What is the Cover Letter for Anyway?

In this short series, CURChem is featuring insight on how to get that job teaching and researching with undergraduates at a Primarily Undergraduate Institution. This week, Dr. Mark Marshall explains that enigma that is…the cover letter.


My department is looking for a tenure-track assistant professor.  The ad is out, and applications have already begun to arrive at Interfolio.  What will I be looking for as I review these packages trying to decide who I would like to see make the short list?  I want a colleague who will work with our department in meeting our shared challenges.  Yes, helping us to question the “way it’s always been done,” but curious enough to wonder why it has and charitable enough to consider there might have been a good reason, even if that reason disappeared some time ago.

What can you do to have the best chance of being part of that list?  Well, I have invested almost 30 years in my institution and my department, and I want to ensure not only its current quality, but also its continuing improvement in both the short and long term.  Just like we tell our students in our courses, this is not a weed out position, your future colleagues are invested in your success.  (Or at least they should be.  If not, think hard about joining that department.)  I also have the better part of a couple of decades left, and I want to continue to be part of a good team.

I’ll look at your research proposal to evaluate your science and your CV to make sure that you meet the advertised requirements, but the cover letter is where I’ll get a sense of you as a colleague.

I’ll start with the cover letter.  It is the first thing I’ll read, and as conventional wisdom has it, you want the cover letter to get you noticed.  Of course, you need to make sure that you get noticed for the right reasons.  I’ll look at your research proposal to evaluate your science and your CV to make sure that you meet the advertised requirements, but the cover letter is where I’ll get a sense of you as a colleague.  Do you pay attention to detail?  A letter with mistakes in fact, spelling, grammar, and usage will suggest that you don’t.  Get someone to proofread that letter very, very, very carefully. 

by Jorge Cham, “Faculty Job Search” – originally published 4/3/2002

Make sure you get the details correct on each copy!  I’ll cut your recommenders some slack if they tell me how perfect you are for the similar position at the institution across the state.  Yes, that does happen every search, but we’re not hiring your recommenders.  If a letter of recommendation says you are perfect for our competition, then you’re likely a good match for us, too.  If YOUR letter says you are very interested in the position they have open, it’s not that it will surprise me.  After all, I’d expect you to be applying there, too, but I’ll wonder, were we just an afterthought, and will your handouts and exams have similar oversights?

I don’t expect that the cover letter be precisely tailored to our specific department and institution.  I understand that you need to prepare many of them, but if you do have some specific connection, it is good to make a brief note of it.  Perhaps you met one of my colleagues at a conference, or even that your family spent summer vacations in the area when you were a child – anything that helps me to understand that you have some hint about who we are and where we are.

“…make sure you get your facts straight.  You don’t want to let me think that you haven’t a clue about us…”

On the other hand, make sure you get your facts straight.  You don’t want to let me think that you haven’t a clue about us.  Every search I’ll read a cover letter that stresses how much the applicant looks forward to working with graduate students and teaching them advanced seminars in some esoteric specialty.  Well, that’s easy.  We don’t have any graduate students, so clearly our position is not what this person wants.  On to the next application.

Your job in the cover letter is to tell us why you are an outstanding candidate for the advertised position.  Notice I didn’t say perfect…

Your job in the cover letter is to tell us why you are an outstanding candidate for the advertised position.  Notice I didn’t say perfect.  First off, I don’t think perfection exists in this world, and if you tell me you are, I won’t believe you, and furthermore, perfectionists are notoriously difficult to work with.  Yes, stress the areas where there is good alignment, but don’t shy away from those that don’t.  One of my colleagues or I will likely pick up on it.

For example, we are an undergraduate, residential, four-year, liberal-arts college, and suppose you got your undergraduate education at your enormous state university, went from there to graduate school at a top R1 institution, and did a post-doc at a high-powered research institute.  We’ll have a concern that you might not understand the specific challenges and expectations presented by a place such as ours.  If you don’t mention it, we’ll be doubly concerned that you didn’t even notice.

What to do?  Point out any connection you have had with small institutions.  We sometimes hire University of Massachusetts graduate students as TA’s, an experience like that would reassure me and set your application apart.  Or, your brother went to a place similar to ours and when you visited, you knew that was the kind of place where you wanted to make your career. Even if you have nothing like that in your background, then still make note of the fact and tell us about some other new situation in which you found yourself, how you learned about what was necessary for success, and how you achieved it.

In fact, that just about sums it up.  Our new colleague will start a year from now in a very new situation, no matter how familiar or unfamiliar it might seem.  Indeed, I would hope for someone who isn’t complacent and planning to rest upon their laurels.  The new colleague will have much to learn.  I don’t want to work with a know-it-all, and besides – after 30 years, I’m still learning about this place.  Finally, I want to be certain that my new colleague will be able to achieve success.  Yes, I am invested in that, and, yes, I will be supportive, but I want a confident, capable, responsible colleague.  Tell me that in your cover letter and your application will get noticed indeed!


~Dr. Mark Marshall is the Class of 1959 Professor of Chemistry at Amherst College in Massachusetts where he teaches and does research with undergraduates to apply the detailed molecular information that comes from high resolution spectroscopy to address questions concerning intermolecular forces.

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