Cover Letter Blunders

When the peepers in Paragraph City’s Central Park start drowning out the traffic about dusk and the snow cover retreats to the deeper shadows, we know it’s time for the charming Job Applicants to begin poking their noses through the leaf mold. I’ve been reflecting on the apparently lost art of cover letters and have made a quick list of what one can do with a cover letter to prevent one from getting an interview. It turns out to be quite a lot.

My list of Blunders, with explanatory diversions:

  1. No Cover Letter at all, I suppose because the applicant uses email and so thinks “Here is my resume — thanks for the opportunity to send it to you” suffices. But it doesn’t. This applicant doesn’t understand that the cover letter is his one chance prior to the job interview (which he isn’t going to get) to become a human being. The resume defines one as qualified or semi-qualified or unqualified, but not as a person, and we on the search committee would like to hire a human being, thank you. We work with people, but more importantly we laugh with them, learn from them, ask them for favors, save their bacon, and hang them out to dry. A list of qualifications gives me no clue that Ms. X will forgive my interruptions, stay late to help a wayward student, care that the college is adrift, or hold the door open for the blind guy with the sneezing seeing eye dog. But can the cover letter do that? Not really all that, but it can suggest the personality that can suggest all that and more.
  2. A Cover Letter that merely repeats the Resume’s content leaves the same gaping hole that an AWOL cover letter leaves, but it costs me my reading time in order to find that out, so there’s a certain grouchiness solicited by this blunder. I will have to work with this guy, I think. Is he the sort that leaves class early, values his tee time ahead of his review session, mocks his students behind their backs? Where is there a hint that he’s forgiving of his students’ rudeness, believes students will rise when challenged, motivates by example, recognizes his own failures?
  3. Cliches, especially for English faculty and especially for searches drawing many applicants, are deadly. Not only have we seen them before, we just saw them ten minutes ago on four other letters. Sounding like everyone else does not suggest one has a personality.  So don’t start your letter out with “I was excited to read about your opening in the (fill in name of newspaper or website here),” or “As you can see in the enclosed resume, I (summarize the resume here),” or “I would appreciate the opportunity to discuss how my education and experience will be helpful to (fill in the name of the college here). I will be contacting you shortly to talk about the possibility of arranging an interview.”  It’s not that these statements are bad, it’s that everyone is saying them.
  4. Polite lies, glad handing and flattery don’t work any better on a search committee than they do on a date. Don’t tell us you’ve heard what a powerhouse institution we are when we are pretty sure you don’t even know what part of the state we are in. Saying one fulfills our requirements perfectly when one doesn’t falls into this category, and usually comes as a flat, unsupported statement, often disproved later in the letter when mention is made, for instance, of how important it is for the applicant to work with a racially diverse, urban population. Particularly for English majors, we would expect you know how to research (as in Google Maps or our college homepage) and how to support an assertion with evidence (as in, name our requirements from our ad and explain how you meet them).
  5. Misplacing us in New York City because we are in New York State. Every search some candidate will withdraw from the search at the phone interview stage when he learns that it’s a 6 hour drive, in good traffic, from here to the Holland Tunnel. Do, please, a little research.
  6. Failing to explain obvious and apparent mis-matches, neglects the sales function of the cover letter. This college rom which I write is a rural community college, with our sponsoring city at a population of about 40K. So if Applicant Q has never worked outside of an urban area weighing in at 3 million souls, or has always been associated with metropolitan museums, or a vibrant theatrical presence, or a college with a Renaissance Literature department — then Applicant Q had better speak candidly to the 400 lb gorilla.
  7. Sending a form letter, particularly one which makes several of the above mistakes, tells us that you just want our paycheck, not our students or our mission or ourselves as your colleagues. The worst I’ve seen: a four page form letter where our college was named only in the first sentence of the letter, in a font different from the rest of the letter.

Instead, how about a personal letter that honestly says what you like about our college, addresses the needs we mentioned in our ad, lasts about a page, tells us something we didn’t know, and leaves us thinking, “I’d like to talk with this one.”



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