Academic Cover Letters

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Writing a cover letter can seem pointless when online application forms and CVs provide employers with plenty of information. However, for academic jobs, the cover letter is essential. This article explores why you need one and what you should include.

Why bother with a cover letter?

A cover letter can emphasise why you are perfect for the job. It gives you a second opportunity (as well as the ‘personal statement’ section of the application form) to match your skills and knowledge to the person requirements.

But also it gives you an opportunity to display your communications skills so it is vital that your cover letter be perfect in terms of proof reading. This means no silly spelling or grammar mistakes. Your letter will go straight in the bin if there are errors!

Like your application form, a cover letter should be about what you can do for the department and institution. So, don’t make your cover letter all about ‘me, me, me’, but instead talk about what you have to offer them.

What ‘tone’ should I use?

Cover letters must be professional and formal. Do not be tempted to adopt a chatty, colloquial style in order to seem friendly and approachable. The cover letter is not the place to do this.

Equally the font and layout should be in a standard business letter style. Do not try to do anything flash.

Address the letter to the interviewer by name if possible rather than using ‘Dear Sir/Madam’. If you are unsure, find out who the head of department is and address the letter to them.

How long should it be?

An academic cover letter should not be much more than two pages. Remember that the selection panel might have several hundred applications to look through: you want your letter to have immediate impact so no waffling!

What should be included?

You need to give a brief summary (a couple of sentences only) on why you should be considered for the job. Then outline your past expertise and your current and future plans in the areas of teaching and research including details and examples. These should be chosen based on the sorts of things the employers are interested in (you’ll find this out on their website and on the job advert). Finish with a snappy short paragraph on why you fit their requirements and asking for an interview.

How should this be laid out?

A cover letter should look like this:  

or more like this if you are in a senior lectureship post:

Easy mistakes to make on a cover letter:

  • It’s too long: employers won’t bother reading it
  • It’s too short (or writing ‘refer to my CV or application’): this shows you haven’t bothered.
  • Failure to proofread: looks unprofessional and it will be discarded immediately
  • It’s too generic: always tailor it to one particular job rather than having a standard letter.

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