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.
Writing sample tips for a job application
Many job ads today require candidates to submit writing samples. Don't stress out! Follow these tips instead.
Get your writing samples in order by following these guidelines.
In today’s competitive job market, applicants for many positions—even those not related directly to writing—are required to submit writing samples at some point during the interview process.
Don’t let this request stress you out, even if you’re not a strong writer. Here are answers to frequently asked questions about writing samples for a job that will help you develop and/or select just the right samples.
What kind of writing sample should I submit?
Follow any instructions the employer provides—that’s part of the assessment process, says Diane Samuels, a career coach and image consultant in New York City. “If you have any concerns, it’s best to ask questions,” she says. “It shows that you are proactive in seeking advice before moving too far ahead with an assignment, which in a real-life job situation can save time, money and energy.”
If the company doesn’t say what it’s looking for, whenever possible, send something “drafted specifically for this job opportunity so the subject matter and writing style closely match what you might be asked to write once on board,” says Sally Haver, a former senior vice president at The Ayers Group/Career Partners International, an HR consultancy in New York City.
For instance, if you’re going for a sales job, you might submit sales proposals or customer profiles. If you’re applying for an administrative gig, sample memos would be appropriate. Management applicants might consider submitting samples of competitive analyses, reports or HR plans.
If you have little or no work experience or are applying for an entry-level job, submit a school assignment. It’s also permissible to send schoolwork “if you have applied for a position where the style of writing will be similar to something you would have prepared for school,” Samuels says. A lab report would work for a scientific research gig. An assignment from a business writing class would be appropriate for a management-trainee job.
Are certain types of writing samples inappropriate?
It’s a bad idea to turn in a paper from school if you have been out of school several years. “It says, ‘I haven’t written for years,’” says Thom Singer, a business-development consultant in Austin.
Singer also cautions against sending blog posts (unless your blog is professional and addresses business or industry issues), as well as “creative writing or a letter to grandma.” These forms are ill-advised because they’re not cogent to the type of work you’ll be doing if hired.
How long should a writing sample be?
Most employers seek employees who can synthesize large amounts of information into a short, concise, actionable summary. “Often a one-page memo is a more compelling example than a long term paper,” says Lynne Sarikas, director of the MBA Career Center at Northeastern University’s College of Business Administration. That’s because reviewers generally read just a page or two of a long paper, and are not concerned with the specific content, she says.
Can I submit a sample I co-authored?
A sample written with someone else may be appropriate if writing will be a collaborative effort at the job you’re applying for. Just make sure you list yourself as a co-author. But even then, a team-written piece shouldn’t be the only example you submit.
“The employer is seeking samples of your work, and can’t assume your role in a co-authored piece,” says Nancy DeCrescenzo, director of career services at Eastern Connecticut State University.
What about getting a little help with a writing sample?
It’s considered OK to have someone else review your submission for basic errors and clarity. Beyond that, though, and many employers feel the work is no longer representative of your skills and knowledge.
“If you’re really not much of a writer but your sample is great, that’s what they’ll expect of you when hired,” Haver says. “Unless you can keep your ghostwriter handy, that stratagem can boomerang.”
Should I take any special precautions with my samples?
When submitting a writing sample from a previous job, take extra care to keep confidential information confidential. “Mask or delete names, numbers and any other identifying markers from writing samples so the prospective employer will still be able to see the quality of your writing and thought processes but without learning privy information,” Haver says. Alternatively, you could make up a company name and change the type of business and geographic location, she says.
Sarikas offers one final angst-reducing tip: “Have a couple of samples prepared in advance so you don’t have to scramble to find or create something at the last minute.”
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