WHAT DOES A GOOD ONE LOOK LIKE?
Almost always, a job applicant is asked to submit a cover letter. This is often a candidate’s best chance to distinguish him- or herself from the competition — its goal is to spark interest. Many experts advise that the best cover letters are concise, honest, and positive. For professional jobs, it is recommended that the letter be no longer than two pages and that it follow a three-paragraph format:
- Paragraph One: Why are you a good match for the position? Cite specific information from the job description and how your abilities match the requested qualifications. Circle the action verbs in the job announcement and use some of those verbs in your cover letter.
- Paragraph Two: What are two or three strong examples from your personal experience that qualify you for this job?
- Paragraph Three: Thank the committee, and make sure they have your current contact information.
Try also to include some specific information about the employer that attracted you to apply. This shows the committee members that you are interested in their organization specifically. It also demonstrates that you can envision yourself in relation to the organization.
ACADEMIC JOBS A BIT DIFFERENT
For academic jobs, cover letters can be slightly more extensive and include more information. Donald Hamann suggests that a length of up to five paragraphs is appropriate for an academic cover letter. He provides the following guidelines for each paragraph:
- Paragraph One. The opening sentence should indicate the specific position to which you are applying, using the exact language from the position listing and the identifying number, when available. Next, state where you learned of the position — especially if someone connected to the school encouraged you to apply. Close by expressing your enthusiasm for the position and pointing out that your credentials closely match the listed ideal qualifications.
- Paragraphs Two through Four. Hamann asserts that academic-job applicants are usually evaluated in three main areas: teaching, research/creative activity, and service. He suggests that each of these areas can be addressed in a separate paragraph, with an emphasis on how your qualifications can uniquely benefit the school in each area. Cite specific examples of success at other institutions. Highlight entries in your CV that give you experience or abilities that match elements of the job description. He also recommends using the word “I” sparingly. Focus on how your abilities might serve the students, faculty, and school.
- Paragraph Five. Restate your interest in the position. Include your contact information, invite the committee to follow up with you, and include a formal valediction.
A COUPLE OF FORMATTING TIPS
Make sure that you use an approved business-letter format for the cover letter. You should include the date, the addressee and all pertinent address information in the header of your letter. Additionally, be as specific as possible when identifying the addressee of the letter. Usually, the letter will be addressed to the chair of the search committee. When that is not possible, address the letter to the committee itself.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER
1. Does the letter demonstrate a keen understanding of the job description? Are the important elements of the job description addressed in the letter? Are action verbs from the job description employed in the cover letter in appropriate ways?
2. Does the opening paragraph include the following information: the specific position title and/or reference number, how the candidate learned of the opening, and a possible referral to the position by a person of note?
3. Does the opening paragraph end with an expression of enthusiasm for the position and comment on the applicant’s suitability?
4. If the position is an academic one, does the applicant reference his or her teaching abilities as well as research and creative activities, and provide examples of past service?
5. Does the letter provide specific evidence, perhaps anecdotal, of past experiences that would contribute to his or her potential for success in this new post?
6. Is the letter truthful, and does it avoid embellishment? Is the word “I” used sparingly, and does the focus remain on the candidate’s ability to serve the goals of the students, faculty and school?
7. Is the letter written in a proper tone? Is it organized clearly? Is it free of errors? Is it addressed to a specific person or committee? Is it an appropriate length? Does it contain contact information for the applicant?
 Cutler, David. The Savvy Musician. Pittsburgh, Pa.: Helius Press, 2010, 88.
 Wittry, Diane. Beyond the Baton. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007, 51.
 Hamann, Donald. On Staff: A Practical Guide to Starting Your Career in a University Music Department. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. 66.
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