The purpose of your cover letter
The power of the cover letter in making an effective job application should never be underestimated. A good cover letter will grab the employer’s attention and make them want to read your CV. The purpose of your cover letter and CV together is to whet the employer’s appetite, to establish you as a serious contender for the post and to persuade the recruiter that you are worth an interview.
The cover letter exists to:
- Demonstrate your enthusiasm for the post, based on the research you have done about the role and the institution
- Explain your rationale for applying and how the role fits with your career plans
- Answer the question “Why should we hire you?” by demonstrating how you meet the key criteria for the post and what sets you apart from other candidates
- Provide evidence of your written communication and language skills, including the ability to be clear, succinct and articulate. This is especially important for teaching roles as the ability to communicate the nature and impact of your academic work to a non-academic audience is crucial.
This article focuses on cover letters for roles in Academia and addresses:
- When to send a cover letter
- What format to use
- How to tailor it to a particular role
- Marketing yourself in the cover letter
- The dos and don’ts of cover letter writing
- An example ‘before’ and ‘after’ cover letter with detailed explanations of the improvements made
- A checklist for you to ensure your cover letter is as effective as possible.
When to send a cover letter
You should always send a cover letter with your CV unless you are expressly asked not to. The only exception is if you are posting your CV on a database/with an agency where it will be seen by numerous employers, in which case a Profile on the CV itself is helpful.
Even if you have explained your motivation for applying on the application form, it is still worth sending a separate cover letter. This is because the cover letter gives you another opportunity to market yourself and can strengthen your chances.
The format of a cover letter
For jobs in academia, the length of the cover letter will depend on the seniority of the post. In any event, you should ensure the letter is no longer than two pages; one and a half pages is better still. In order to make an impact, and to prove that you can explain ideas fluently and clearly, the letter needs to be succinct. This is not the place to give in-depth detail about your research and academic interests; remember that the letter may be read by non-academics too, such as staff from Human Resources. You can always give further details of your academic and research activities on your CV or in an Appendix to your CV.
Keep paragraphs short and your typeface clear (a font size of 11 or 12 is recommended) as the employer’s attention span will be brief.
It is traditional to write the cover letter in paragraph format, and this is the format we have used for our example letter, although some candidates choose to use bullet points and/or bold to highlight key points.
The order of paragraphs is not critical, but the following is recommended:
- Address and salutation: Address the letter to a named person i.e. the Head of Department.
- First paragraph: An introduction, explaining which post you are applying for, how you heard about it, and some brief background on who you are e.g. in terms of your research interests and academic background.
- Middle section: Evidence of your academic career in terms of your research interests and achievements as well as teaching and administrative experience. Also mention your future research plans. The balance between research, teaching and administration will depend on the nature of the institution and department’s work.
- Final section: Explain what attracts you to this role in this institution and department and how the role fits in to your career plans.
- Concluding paragraph: A conclusion summarising what makes you suitable for the job and a statement expressing interest in an interview.
Tailoring your letter
The best way to tailor your letter effectively is to:
Do your research
Your cover letter needs to show what a great match you are for the job. The job and person specification will only give you so much. In order to understand the job context, how your own research interests will fit into the department’s academic offering, what the recruiters are really looking for and how the department and job might develop in future you need to make your own enquiries.
This could include:
For example: into the University and Department’s academic programmes, it’s research and student profile, the research interests of key staff and so on. There is much information available publicly (for example, the institution’s and department’s external websites, the department’s latest research ranking, academic forums and even Good University Guides). For external appointments, you may be limited to what is available publicly so do use your networks to access these.
Discussion with the Head of Department
Most recruiters are only too happy to answer questions about the job from potential applicants beforehand. This can also help you get your ‘name in the frame’ early. Just ensure that your questions are well researched and be warned that the conversation might turn into an informal interview. You should reflect on why the department should hire you, and refine your ‘elevator pitch’ before arranging the call.
Conversations with other academics in the department and institution
You can also speak to people who previously worked there, who have worked with key staff in the department at some point in their career, as well as support staff. This will give you a better idea of the culture of the institution and the work of the department. For internal roles, you can use your internal networks to find these people. For external roles, you might ask the Head of Department to put you in touch with other staff – or use your networks to see who knows someone in the right department and institution.
The depth of your research will show in your application and can really distinguish serious applicants from the rest of the pack. It’s also great preparation for the interview stage.
The best way to tailor your letter is to pick out only the top three or four criteria for the post and focus your evidence on these. If the employer is convinced you have the right credentials, experience and skills for the areas that matter most, the chances are that they will invite you to interview. Your CV and your interview can cover the rest.
Remember to include your skills outside research
Whilst the focus of your cover letter may be about communicating the relevance and depth of your academic experience, don’t forget to give evidence of those softer skills which may also be
relevant to the job. These are likely to be outlined in the person specification and may include supervising PhD students, writing funding bids, managing other staff and project planning.
Marketing yourself effectively
Before you write your letter, you need to be clear on what your Unique Selling Points are for the role in relation to the key job criteria.
Think about what will differentiate you from the competition. Consider who else might apply, internally and externally, and what they might offer. Consider what makes you stand out from them. This might include:
- Greater depth of expertise in this field or a higher research profile than other likely applicants
- A particular blend of experiences which give you a unique perspective (e.g. international experience, having worked in both academia and industry, or having held posts in more than one academic discipline)
- Specific achievements in your current and previous roles
- A passion for and commitment to this area of research or working for this institution (e.g. perhaps you completed your PhD there)
- Well developed research or funding networks which could prove helpful in the job
- Or anything else you think might make the stand out in a way which is relevant to the role.
Tips for success
- Put your most convincing evidence first. You need to make an impact in the first few sentences. Talk about your current or most relevant job first
- Focus on achievements in your current and previous roles rather than merely your responsibilities (publications, new courses developed, funding awards won and so on). Quantify these wherever possible
- Illustrate your achievements with brief but specific examples, explaining why these are relevant to this role. You can refer the employer to the CV for more detail
- Concentrate on the areas which differentiate you from the competition rather than the basic job criteria
- Demonstrate how well you have researched the role and the job context when explaining your career motivation
- Explain your rationale if you are seeking a career change or sideways move
- Be succinct. Ask someone to go through it with you and edit out any wordy sentences and redundant words. Some academic institutions offer a confidential careers advice service to staff members through their University Careers Service
- End on a note of enthusiasm and anticipation.
- Try to summarise your CV or give too much detail – you need to be selective about the points that you highlight
- Make unsubstantiated statements about relevant skills and experience without giving examples
- Send the same or a similar letter to more than one employer. Never ‘cut and paste’ as employers will suspect a lack of research and career focus
- Make generalised statements about why you want to work for the institution (e.g. referring to ‘a top 50 global institution’ or ‘a department with a high reputation’)
- Use jargon specific to your employer or profession which the employer might not understand
- Focus on what the employer can do for you – it’s more about what you can do for the employer.
Example cover letter – with comments
Example cover letter – improved version
Cover letter checklist
Before you send off your letter, use our final checklist to ensure your letter is as strong as possible.
- Done your homework so that you are clear about what
the employer wants?
- Given clear evidence of how you meet the most
important criteria of the job?
- Kept it to two pages or less?
- Put your most important evidence in the first half
of the letter?
- Explained your academic interests clearly in a way that
non-academics could understand?
- Asked a friend to proof read it and ensure the language
is succinct and clear?
- Addressed it to the right person?
- Given a convincing explanation of why you want the job?
- Ended with a summary of why you would be perfect
for this role?