Your CV cover letter is both an introduction and a sales pitch. “It should show what sets this individual apart from all others,” advises Jeffrey Stansbury, vice chair of the Department of Craniofacial Biology at the University of Colorado School of Dental Medicine in Aurora. Like any good sales pitch, your cover letter should motivate the customer to learn more about the product—in this case, you.
A good cover letter, like a good sales pitch, has several characteristics. First, like a good doctor, it does no harm: It avoids making a negative impression. Second, it demonstrates that the product suits the consumer's—your future employer's—specific needs. Third, it assures the customer that the quality of the product (you) is superb. Accomplishing all this is easier said than done. So how do you write a cover letter that will do you justice and earn an interview? First you need a plan.
If the cover letter is to be effective, it must definitely be tailored to the particular institution.—Kenton Whitmire
“A successful candidate impresses the committee right off with the cover letter and makes the committee members actually want to dig through the CV and recommendation letters to pull out the details that start to validate the positive claims,” Stansbury says. “It also provides a glimpse into the applicant’s personality and gives some guidance as to whether or not they can communicate in an organized, effective way.”
One of the most important jobs of any good sales pitch is to avoid doing harm. Some cover letters inadvertently convey negative impressions of a candidate, especially if they “look sloppy or indicate an inability to communicate in English,” says H. Robert Horvitz, who shared the 2002 Nobel Prize for physiology and medicine and has chaired search committees at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. “These things can kill someone's chances," adds Kenton Whitmire, chemistry professor and former chair of the chemistry department at Rice University in Houston, Texas.
Horvitz adds that cover letters “should be neat and professional,” and should fit on one page. Whitmire would allow applicants a bit more room: The letter, he says, should be “no longer than one to two pages.” To keep it short, “the cover letter should not reproduce the information in the CV, publications list, or other documents provided," Whitmire says, "but it should be used as a vehicle to highlight those things that the candidate believes will make him or her a good match for the position at hand.”
An effective cover letter doesn't just emphasize your best qualities; it also shows how well those qualities are likely to mesh with the open position. “Applicants should begin by reading advertisements for faculty positions carefully and be sure that their background and goals are appropriate for the position in question. You lose credibility if you can't make a case that you fit the ad,” Whitmire says. “If the cover letter is to be effective, it must definitely be tailored to the particular institution.”
“There's no excuse for not writing a cover letter that shows how your education, experience, and interests fit with what the institution is seeking,” warns Julia Miller Vick, coauthor of the Academic Job Search Handbook, which is now in its fourth edition. “Not doing this would reflect laziness,” Horvitz observes. At best, Vick adds, “a form letter or one that is generic doesn't accomplish much and leaves how the application is reviewed completely up to the reviewing committee." At worst, a generic cover letter can make you seem undesirable.
“While many people applying for academic positions tend to think that the review process is an evaluation of their previous work—how good is it?—the issue that is as important is the match," Whitmire says. "How will this person fit in here? The former is necessary, but the decision to interview will often be made upon research area or some other measure of fit to the department's needs at that moment in time.”
Begin by learning about the department in general and the open position in particular. Department websites are a good starting point, but don't stop there. Go beyond the public information, and seek a sense of perspective. “It is best if candidates speak with their advisers and mentors to get some feel for the institution where they wish to apply,” Whitmire suggests. Close senior colleagues can serve the same purpose. Read beyond the job ad, and figure out what they're really looking for.
Once you've got a fix on the institution, the department, and the open position, ask yourself what abilities or special qualities a candidate needs to excel in that position. Then determine which of your qualifications and accomplishments will particularly interest this department. Think about your research plans, past research accomplishments, special projects, and previous employment.
What evidence can you put forward that your background and plans prepare you well for this opening? How well do your research interests match those described in the advertisement? How well will they complement the work of the current faculty? How will your presence there make the department better? All this information will determine what to emphasize in your cover letter.
Writing the body of the letter
Your research accomplishments and plans should constitute the body of your cover letter for a research university position. At institutions where teaching is the primary emphasis, your primary focus should be your teaching experience, philosophy, and goals—and the suitability of your research program to a teaching-focused environment.
“An outline of plans for teaching and research needs to be specific to be meaningful,” Stansbury says. Focus on your most important two or three examples of proposed research projects and innovative teaching plans, such as developing novel courses. These examples should change from one cover letter to another, as you customize your letters for different jobs.
After the body of your cover letter has been drafted, you come to the most critical step: writing an attention-getting introduction. Salespeople call this "having a handle." Your handle is what you offer that makes you especially well qualified for a particular faculty opening. For example, summarizing how well your research interests match the ones the department advertised provides an effective letter opening.
The opening paragraph should be short but more than one sentence. After you've captured the reader's attention with the handle, clearly but briefly summarize your most important—and relevant—qualifications. Anything less than a sharp focus and your readers will quickly lose interest and move on to the next application.
Closing the letter
End your letter decisively. Don't let it meander to an indefinite or weak close. A decisive close projects an image of you as assertive, confident, and decisive. It never hurts to close by requesting an interview.
Make your cover letter an example of your best writing by editing it carefully. It must be easy to read. Focus and clarity of expression in your letter imply focus and clarity of thought—very desirable qualities in a faculty member.
Then return to the critical issue: whether your research interests, other qualifications, and personality meet the search committee’s requirements. Anything that doesn’t accentuate the match should be deleted ruthlessly.
Now, set your letter aside for a day or two before editing it again. The detachment you gain from this short break will help you see what you've written more clearly. Detachment makes it easier to determine whether your paragraphs flow smoothly from one to the next. The logic that seemed so obvious when you were writing may seem much less so a day or two later. Carefully review both your cover letter and your CV to be sure the information in them is perfectly consistent. Often, a committee won't bother to try to resolve any discrepancies they find; they'll just move on to the next application.
Finally, Whitmire advises, “be sure to have your cover letter reviewed by someone [who] can be trusted and who has experience. Often, getting a second opinion about how something sounds to the reader—i.e., what they got from reading the letter, not what you intended in writing it—can be very valuable.”
This article is an updated version of an article originally published on 10 March 2006.
More from Careers
John K. Borchardt
John K. Borchardt has a Ph.D. in chemistry. He is the author of the book Career Management for Scientists and Engineers.
Professorship at a University of Applied Sciences (FH)
“Is it possible to act as link between academia and industry, between research and application, while at the same time work intensively in academic teaching? In order to answer this question, I was looking for contact with FH professors, who shared their insights into the profession with me. What attracted me most about their descriptions of life as FH professor was the fact that direct contact with the students is being given more weight than at a university.”
In order to raise attention for what is to follow in your application, you don´t need to do brash things, little tweaks to the expected flow of a text can already do the trick. Here the first sentence was simply turned into a question to the reader, thereby actively involving him in what will happen next. After binning twenty letters all starting with “I hereby apply…” the reader will hopefully pick up his reading glasses after this starter.
This paragraph also circumvents another pitfall: information overload. This typically looks like:
“I hereby… My previous experience/ skills in A,B,C… as well as… make me the ideal candidate for a position which requires in particular D,E and F at an employer which is well-known for G, H and I.”
After reading such a sentence, you´ll find it hard to remember even just one of the many facts, the disordered information snippets are becoming one big blur in the reader´s mind.
In the example paragraph at the top, only two pieces of information are given following the starting sentence:
- The applicant did her homework and actively contacted professionals in her target field. Implicitly the information is transferred, that the applicant could identify these professionals and get in touch with them.
- Contact with students is her TOP 1 priority when choosing this profession. This argument is not watered down by naming lower priorities here.
Without loading too much information onto the starting paragraph, the reader should already have a concrete picture of a proactive person, who knows what the job entails and is passionate about the particular challenges of this job.
One more detail about these few lines: the applicant refers to colleagues of the readers. Albeit being an anonymous reference, it still lifts the applicant out of anonymity. Even stronger is to mention someone the reader knows by name, e. g. “During a discussion with your colleague Dr. Kulinsky, my positive impression about working in your company got reinforced.” In this way, the reference person is brought into the letter as a lively part in support of your application, making it harder to completely ignore your application. Such reference can be placed at various points in the letter, however the beginning is the most usual place as it´s a very important point and might spare your application from the looming threat, the bin.
“I could make my first experiences in the services industry when working for the catering company of my parents. The personal contact with the customers was always my utmost concern. Back then the reason for this was simple: I could increase the tips I received by being friendly.
Today, 15 years later, I graduated as a PhD in microbiology. The joy of working with people, giving advice as well as working in sales has stayed with me at all times.”
The first paragraph is an excellent example of how to raise attention with an unexpected start of the cover letter. A little story from childhood is being told. That as such is certainly unusual enough to keep the reader from sleeping. At the same time, the example closely relates to the position, forming a nice link and giving a sympathetic insight into the personality of the applicant. Again, the story is by no means overloaded with information, actually the only fact explicitly transported is the work in the parents´ business. All the information is being transported indirectly by the picture of the applicant which is invoked in the reader´s mind:
– an entrepreneurial and service-minded family background,
– business sense developed from early childhood on,
– combining own financial interests with customer satisfaction,
– open enough to give (innocuous) details about the private background,
– creative person who dares such unusual entry paragraph.
The reader is involved in this letter from the very beginning on.
Patent examiner at the European Patent Office (EPO)
“When my mother asked me as an eight-year-old what I would like to become, I sternly told her, “I want to become a patent examiner.”
What makes this claim so outrageously unbelievable? It´s probably the fact that at this age it would be inconceivable to find attraction in a job with such an unusual constellation of tasks and underlying interests. And even though LEGO is now, after producing “The Hobbit” and “The Superhero”, also marketing “The Scientist”, it still seems impossible to design “The Patent Examiner”. So, like the children of today, I was kept from reaching such a positive judgement about the patent field back then.
However today, as an adult, I could give such a determined answer. Yes, I do want to expose myself to new intellectual challenges on a daily basis. Yes, I do want to work in a highly international environment. And yes, I do want to work myself into a new field of expertise at this point in my life. I want to become a patent examiner at the EPO and be a critical, fair and knowledgeable counterpart to the innovators of today.”
Here an example from the field of “suicidal” beginnings. An application to a public body full of lifetime employees who do nothing but checking patents for validity all day. The applicant has the nerve to write in a creative tone as if she were applying for a position at a School of Journalism. Why on earth?
The reason for such a “risky” approach lies in a basic principle:
“Write risky applications when the situation is precarious, write careful ones when feeling secure.”
This sounds counterintuitive, to say the least. However, writing an application is an activity quite different from most others in our life. When driving a car, you should be careful when the roads are insecure, while you should only drive faster under good road and weather conditions. When driving a car, the normal scenario is to arrive safely. The penalty for failure can mean death in the worst case, the benefit of a riskier driving style is too save minuscule seconds.
When applying for jobs, the opposite is true. Most of your lovingly crafted applications will not lead to an invitation or even job offer. The penalty for such a failure is low, the “loss” is just a couple of hours of your time. The prize to be won on the other hand is great- the much sought-after job offer! This is the reason for this “counterintuitive” switch in handling the risk of an application in comparison to most other activities.
Average applications written by average applicants for average positions might have a success rate- scoring a job offer- in the range of 1-5%. When applying for positions at highly popular, internationally active employers like the EPO, it can be assumed that the chances of success are far below 1% for all but the best of applicants. So what do you have to lose? A boring start of the cover letter will lower your chances to exactly 0%, you simply won´t emerge from the sea of applications. A “risky” start as depicted above has a small chance of giving the reader just that bit of mental tickle to put your application on the small pile for further processing. The only risk is, that an anonymous clerical assistant responsible for the presorting thinks that you are a bit weird. Who cares?
The other extreme of the spectrum are applications which are “secure”: you have a fair chance of receiving an invitation because you fit the job description extremely well or because you already have a foot in the door by knowing an insider. In fact, these are the really risky ones as you now do have something substantial to lose. In this case the challenge lies in not cocking up! If you´re unlucky then there is just this one notoriously frustrated, nagging person in the committee who vents his anger at your application because he dislikes your face. The rationale behind writing a boring and error-free application is thus to prevent fuelling this person´s negativity.
So example 3 might give the applicant a 90% chance of being sorted out in the pre-screening phase. Great! Much better than the 99% for a boring application!
A note on writing style. The last paragraph of example 3 is putting a typical triad of arguments into a single sentence each instead of just packing them into a single sentence like, “Yes, I want A, B and C.” This stylistic device certainly tries to build up some suspense, to hammer in the points and make them more memorable. Again, the author stays true to her risky-creative style, as such figures are usually found in advertisement or political speeches. But of course there is no reason speaking against trying to stand out with such a structure, as long as it fits the overall text and does not make it too elevated for a cover letter.