ImPACKful Tips: How to Write a Better Academic Cover Letter
Everybody has a story. The ability to identify the narrative arc of that story, and share it in a concise and compelling way, is what separates a good cover letter from the slush pile. Want to write an excellent cover letter? Make sure you know—and care—enough about your audience so that you can adapt your storyline to complement theirs.
What is an academic cover letter, and why do I need to write one?
Essentially, the cover letter introduces you to the search committee. (An academic cover letter should be one to two pages long.) It works in tandem with the CV to make an argument about your suitability for the advertised position—in other words, your “fit.”
It is my contention that there are two kinds of search committee members in the world:
- those who start with the CV, and
- those who start with the cover letter.
For that reason, your cover letter needs to stand on its own as a meaningful document. It interprets the timeline you set out in your CV without reiterating it. So if there’s something you want the committee to see in your CV, or understand about you as a candidate, you need to address it in your cover letter.
Think about it this way: your cover letter, working together with your CV, is what persuades the search committee to read the rest of your application package.
What do most cover letters look like and why are they boring?
Most cover letters are, at least in my experience, about the applicant. They focus on what the applicant has done and is currently doing, what the applicant likes or dislikes, and the applicant’s hopes and dreams for the future.
An analogy to the world of dating is apt here: imagine that you’ve met someone who wants to establish a lifelong (tenured or contract renewable!) relationship with you. You’re open to hearing how the two of you will forge a better life together—and then your date starts talking about their amazing qualities, their past relationships, their five-year plan for personal fulfillment, and in the last five minutes of the date they mention that you’re a great listener.
In short, most cover letters are one-sided and therefore, of limited interest to the reader who (in the vast majority of academic job searches) is an actual human.
How do I write a better cover letter?
Step One: Read the job ad carefully & adapt accordingly
The first step is to read the job advertisement very carefully, and then adapt your message accordingly. If, for example, the advertised position is for a 4/4 course load at a teaching-intensive liberal arts college, focusing your cover letter on your cutting-edge research agenda is unlikely to be effective. A better strategy is to address how your research informs your teaching practice and how you would involve undergraduates in a meaningful way.
Conversely, a cover letter for a research-focused position should emphasize past, current, and future research directions as they align with the department’s priorities.
Step Two: Align your experience and future plans with the job description
The order in which the job ad outlines responsibilities and priorities gives you a basic template for your letter. If you find yourself resisting this order—struggling to talk about teaching or research in a way that aligns with the advertised position, for example—it’s a sign that you might not want to invest your time in applying for that position.
You’re thinking about getting a job—but the search committee wants to hire someone who will be successful in the advertised role. Your goal in the cover letter is not just to impress the search committee with what you’ve done; it’s to demonstrate that you will be a solid long-term investment as a colleague.
Step Three: Focus only on the positions that match your research & teaching profile and that you’re most excited about!
At this point, most would ask, “In this job market, shouldn’t everyone apply for everything?” Not everyone will agree with me on this, but I say no. Having analyzed the data from my own academic job searches, I can affirm that I achieved equivalent or better results (measured in quantity and quality of interviews) by focusing only on the positions that best matched my research and teaching profile instead of adopting the scattershot approach of my first full-scale job search.
By limiting the number of positions you apply to, you will be able to devote more time to researching the department, the institution, the student demographics, the geographical region—anything and everything that will help you connect with the audience reading your cover letter, demonstrate your fit for the position, and convey your enthusiasm.
And while we’re on the subject, showing time and care and attention in your cover letter will express your enthusiasm far more effectively than resorting to everyone’s default sentence, I am passionate.
This sounds like a lot of time to spend, and a lot of effort!
Yes, it is. But if you’re only applying to positions that truly interest you and align with your profile as a candidate, you’re more likely to
- be able to use all of this information in an interview setting;
- accept an offer with confidence in your chances of success and happiness;
- have a realistic plan when you step into your new role as a faculty member; and
- show respect for your potential future colleagues.
You’re making a significant investment of time and energy in your job search—why not make every word count?
Interested in learning more about cover letters and getting feedback on your work in progress?
Attend one of our cover letter workshops or ask a member of your PACK to read your letter. You can view sample cover letters from the UCSF Office of Career and Professional Development and from our own postdoc manager, Dr. Christopher Smith.
Dr. Erin Frey (postdoctoral teaching fellow, CVM) writes,
“I was able to transform my cover letter into an authentic statement that highlighted personal stories of my passion and vision for the position and for the department.”
She adds that working with the professional development team “helped me to understand what resonates with search committees and how to use concrete experiences to demonstrate my clinical teaching philosophies.”
Sign up for one of our workshops in the fall or ask someone in your PACK to help you with your cover letter today. Using our ImPACKful tips and resources, your story will shine bright in your cover letter.
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