Confidence, quality control key ingredients in effective cover letter

When on the market for an academic job, a cover letter is the first and only first impression the search committee will have of you. Quality writing, therefore, is very important. A powerful letter advances you to the next round, whereas a weak one lands your name in the pool of rejected applicants.

Dr. Mark Hanna (associate professor, History) has read hundreds of cover letters – some good, others very bad, he admits. Dr. Dana Velasco Murillo (assistant professor, History) has written at least 50 cover letters – which she describes as “one recycled various times, in actuality.” The scholars share insight about how to produce an effective template for a cover letter. They also discuss what search committees look for when they read it, dividing the process into two categories: theoretical and nuts-and-bolts.

Before you begin writing, if you do not have access to departmental letterhead, ask your adviser to send you an electronic copy (preferably a Word file) of it. For paper applications, Velasco Murillo says, “Splurge and buy the nice paper.”

As you begin to write, Hanna suggests changing your mindset from that of a graduate student into confident expert in your field. Imagine yourself as a professor who is prepared to explain the fundamentals to a receptive audience. “Fake it if you have to,” he adds.

During the rough-draft stage, do not apologize for things that your dissertation does not do or write a statement admitting you “did not get a chance to teach that much.”

“It’s off-putting in a letter,” Hanna says. “Be direct, declaratory — confident in what you’re stating and who you are. […] No forms of apology in your letter.”

Search committee members may spend approximately five minutes per candidate, so it is critical to adhere to the two-page limit. One way to do this is to organize content into six fully developed paragraphs, explained more in detail here.

“You’re writing to your audience, which is a search committee,” Hanna adds. “It’s not easy to read more than two pages of single-spaced material. Keep it to two pages.”

Format the document with 0.75-inch margins or greater, justified paragraphs, and a 12-point legible font such as Arial or Times New Roman.

“Justified letters look very neat, Velasco Murillo says. “[…] You are presenting yourself as a professional, not a graduate student. Everything you do in that letter indicates you are a professional. That’s who the committee is confidently going to hire.”

The first and last paragraphs are arguably the ones that require the most effort to write. In each cover letter’s introduction, you will need to change the university name and position for which you are applying, as well as make minor changes to the teaching paragraph. The last paragraph is catering to the institution and calls for some research.

“Go to the university department website,” suggests Velasco Murillo. “Look up the faculty; check out the pages. Who’s in your field? What do they teach? What are they working on?”

The scholar also advises students to identify an on-campus center, library, archive and/or publishing house that are applicable to your work.

“You have to dig for those particular things,” she says. “Identify the scholars who have created a tradition. What are the strengths of the department? Find a way to fit in.”

When it comes to signing off on your cover letter, reiterate in some way that you really want the job, and do not be afraid to drop some names, which “indicates you care about who these people are,” Velasco Murillo says. “They’re going to be a colleague, not a mentor.”

Tell committee members what you have included: CV, writing sample and the designated number of letter of recommendations. Identify and specify who your recommenders will be and include your e-mail and telephone number. Do not despair if the process becomes increasingly frustrating or time-consuming.

“Hang in there,” Hanna says. “It takes a while for many of us. Don’t feel bad. This could be as long as a two- to three-year process.”

For a more thorough breakdown of the cover-letter discussion, see Workshop Notes.


Humanities for Hire is a yearlong speaker series sponsored by UC San Diego’s Center for the Humanities. Each month the Center offers a presentation-workshop in which graduate students can learn more about the professionalizing aspects of academia.

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WRITTEN BY: Brie Iatarola