Academic Cover Letters
When you're applying for a faculty position with a college or university, the cover letter is your first chance to make a strong impression as a promising researcher and teacher. Below you'll find some strategies for presenting your qualifications effectively in an academic context.
Distinctions between Academic and Business Cover Letters
A cover letter for an academic job has a function similar to one for a business job, but the content differs significantly in quantity and kind. While the general advice for business cover letters—such as tailoring your letter for the specific job and selling your strengths—still applies, a cover letter for an academic position should be long enough to highlight in some detail your accomplishments during your graduate education in research, teaching, departmental service, and so on. The typical letter is thus usually one and a half to two pages long, but not more than two—roughly five to eight paragraphs.
The First Paragraph
In the opening of your letter you need to convey some basic information, such as what specific position you are applying for (using the title given in the job notice) and where you learned of the opening. Since a cover letter is a kind of persuasive writing (persuading a hiring committee to include you on a list of candidates for further review), the first paragraph of your letter should also make the initial claim as to why you are a strong candidate for the position.
Tailoring for Your Audience
In an academic context knowing your audience means reading the job notice carefully and knowing the type of institution to which you are applying. Most graduate students have studied a broad range of material within their discipline before specializing in a narrow field for the dissertation project. Since it is rare to find a job notice specifying your exact qualifications, you need to emphasize those aspects of your graduate training that seem particularly relevant to the position advertised.
- Job notice: If you've written a political science dissertation on populism in early twentieth-century US national politics, you probably won't respond to a notice seeking a specialist in international politics during the Cold War. But you may wish to apply for a position teaching twentieth-century US political parties and movements. In this case you would want to stress the relevance of your dissertation to the broad context of twentieth-century US politics, even though the study focuses narrowly on the pre-World War I period. You might also highlight courses taken, presentations given, or other evidence of your expertise that corresponds to the job notice.
- Type of institution: Often the job notice will provide a brief description of the college or university, indicating such factors as size, ownership (public, private), affiliation (religious, nonsectarian), geography (urban, suburban, rural), and so on. These factors will influence the kind of information emphasized in your letter. For example, for a job at a small liberal arts college that focuses on undergraduate teaching, you would emphasize your teaching experience and pedagogical philosophy early in the letter before mentioning your dissertation. On the other hand, for a job at a large research university you would provide at least one detailed paragraph describing your dissertation early in the letter, even indicating your plans for future research, before mentioning your teaching and other experience.
If you're still working on your dissertation, you should mention somewhere in the letter when you expect to be awarded the Ph.D., even being as specific as to mention how many chapters have been completed and accepted, how many are in draft version, and what your schedule for completion is. Last-paragraph tips include the following:
- Mention your contact information, including a phone number where you can be reached if you will be away during a holiday break.
- If you will be attending an upcoming major professional conference in your field, such as the MLA convention for language and literature professionals, indicate that you will be available for an interview there. Be sure to mention that you are available for telephone or campus-visit interviews as well.
- If you have some special connection to the school, type of institution, or region, such as having attended the school as an undergraduate or having grown up in the area, you may wish to mention that information briefly at some point.
- Mention your willingness to forward upon request additional materials such as writing samples, teaching evaluations, and letters of recommendation.
Job seekers at Purdue University may find value in the Purdue Career Wiki.
What are the objectives of a cover letter?
A good cover letter puts your résumé in context and persuades the prospective employer that you are a good match for the position in question. If your cover letter does its job, the prospective employer will begin to consider your candidacy and go on to review your résumé in detail.
Your cover letter also serves as a sample of your organizational and communication skills. For this reason, it's essential to spend time writing and organizing the content, and to proofread it carefully. The time and care that you devote to constructing and writing your cover letter and résumé will demonstrate to the prospective employer that you're capable of producing high quality work.
Finally, your cover letter expresses your interest in the particular position or particular organization. Cover letters should be individually tailored for each job prospect. Your letter should convey to each prospective employer that you have an understanding of the job, and that you've done some thinking about how you could fit in to the organization and contribute to its goals.
How should I approach the writing task?
Your cover letter is your opportunity to market those aspects of your skills, abilities, education, training, background, and experience which are most relevant to the position you're seeking. This means that you will need to begin by doing some thinking about your skills and background and how these relate to the position for which you're applying. (For more information about skills, visit the English Advising Career Page.) Your cover letter should reflect your individuality, but remember that you are "introducing yourself" for the first time to a stranger: it's best to err on the side of professionalism.
Read the job announcement carefully. What are the most important qualifications being sought? How can you best demonstrate that you have them? Try to put yourself in the prospective employer's position: What would you want to know about a candidate for this particular job? What information would be most important to you? Include only the most relevant attributes and experiences you possess which specifically match the job for which you're applying.
Research the company or organization: What does the employing organization do? What are its goals? What is its history? How does it fit in to its industry? What characterizes the organization's culture (e.g., is it casual, conservative, highly structured, diverse, traditional, modern, fast-paced, etc.)? Some information, such as the organization's mission, purpose, clients, partners, and a sense of its "style" can be found on its website (if it has one). There are also industry and employer directories available on the web, in the libraries, and at UW Career Center in 134 Mary Gates Hall. Local and national newspapers, industry-related publications and journals, and the Washington Occupational Information System are also good resources.
Address the letter to a specific individual. As with all writing, it's important to identify your audience. Taking the time to find out the hiring party's name and correct title is another way to demonstrate your interest in the position.
How should I format my cover letter?
Your cover letter should be three to four paragraphs in length and limited to one page. Like an essay, its content can usually be divided up into three parts:
The introduction states the position you're seeking, explains how you learned about the position, and indicates your interest. It often also contains a brief statement of your qualifications (education, experience, and skills).
The body highlights the most important qualities you can offer to this particular employer, related to the position that you're seeking. Because you will be attaching your résumé, this is not the place to go into great detail. What you are attempting to do is to get the employer's attention and interest him/her in your candidacy. This is also the place to present other relevant information about your characteristics or background that may not be evident from your résumé. You might provide the employer with some specific examples of how you've demonstrated particular key skills or how you fulfill the most important qualifications listed in the job announcement.
The conclusion should summarize your qualifications and your interest in the position. Be sure to close your letter with a request for action or an indication that you'll be following up. This might include a request for an interview, a statement of your intent to call the employer on a specific date, or the dates you'll be in town for an interview. Finally, always thank the employer for considering your application.
Sample Cover Letters
221 Peachtree Street
Seattle, WA 98105
April 22, 2013
Ms Stephanie Everly
12 Main Street
Amherst, MA 11001
Re: Editorial assistant position
Dear Ms Everly:
I am writing to express my keen interest in the editorial assistant position you advertised with the University of Washington's Career Center. I will be receiving my bachelor of arts degree in English in June 2012, and I am eager to join a small publishing house where I can use my skills in writing, editing, proofreading, research, and critical anaylsis. Based on my knowledge of Dickinson Press publications and objectives, I believe that my educational background and abilities would be an excellent match for the editorial position.
Through my academic work in English language, literature, and writing, I am prepared to make meaningful contributions to editorial discussions and to function as a member of your editorial team. In addition to my university training, I have held editorial positions with Bricolage, the University of Washington's undergraduate literary journal, and with Steubing Press, a small publishing house specializing in non fiction and regional publications in the Pacific Northwest. These intern positions have provided me with experience in editing, proofreading, fact checking, production scheduling, working with off-site vendors, sales, marketing, and customer service. My positions with a small publication and a small press have taught me to manage my time effectively, adapt readily to new responsibilities, work as a team member, and function well under pressure. The writing skills I developed through my background as an English major have been further refined in both of these positions, where I learned to write concise, persuasive prose for press releases, catalog statements, and website content. Both positions afforded me an in-depth understanding of the important and varied behind-the-scenes work involved in book publishing.
I hope you'll agree that the combination of my academic training and my internship work in publishing has provided me with excellent preparation for the demands of a literary editorial position with Dickinson Press. Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to meeting with you to discuss this opportunity in greater detail.
Mary L. Martin
221 Peachtree Street
Seattle, WA 98105
April 22, 2013
Echomedia Marketing Group
123 Avery Place
Seattle, WA 98111
Dear Ms Rodell:
John Bingham of Hemming Communications tells me that you are seeking a marketing assistant at the Echomedia Marketing Group, and he suggested that I send you my résumé. I am particularly interested in the public relations work that Echomedia has done in the non profit sector, and I hope you'll agree that my academic background in English along with my promotions internship with the Experience Music Project make me a good candidate for this position.
In June, I will be receiving my BA in English and Communications. My background includes relevant course work in mass media communications, concepts of new media, media structure, and cross-cultural communications. I have also developed strong writing, persuasive, and critical analysis skills through my major in English.
In the course of my internship in promotions, I gained practical skills in managing media campaigns, doing press work, and planning promotional events. One of my tasks with the EMP was to prepare promotional materials for upcoming museum events and to distribute these materials to the local media. Because there was often very little lead time, I learned to obtain information quickly and assimilate it into a persuasive set of ad materials in short order. At the end of the internship, I was commended by my supervisor, Marion King, for producing high quality work on a strict timeline. I am diligent, creative, and flexible, and I work well as a member of a marketing team.
I look forward to speaking with you about the suitability of my English and marketing background for this position with Echomedia. I will telephone you within a week in the hope that we can set up a meeting soon. Thank you for considering my application.
Mary L. Martin