A cover letter is your first chance to persuade the search committee and that (a) your skills and experiences match the position requirements and (b) that you’re a good fit for the departmental team/culture. You want to convey that you're an active scholar and teacher at the start of a productive career. Although the cover letter is formulaic, in the sense that there are a number of topics that need to be covered in a standard order, it should be a great deal more personal than the CV; it's your voice, not just a listing of your academic accomplishments. Revise your cover letter many times, soliciting advice from your advisor and others in your department as you do so. As with your CV, tailor your cover letter to the needs of the department and the mission of the institution. The typical length of a cover letter is one to one-and-a-half pages, but check with your advisor or graduate chair for advice on the standard in your discipline.
First impressions in writing matter, so make certain your letter is visually inviting and impeccably written. A poorly written or formatted letter ensures that you (and your materials) will end up in the "do not consider" pile.
Here are some general guidelines for writing a cover letter:
- In your salutation, make an effort to address the letter to a specific person. If you don't know the name of the search committee chair, call the hiring department and ask. If they don’t give you a specific name, then address the letter to “Search Committee,” leaving off the word, “Dear.”
- In your first paragraph, refer to the job title as it appears in the announcement, and state where you learned of the position. State your expected date of completion and make a claim for your candidacy that you will support in the following paragraphs.
- Paragraphs 2–4 should address your dissertation and plans for future research. If you're applying for a position at an institution where teaching is the primary mission, emphasize teaching first. For a position at a research intensive institution, talk about your research first.
- In the last paragraph, mention additional campus or professional experiences that demonstrate skills which you can bring to the position.
- As you close, state a willingness to forward additional materials and to meet for an interview.