The most basic function of cover letters for academic positions is to introduce yourself to the search committee; the most successful way to do so is to craft this introduction as a demonstration of your fit with the search criteria.

The first paragraph should introduce yourself, reference where you learned of the position, and explain why this specific job interests you. Conclude this paragraph by explicitly articulating why you would be a good fit for the institution.

The body paragraphs should details the accomplishments that make you a good fit and an excellent candidate. Pay careful attention to your potential contributions to the department or institution. This is not the time to be modest, but don’t promise things your supplementary materials cannot or do not support.

Conclude by reiterating your interest in the institution and the position.

Here are action tips:

  1. Craft each cover letter to the individual positions. Search committees will know if you use a form letter. If you mistakenly put information for another school in the letter, your letter will not be well received. Address the chair by name if possible.
  2. Consider length. Search committees will receive many dozens of applications. Aim for 1 page for STEM positions and up to 2 pages in the social sciences and humanities. No more than 2 pages is needed or acceptable.
  3. Watch your grammar and punctuation. The cover letter is the first writing sample the search committee will see. Make a good impression.
  4. Keep the job positing in front of you. Refer to it as you write.
  5. Know your audience. If applying to a research university, emphasize your qualifications to perform cutting edge research and any specific topics that interest you. If applying to a liberal arts college, focus on your interest in teaching, especially undergraduates.
  6. Get someone else to read your letter for content and to proof it for perfect editing.

It’s a tough academic world these days. If you don’t succeed at first, review your cover letters for possible clues. And keep trying as long as an academic career makes sense to pursue.