Writing Application Letters
Remember, the few minutes someone spends reading your letter and vita determines whether or not your candidacy is pursued. Letters should be brief, clear, and informative.
- Aim for two pages. You won't get by with padding, in the letter or the vita.
- Avoid ambiguity; for example, do not try to imply that you are working full-time when in fact you are working part-time.
- Adopt a straightforward tone that shows your qualities without boasting or false modesty.
- Do not repeat everything on your vita, but do make connections that may not be obvious from your vita.
- Individualize each letter by matching your qualifications to specific aspects of the department, such as special programs, etc. Be sensitive to whether the emphasis will be on research or teaching. However, don't make unwarranted assumptions about the institution or its region.
- Proofread very carefully. Treat the cover letter as your first writing sample. If the letter is poorly written, you may be rejected immediately. Seek advice and revise. Use a good-quality printer and paper, but avoid fancy fonts or oddly colored paper.
- You may wish to use departmental letterhead—available from the office associate for the graduate program—for the final versions of your letter.
- A file of sample letters is maintained in 9022 Haley Center.
Most letters adopt something like the following form, one which hiring committees expect to see, so you shouldn't stray too far from it. This outline would be most appropriate for a position at an institution that emphasizes research and teaching; for a position that places more emphasis on one or the other, you may want to reverse the relative emphasis or even the order of paragraphs two and three.
Paragraph 1: Introduction
- The position you seek and where you saw it advertised.
- Your present position, where and when you received (or will receive) your terminal degree.
- Your area of specialization.
- Any major awards, grants, fellowships, publications, etc.
Paragraph 2: Your Research
- This will normally be a summary of your dissertation. Give the title of the dissertation and the name of your director. Summarize both your approach and the dissertation's content. You should demonstrate critical sophistication, but you should also avoid highly technical jargon. Remember that your reader may not be a specialist in your area.
- Identify publications or submissions that came out of the dissertation.
- Briefly describe your future research program. This is very important if the job you are seeking requires substantial publication before tenure: Hiring departments will want to know if you have a plan that will lead to tenure. A research program is less important in a heavily teaching-oriented department.
- Describe the relations between your dissertation and other areas of expertise.
Paragraph 3: Your Teaching
- Your teaching experience.
- Any special responsibilities or official recognition you have had.
- An honest statement about the importance of the teaching of writing and how you approach it.
- Any special courses you can teach (thematic courses, technical writing), and your qualifications for teaching them. Do not exaggerate your preparation here; statements you make here must be supported by evidence in your vita. Do not suggest courses that are too specialized for this particular institution ever to offer.
- Your teaching interests for the future.
- Believable connection between your research and your teaching. Most departments will want someone who has special interests, but is also genuinely interested in basic teaching jobs.
Paragraph 4: Extras
- Any research experience, administrative work you have done.
- Offices held, committee service.
- Relevant nonacademic experience, such as travel to learn foreign languages, editing experience, other kinds of teaching, etc.
Paragraph 5: Information
- How to get your dossier (tell them they can write to you or the relevant placement office).
- List the recommenders whose letters are in your dossier.
- Offer to send a writing sample (name it).
- Offer to be interviewed at the hiring department's convenience at MLA (or at another convention if you know they will be interviewing there), if it is at all possible for you to attend. If you absolutely cannot go to the convention, say so and offer to be interviewed by telephone or on campus. (Your chances are better if you can go to MLA).
- Give every possible phone number and e-mail address at which you can be reached before the convention.
For more details, visit the MLA Job Information List for information devoted to the academic job search.
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Last updated April 14, 2005