A series of posts on Cover Letters (mostly for the UK market) from 2015 have been combined for this repost. See below for tips on how to structure a Cover Letter; some general tips based on past experience; advice from blogs and the internet more generally.
PART ONE: STRUCTURING YOUR COVER LETTER
In order to help you in your application process, we recently discussed how to structure your CV (see here https://frenchhistorysociety.co.uk/blog/?p=342) but that is only part of the work. A really strong Cover Letter is key. Indeed, if the CV can be cut-and-pasted quite easily, the Cover Letter cannot be overly generic. Each application will have its own specificities outlined in your Cover Letter. Each Cover Letter will take ages to write and re-write. It is certainly worth putting in quite a lot of work in the Cover Letter. You will want to read it over and over again to make it as clear and legible as possible to a non-specialist audience – indeed, even if one or two people on your panel will be familiar with your work, most others won’t.
If every Cover Letter is different, are there not some basic structures which can help save you time? Ultimately, despite the writing and re-writing (and re-writing), cover letters have largely the same structure. Well, of course it depends on the job/institution, and on your own research/teaching agendas. But there are some basics which can help you outline your Cover Letter.
IMPORTANT: THIS IS NOT THE ONLY STRUCTURE YOU CAN HAVE. We do not want to be the dictators of the cover-letter-writing-process. And in the future we welcome comments/blogs from other people who wish to share their own experiences of writing a cover letter – but here is a draft of something which can work.
Dear (name of head of selection committee, usually mentioned in the job advert or job specifics),
Paragraph 1: a short paragraph introducing yourself, the job you’re applying for, and why you’re a perfect fit;
Paragraph 2: Past/Current research;
Paragraph 3: Next/Future research;
Paragraph 4: Teaching;
Paragraph 5: Broader academic and non-academic engagements;
Paragraph 6: Concluding remarks;
Kind regards/Best wishes/etc.,
ADAPTING YOUR STRUCTURE TO FIT THE JOB
The attention you give each section will vary according to the job you’re going for – whether it is teaching-led or research-led, for instance – and you may want to delete/add other paragraphs according to your specific experience. Indeed, you won’t want to dwell on your thesis if you have already published your first book, you might want to emphasise your current, new project. Likewise, if you have not finished your thesis, you might be less clear as to your next project(s), and you will not want to understate the thesis-into-book transition.
In order to decide which structure will suit you, be sure to carefully read the job description. The advert itself will have some information, but almost all jobs are accompanied by an additional Job Specifics document. If you cannot find one, don’t hesitate to email the contact recommended in the job advert and enquire about any additional documentation.
Once you’ve read it, you’ll have a clearer idea of what they’re expecting, and on how you should structure your CV. A teaching-led university who is keen on IMPACT ? You may want to switch paragraphs 3 and 4 around, and won’t want to overlook paragraph 5. A research position ? Paragraphs 2 and 3 will be key – Paragraph 4 can be shorter.
Later posts will discuss style, content, and other basic tips. But we hope that this has already helped to give you an idea of the process of writing a basic Cover Letter.
PART TWO: SOME TIPS.
Three Tips. Wait no – Four Tips. For Cover Letters in UK market.
- No more than 2 pages. Seriously. Play with the font and indentation if necessary. (Up to a reasonable point, that is ). 1.5 pages is ideal, although it can be hard to achieve…
- Do your background research. Who are you going to collaborate with? Name them. How does your research intersect with other staff members? Name them. (Although make sure they are permanent staff…) Does the department/university have any research centres/projects you could join? Name them. What courses can you contribute to, and which ones does your proposed module complement? Name them. This specificity shows you’ve done your research, and that you care. By doing this, you’re also already getting into their heads (mwahaha) showing yourself as a potential colleague.
- Each paragraph has a point. That’s right: stay organised, have a strong structure. Make sure each paragraph has a specific theme. Here is a suggestion to structure your cover letter:
- Introductory paragraph;
- Past/Current Research;
- Next/Future Research;
- Broader academic engagement;
- Conclusion & potential collaboration within department/faculty/university.
Of course, the content and size of each paragraph depends on the specificity of the job. You might want to emphasise how your research fits into the department if it is a permanent position, or expand the teaching section if this is a teaching-driven university. You get the jist.
- Show don’t Tell. This is a piece of very reasonable advice offered by The Professor Is In in her very useful blog post, Why Your Job Cover Letter Sucks. It is also the advice many of us give to our students who make big claims in their essays but don’t back them up with evidence. Well, same goes for Cover Letters. Don’t say you are an engaging teacher who uses a lot of primary sources in their teaching – say which films, novels, paintings you use to draw in your students and bring the topic to life. Same thing for discussing the events you have organised in the past: name drop. Tell us how popular they were. And for your research plans: indicate which big grants you’re hoping to apply for, which journals you’ll submit your next peer-reviewed article.
PART THREE: TIPS FROM THE INTERNET
The University of Nebraska-Lincoln has boiled down the key rules of Cover Letters to five great points, and they also include a list of references for further writings on the topic. Columbia has an entire PDF document with great suggestions, and it even includes sample letters which can be quite inspiring. Likewise, Harvard have a PDF document with details about CVs as well as Cover Letters – the guidelines for the latter start on page 22.
But what if you’re not applying on the American market? The above still list very useful points, so are definitely worth a look. But do also have a look at some other websites. For the UK, there are some very useful ones. LSE have a document on How to Write CVs and Cover Letters, a lengthy document which contains many helpful tips.
To be honest, though, shorter and/or more informal pieces tend to be concise and effective. Chad Thomas Black has an excellent post which, if not short, is very effect!ive and really helps you build a Cover Letter from nothing. Hacking the Academic Job Cover Letter summarises the piece well. And Nadine Muller gives some very sound advice no one could disagree with – for example, don’t misspell the name of the Professor who you’re adressing the letter to.
And to top it all off, here is some sound advice we recently overheard: don’t bend over backwards. By that we mean don’t try toooooo hard to fit their criteria – round hole, square peg. Of course spend hours writing and re-writing the letter and CV; studying the department, the structure of the degree and the course options, the staff, etc. But don’t try to be something you’re not. Indeed, sometimes we over-emphasise how perfectly we fit the job in order to hide the ways in which our specialism might not be exactly what (we think) they’re looking for. But if you think you’d be great at the job, then you don’t need to over-sell yourself to their exact criteria. Be confident, act like a colleague – if your Cover Letter is clear, then they’ll easily connect the dots.