Graduate Students Forum: The Convincing Cover Letter
Steve Hochstadt, September 2003
From the Graduate Students Forum column of the September 2003 Perspectives
The job candidate should consider the cover letter as the most important part of the packet of materials created to win the enthusiastic attention of a search committee. When committee members open the small pile of papers into which a candidate condenses years of academic life, the cover letter lies on top, providing the candidate with the opportunity to create a context, a mood, a lens through which the rest of the documents will be read. Of those materials, the cover letter is the most direct communication between candidate and committee, since the accompanying vita, recommendations, and transcript are not addressed to anyone in particular. At the time of application, their content is no longer within the control of the candidate, making the letter the best clue about the candidate's personality, attitudes, and judgments. The cover letter thus becomes a personal connection between the candidate and those who make decisions about jobs, signified by the handwritten signature at the bottom. These practical and symbolic attributes of the cover letter mean that its composition is much more significant than most job candidates realize.
I say that after reading hundreds of such letters written by aspiring historians in all fields of study. The occasional foolish errors can lead to good stories around the committee table, such as the letter correctly addressed to my small college in Maine, in which the candidate neglected to edit the sentence directed to a similar committee in southern California, where "the weather adds to the attractiveness of your position." The fundamental mistake here cannot be fixed by replacing these words with a reference to the joys of snowshoeing. The problem is in the deeper assumption that one letter is sufficient for applying to many jobs.
Every job is different. Each search committee seeks a candidate who will fit into a particular kind of institution, a uniquely constituted history department, a special slot within a curriculum. As I sift through dozens of dossiers, the few letters which are really addressed to me and my department stand out among the vast majority in which "Bates College" is merely pasted into the proper locations. Candidates who use the opportunity of the cover letter to make that personal connection to Bates stand out from the crowd.
The simplest fix to the universal letter is perhaps the most crucial. Candidates must pay attention to the difference between research universities and liberal arts colleges. In the crudest terms (and from my perspective at a small college), we are looking for excellent teachers who will also do fine research, while research universities seek excellent and prolific researchers who will also teach well. Does the cover letter reveal that the candidate understands the mission of Bates College and thus the nature of the job for which she or he is applying? A letter beginning with several paragraphs about the dissertation and further research goals, and ending with a paragraph about how much the candidate loves to teach, will not demonstrate an understanding of our emphasis on small classes, interactive discussion, one-on-one senior thesis work, and the overall goal of getting to know students personally. Candidates should show in their letters that their research and teaching experiences and goals are appropriate to the kind of institution to which they are applying.
A more difficult but ultimately more successful strategy is to tailor each letter to the specific job. The ideal letter should be an interaction between what the candidate wants to say about himself and what the position calls for. Figuring that out requires applying the skills that the young historian claims to have developed—close reading, research, and analysis—to the task at hand.
The most useful source is the job advertisement itself. While ads typically include much standardized language, each ad contains clues about the particularity of the job. Some clues refer to areas of crucial importance to the hiring department. For example, Bates advertised recently for an American historian who would also play a role in our interdisciplinary program in American Cultural Studies, which emphasizes the categories of race and gender. Candidates whose letters made no reference to this key feature of the job inevitably appeared less interested in Bates than those who discussed their experience with or attitudes toward such interdisciplinary programs.
A second set of clues lies in the composition of the department. How many European and American historians are there? What other continents are taught or not taught? Will the candidate's proclaimed ability to teach world history be welcomed or seen as evidence that he or she had not done any homework about this department's curriculum?
Finally institutional and departmental web sites offer a wealth of information about allied programs, departmental practices, and sometimes, controversial issues. The candidate whose cover letter demonstrated some knowledge of our peculiar calendar (short intensive spring term) and our stress on the senior thesis was also indicating an interest in our job.
I am not suggesting that candidates refashion themselves to fit into every position they can find. A need to remake oneself to appear attractive to a particular search committee might be an indication that this job is not a good match. I do urge candidates to use the historical skills developed over years of study to think about the job market. Craft a cover letter that presents yourself as a candidate for the particular job being offered. Should that letter, and the rest of the dossier, have the desired effect, continue to seek ways to make the personal connection between your own notion of what it means to be an historian and the kind of historian a committee is seeking. One does not need to know everything about a department; just asking a probing question about what a phrase in the job ad means can show both alertness and interest.
A good cover letter will not cover weaknesses elsewhere. But it can elevate a good candidate into the ranks of those invited for a closer look. Then all the paper in the application packet recedes into the background and the skills behind the letter come into the open.
—Steve Hochstadt teaches modern European history at Bates College, and just completed eight years as chair of the history department.