draft of a cover letter that aligns with their vision and experiences (maybe even before they look for specific positions). Then, when new positions come up, the question they can pose to themselves is: Does this position align with my passion? My vision? My experiences?
If so, then the next step is highlighting experiences that align with that specific position (that is, making it specific to the job announcement). For example, if the applicant’s research expertise is related to equity and inclusion among minoritized students, and the job announcement emphasizes the ability to teach a course on cognitive testing, then the applicant could highlight in their cover letter their experiences with conducting cognitive testing on internship/post-doc (their clinical experiences), their enthusiasm in teaching this particular course (even if they didn’t teach it before), and how they might incorporate discussions and assignments on equity and inclusion in this course. That way, the applicant is integrating their passion/vision with the needs of the position.
TR: I think my response to Question #1 applies here as well. I suggest all cover letters hit on three big things: (a) your training background and work history, (b) your fit with required and preferred qualifications, and (c) your reasons for being excited/interested in the position. Part (a) could be standardized across letters, whereas part (b) is likely to be semi-tailored and part (c) should probably be highly-tailored. I think this three-part approach is amenable to a template that could be adapted for multiple positions/applications.
AS: I recommend tailoring sections to the qualifications as much as possible. So you might have a template that sets up a format and includes boilerplate language about your experiences/training and general statements to convey interest and fit at the beginning and end of the letter, but the main content should be tailored to the position and program/institution/organization. Consider including headings that align with the requirements or roles to make it really easy for reviewers to evaluate fit. Basically, make it easy for readers to locate details and leave nothing up to chance. When I think back on the various committees I’ve served on, a common experience is spending far too much time debating whether individual candidates meet specific criteria, even seemingly discrete or objective ones not up for differing interpretations, because it was unclear or unaddressed in the letter or represented in a single entry in a CV that could (and was, for some) easily missed. As an applicant, I wouldn’t want to leave it up to chance, so I recommend others be as explicit as possible about such things.
What is something (or a few things) to avoid when writing an academic cover letter?
RC: Making the cover letter too generic is a mistake given that for many search committees the cover letter is reviewed first and could be used to rule out candidates. Another mistake is failing to explain an accomplishment on your CV that is not obvious. For example: Why was that research team important to your research trajectory? What did you gain from the clinical experience that will be used when supervising students? How did that fellowship impact your professional values or build a specific area of expertise?
AG: I am having difficulty answering this question because I think there are differences in opinion about what should or should not be included. I have heard colleagues mention that it is not appropriate for applicants to include personal information in their cover letter, but I also believe that sometimes, personal information can be helpful. For example, some may argue that including information about family or personal life is not appropriate; however, I have also appreciated when an applicant indicates that they are applying to a particular position because it is located in an area where their family is from. As a committee member, that’s helpful for me to consider their commitment and interest in the position. On the other hand, it can feel uncomfortable for a reviewer to read deeply personal information that is shared in this professional context, such as the applicant’s history of suicidality. Overall, my recommendation is to reach out to a trusted mentor to have this discussion.
TR: Here’s three things that come to mind. And the first two are mostly derivative of my responses to previous questions. First, strive to prevent coming off as arrogant or overconfident. Watch how you phrase things; be sensitive to the fact that you are unaware of program context, culture, and history. Second, don’t forget to go beyond the basics. Yes, it’s necessary to outline how you meet the requirements listed in the job ad. But don’t stop there. Also talk about how you might add value to the program; give reasons for your enthusiasm about the position; talk about potential collaborations, etc. Third, don’t submit a cover letter with inaccurate (or failed-to-update) information about the position/program/university. This sometimes (accidentally) happens when using a template and submitting to several positions. Search committees literally cringe when they see another program/university named or described in your cover letter for their position. So, triple-check your letters for accuracy prior to submitting!
AS: Be sure to fully read the posting and any specifications for the cover letter. It’s always surprising and disappointing when applicants clearly did not read the entire posting, particularly when explicit directions about desired content are provided. That makes it the job of the committee harder and can be disqualifying, particularly when committees use standardized procedures or rating systems. Do not submit the kind of vague, brief letters that might accompany a resume in non-academic job search. Be sure to proof and to verify the institution’s name. It’s woefully common for applicants to submit letters prepared for other jobs and that undermines the application. It’s not that committees assume folks aren’t applying elsewhere, but attention to detail matters–your application materials will serve as an example of how you conduct yourself professionally and for many people, might be your first impression on them. Don’t name drop excessively or tout status at the expense of substance. That is, listing off senior scholars you’ve worked with or the rankings of programs you’ve attended won’t generally advance your application whereas discussing how the experiences you’ve had contribute to your preparedness to thrive in the position will. In the case of a letter writer waxing poetic about the brilliance and success of their advisor, a former search committee memorably commented that they wished we could just hire the advisor…needless to say, that enthusiasm did not confer to the letter writer.
What might you include in a cover letter when you’re also submitting separate research, teaching, diversity, etc. statements? In other words, how do you differentiate what you write in the cover letter?
RC: The cover letter is like an abstract of what is to come – hit all the main points and be sure to emphasize the most important aspects that will be unpacked in more detail in the individual statements.
AG: I like to think of the cover letter has the broad story of the applicant’s experiences, and the separate research, teaching or diversity statements as an opportunity to provide deeper and richer stories. That is, the cover letter is the summary and the individual statements contain the details.
TR: I think my responses to Questions #1 and #3 applies here, too. I’d suggest covering those three big topics no matter what. It seems that research, teaching, and diversity/EDI are mentioned in the required/preferred qualifications for most positions. So a summary or highlights on each area is nice to include within the cover letter. But I guess it depends on the ask for materials. If the application requires separate statements on specific topics, I’d suggest keeping that content briefer in the cover letter—and referring to the other statements for more. But if they don’t ask for separate statements, I’d suggest hitting on all those topics at length in the cover letter.
AS: As indicated in my responses above, I think the letter should be oriented around the specific criteria and directions in a posting, which can introduce or complement the narrative provided in statements. The statements can be general or the same for every/most application but the cover letter should be tailored.
Many institutions do not specify requirements for content or length. How detailed should a cover letter be? How can one ensure that the most important information stands out to readers?
RC: Two pages is about right for the cover letter. One page could suffice if you are an early career professional. Three pages is too long if you are also writing separate statements. If you are not asked to write separate statements and instead only a cover letter, then your cover letter could be 3 to 5 pages. If you are only asked to write a cover letter, then you will want to have longer or more paragraphs highlighting teaching, research, service, as well as how you consider and actualize equity, diversity, and inclusion throughout your professional activities. The exact point of the cover letter is to ensure that the most important information stands out & is connected to the job responsibilities requested in the posting.
AG: My recommendation is that if the institution only requires a cover letter (so no research, teaching or diversity statement), then the applicant can go a bit longer on the cover letter length (approximately 3 pages max). If the institution does require a cover letter and separate statements, then I would suggest 1-2 pages of the cover letter, and then 1-2 pages each for the statements. Again, I would recommend that there is a continuous theme across each of the statements and that the cover letter summarizes those themes.
TR: I think this depends on the ask for materials and the need for separate statements (or not). If there are separate statements for research, teaching, and EDI, I’d suggest a 1–2 page (single-spaced) cover letter. In this scenario, I see the cover letter as more of an executive summary. Then you can dig into the details in the stand-alone statements on each topic (also usually 1–2 pages). If there are not separate statements for any given topic, then I would expand the length of the cover letter accordingly to ensure good coverage of the big topics. Also, pro tip: if your cover letter is long (>2 pages), don’t be afraid to use section headings! Headings can give some organization and breathing room in letters that cover a lot of ground.
AS: Length should depend on how many unique points need to be made relative to the posting–that is, how many criteria, roles, etc. does the posting specify? Some letters will be brief when a posting delineates a few unique criteria or expectations for the role. Others are more extensive and the letters should be as well. I’m not too concerned about length because I think candidates do themselves a disservice with overly brief letters and that some job postings might necessitate long ones (3-5 pages). Basically, content matters more than length to me.
What is something you wish you knew when you wrote your first cover letter for an academic position?
RC: I wish I had (a) developed a template that could be adjusted annually and then tweaked for the academic position that I was applying for; (b) spent time in graduate school thinking about and practicing how to summarize my CV so that I could tell a good story about my work. I also wish I had considered the importance of the cover letter and given myself adequate time to carefully craft the letter. The cover letter (and corresponding statements) requires more time than you might think to construct well and I was up way too late at night finishing it, unfortunately often at the last minute.
AG: I wish I had known that the cover letter is simply one piece of the larger puzzle about finding someone who will fit within the program or department. I think it’s important for any applicant to realize that they may not be invited for an interview not because of the quality of their work or their experiences, but simply because the program/department is looking for something very specific. It is a deeply personal experience to apply for a job; yet, the decisions may have nothing to do with the applicant’s ability or quality of experiences. Having a mentor to guide the process of writing a cover letter, and navigating the application process, is incredibly important.
TR: I wish I would’ve known it was permissible—and a good idea—to solicit feedback from mentors and peers who are experienced with the application process. I really can’t recommend this enough. I suggest getting feedback about both the content and structure of your cover letters prior to applying. And I suggest asking both (a) mid-to-late-career faculty who’ve been on several search committees (and therefore have read lots of cover letters) as well as (b) early-career peers who’ve successfully landed an academic position (and therefore have recently written cover letters). If you’re applying to several positions, it’s probably unrealistic to ask for feedback on every letter. But at least getting feedback on an exemplar or template letter can be extremely useful for gauging how well you’re communicating.
AS: In addition to all of these great suggestions, I wish I’d known how important it was to be my own strongest advocate in the letters. There’s a fine balance between humble and undermining, and for many of us, this can be tied up in our cultures and the racialized, gendered nature of academia. Yet, we have to be our own champions in these letters (as well as the interviews that hopefully follow), no matter how uncomfortable it may be. This often comes through in active voice and action verbs. Consider for example, “I was afforded the opportunity to lead,” versus “I spearheaded/initiated/convened…” Basically, I had to learn to write like I believe in myself even when mired in imposter syndrome and self-doubt. It’s not about arrogance but rather being appropriately descriptive of your experiences and potential.
This final point by Dr. Sullivan is so important, especially for those who have felt silenced or undervalued in systems that often espouse a white-dominant, patriarchal hegemony like higher education. Learning to write like you believe in yourself using action verbs and an active voice will appropriately convey that you are an excellent candidate for the position with humility. As Dr. Renshaw writes, your cover letter “connect[s] the dots” for the search committee and is an opportunity to explain how you will add value to the program. Dr. Codding echoes this by encouraging you to describe the impact of your experiences and accomplishments to extend what is listed on your CV. Dr. Goforth shares that your cover letter can offer a brief preview of the rich details you might provide in supplemental materials (e.g., teaching and research statements), recommending you work closely with a trusted mentor to navigate the often opaque process of applying to academic positions. We hope the suggestions above are of value to you as you apply for faculty jobs and encourage you to read the additional resources listed below.
What questions do you have about preparing cover letters?
Cover Letter Resources