Composing a Compelling Cover Letter

Dean Francesco Cesareo of Duquesne University’s McAnulty College presented a workshop on writing cover letters on September 27, 2005. The following is a compilation of Dean Cesareo’s advice on writing cover letters.

Remember that the cover letter is your first point of contact.

A well-written cover letter will determine the seriousness with which a search committee takes the rest of your materials.

Pique their interest in you.

Committees read scores of cover letters. Make yourself stand out among the candidates by composing a letter that shows you fit the institution and the department.

Show that you are familiar with the department.

What attracts you to this department or school?

What do you bring to this department?

Research the department and faculty to know the nature of the department. In your cover letter, be specific about what contribution you will make to it and how your particular interests might positively expand it.

Be personal.
Schools like to know if something will keep you there. Do not hesitate to mention something that grounds you to the institution. If you have a particular interest in the area, if a spouse’s work requires you to be there, or if you have family in the proximity, mention it in the letter.  Science departments that have large start-up expenses for labs are especially concerned about a candidate’s likeliness to stay.

Connect with the mission and identity of the institution.

You want to show a potential employer that you fit the institution. Be explicit in identifying how their mission appeals to you. If a school has a religious identity with which you are in agreement, state that in your letter.

Be sure that you also show your appreciation for the type of institution to which you are applying. If it is a teaching institution, emphasize your teaching, not your future research agenda. What can you bring as a teacher to this institution?  What attracts you to teaching? Describe the kind of interactions that you have with your students that promote learning. However, if the school is primarily a research institution, begin by discussing your dissertation and future research areas, and then your strengths as a teacher.

Some concluding pointers for cover letter writing

  • Never embellish.
  • Strike a balance between humility and arrogance. Sell yourself but strike a balance.
  • Write in the active voice.
  • If an advertisement indicates that the search committee will hold interviews at a conference, indicate whether or not you can be at an interview. If you cannot, offer to speak via the phone or come to the institution.
  • Conclude by offering opportunity for more information
  • Thank them for exploring your candidacy.
  • The letter should be no more than 1-2 pages.
  • Do not use the cover letter to rehash your CV.
  • Do not rely solely on spell-checks and grammar-checks.
  • Address the letter to the chair of the search committee or chair of the department.

Dr. Cesareo also highly recommends that you read Carol Kolmerten’s “What Small Colleges Really Want” in the Chronicle of Higher Education (Sep. 2, 2005).