Last week in The Chronicle of Higher Education, there was an advice column that provided a how-to guide to writing a cover letter for applications for faculty positions. In this particular case, the focus was on 2-year colleges, institutions with which I have no direct experience. I have friends, colleagues, and former students who teach at such institutions, but have never worked at (or applied to work at) a 2-year college.
Perhaps this reflects my ignorance, but I was dismayed at some of the advice about writing cover letters. Some of it was excellent and practical -- don't emphasize your research when applying for a teaching position, do your homework about the institution, provide the most relevant information about your background etc. All of that is good.
This type of advice is what filled me with dismay:
Be sure to address the cover letter to a specific individual by name, even if no individual is named in the job ad or application instructions. Apparently, certain people, who are nameless, want candidates to seek out their identities so that the cover letter can be addressed to "Dear Ronald Zook" instead of "Dear Search Committee". If this information is not available on any webpage, applicants are supposed to make some phone calls.
Why do I hate this advice? I do not like the fact that someone on a hiring committee would really care about such a trivial issue. If you want the letter addressed to you by name, put your name somewhere prominent; don't play games. If there is an administrative reason why your name is not listed anywhere, then don't make it an issue. And why should the letter exclude the other members of the committee and be addressed only to you, the head of the committee? Does the greeting really affect your impression of a candidate? Is that reasonable? OK, maybe if the greeting is something like the e-mail we get from some of our students (e.g., Yo! Proff! or Hey!), maybe that would be unprofessional, but "Dear Search Committee" should not be a reason to start forming a negative impression of a candidate. "
Ask for an interview. I had no idea it was so easy. Actually, it seems that asking for an interview doesn't necessarily get you the interview, but not asking for one is apparently bad. How strange. I personally would find it obnoxious and pointless for someone to write in a cover letter (as advised in the column in question): "May I travel to [name the city] to discuss this position with you in person?". This would be seen as deeply strange in a cover letter to my department. Is there really such a difference between 2-year and 4-year institutions? I could be very wrong, but I would have thought that both get large numbers of applications for most positions and that this particular approach would not be fruitful. When someone applies to my institution, I assume they want the job unless there is other information that shows this is not the case.
I have saved the two weirdest ones for last:
Below your signature and printed name, type the word "Enclosures". Otherwise, the idiot search committee members may not know that you have included your CV and other application materials.
Print the letter in black ink on good-quality white or ivory paper. Paper? What is that?
I do not mean to denigrate this well-meaning writer who is seeking to help applicants, but I am bothered by the fact that some of the cover letter advice implies that hiring committees focus on minutiae and that an application can be downgraded by things that have nothing to do with the applicant's qualifications or degree of interest in the job. Applicants should not have to worry that committees are mulling over their choice of font or whether they get the greeting or sign-off words exactly right for the unknown preferences of the unknown persons who will be reading the application.
In my experience with hiring committees, it does not work that way. We look at the substance of the application, we make allowances for inexperienced applicants, and we expect there to be wide variation in the approach applicants take to their cover letter, from terse but informative to long, pleading, and repetitious.
Of course we want the cover letter to be articulate and useful, but beyond that, an applicant can go wild and use a sans serif font, sign off with "Warmest regards" instead of "Sincerely", and address us impersonally. Many (most?) of us won't notice, won't care, or will be able to deal with it without developing a deep loathing of the applicant. Just don't ask for an interview.
6 months ago