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A cover letter usually accompanies your application for an academic position. The role of the cover letter (a.k.a. letter of application) is to interpret your qualifications for the reader to convince him or her of your fit for the advertised position. Your cover letter is not analogous to a fax cover sheet. Instead think of it as a mini-thesis in the sense that your cover letter allows you to make an argument for your suitability for the job. Written in the first person, it also gives you the opportunity to express your voice and to show your interest, professionalism, and gift for the written word. GSAS Career Services offers programs every semester on preparing cover letters. Check our Current Events for a schedule of upcoming programs.
Even though good cover letters follow a similar structure, you should tailor each letter to the particular department/institution that will receive it. Review the job announcement carefully and design your letter according to the information it contains as well as other information you gain by researching the department/institution. Pay close attention to language. Are there key words, phrases, or concepts that recur? If so, you may want to use them, too.
Address your letter to a named individual, if possible, using the person’s formal title (e.g. Professor, Dr.). If you do not have a name, it is acceptable to begin with “Dear Committee Members,” “To the Members of the Search Committee,” or another variation thereof, or you may choose to leave off the salutation altogether.
Your opening paragraph sets the tone for the rest of your letter. It should be brief and should pique the reader’s interest. Begin with a statement of purpose, mentioning the position for which you are applying by title. (It is not uncommon for a department to conduct multiple searches simultaneously.) Tell how you learned of the opening. If someone referred you, mention the person’s name. Identify yourself briefly and mention your dissertation adviser by name and when you expect to complete your PhD at U.Va. You may also introduce your interest in the position or make a claim for your candidacy (which you will elaborate on later in the letter).
The next paragraphs should be meaty discussions of your qualifications as they directly match the position. Use the language of the announcement and the department’s/institution’s website to guide you. The cover letter allows you to elaborate on information in your CV (e.g. you were the only graduate student presenting at a prestigious conference). If applying for a research position or a teaching position at a research institution, discuss your research and research interests first. Provide context for your work and show that you are a forward-thinking scholar. Conversely, if applying to a teaching institution, first discuss your teaching and touch upon your teaching philosophy—even if a separate “Statement of Teaching Philosophy” is required. Be sure to mention experience with new pedagogies or technologies in the classroom. If you have limited or no teaching experience, discuss what you would teach and how. Avoid excessive jargon; use crisp, clear prose that will make your audience want to know more. You will impress the committee if you show connections between your research and teaching.
Do not shy away from self-promotion. Draw attention to the strengths and qualifications that make you distinctly suited to perform the job (doing so is crucial, not repetitive). As the saying goes, there is a time and place for everything, and your job search is no time to be modest. You can avoid sounding (and feeling) arrogant by making objective, verifiable statements (e.g. “I received the 2005 Outstanding History Teaching Assistant Award,” “I have consistently received superior student evaluations) rather than subjective statements (e.g. “I am an outstanding teacher.”)
Address any other requirements or particulars that may support your candidacy. If you anticipate the search committee raising a certain question, address that question upfront in your cover letter. Discuss your fit with the position/department/institution and any special reasons for your interest.
Conclude your letter by restating you interest in the position. As applicable, indicate how references or other required materials will be submitted under separate cover, and direct readers to any supporting material online. Mention any specifics about your availability for an interview. Thank the committee for considering your application. Sign your letter, with your name typed below, followed by “Enclosure” or “Enclosures” on the next line.
Generally speaking, sending unsolicited materials is discouraged. In your conclusion you can offer to send additional materials if the search committee would like to see them.
Cover letters in the natural sciences and social sciences are typically about 1 page long. Letters in the humanities are often longer. It is difficult to discuss your research and teaching well in 1 page, so the specifics of the position impact the length of your letter. Letters over 2 pages in length risk losing the reader’s interest. The text of your letter should be single-spaced with 2 spaces between paragraphs. If submitting hard copies, use the same high-quality paper you use for your CV. You may wish to use departmental letterhead for your cover letter if you have access to it. Alternatively, using the same heading for your CV and cover letter to create a stationery effect can help to unify your documents in an attractive way. Use the same font throughout.
Keep in mind that search committees consider the cover letter to be a sample of a candidate's writing ability, so be sure that it is written well. Also express your voice; a cover letter is not a scholarly article. Seek advice from your adviser and have others proofread your letter for any errors or other problems. Be positive—say nothing negative.
Sample Cover Letter - Advertised Postdoc (.pdf, 47KB)
Sample Cover Letter - Unsolicited Postdoc (.pdf, 47KB)
Sample Cover Letter - Tenure Track Job (.pdf, 62KB)
"The Basics of Cover Letter Writing,” Richard M. Reis, Chronicle of Higher Education (2000)
"How Candidates Can Stand Out (in a Good Way)," Susan Resneck Pierce, Inside Higher Ed (2009)
Advice for senior administration candidates in academia but still very relevant.
"What You Don’t Know About Cover Letters,” Mary Dillon Johnson, Chronicle of Higher Education (2002)
"Writing a Winning Cover Letter," John K. Borchardt, Science (2006)