I’ve been working with job seekers inside and outside of academia for over a decade, and no matter the field, everyone starts with one thing in common – they approach the job search from their own perspective. When we’re looking for work, whether we need a job or we’re just window shopping, we look at the tasks or portfolio that the role gets to handle, the employer culture, the pay, the perks and benefits. In short, we’re looking out for ourselves. And that’s okay! That’s a normal part of the job search, and an important one to make sure that you find the right fit with your next position. The mistake that most job seekers make is letting their perspective be the only perspective.
Imagine being on a blind date, and the person sitting across from you goes on for the entire dinner about how wonderful they are, how they deserve to have all their dreams come true, and how you can help them to feel fulfilled. Insert shudder here! Anyone experiencing that would be looking for an escape. Unfortunately, job seekers do this to employers all the time with their cover letters.
In our enthusiasm, we forget the basics of hiring.
In our enthusiasm, we forget the basics of hiring. All we can see is “that job would be so perfect for me!” or “I’ve always wanted to work there!” or even “I could totally do that!” and then our mental fantasies are off and running. Instead, we need to flip our thinking, and approach the cover letter from the hiring manager’s perspective. Remember, they’re hiring for a reason; they have a staffing need, and they want to hire the person who can address that issue, fit in well with their existing staff, and bring some of their own secret sauce to the table.
Your letter needs to explain how your skills and background have prepared you for the opportunity, especially if it is not a straight connection. For those of you coming from academia, this is your chance to directly relate your experience to the qualifications in the job posting by translating your academic experience for the hiring manager. Most people outside of higher ed have little knowledge of academia, and what they do know may be coloured by stereotypes. The onus is on you, the job candidate, to explain why and how your experiences have prepared you to address the things that the employer thinks are important. You won’t be able to cover everything, you only have one page, but you will be able to lay the groundwork for further conversation at an interview.
Staying in academia? You still need to write a persuasive cover letter, and you’ll need to do just as much preparation. A great academic cover letter goes beyond rudimentary tailoring to identify specific issues and initiatives on campus, and to make connections with your background and accomplishments. Even though academic applications have research and teaching statements, you need to use some examples in the cover letter to help the hiring committee see you in this position. Your goal isn’t to answer every possible question, but to give them just enough to satisfy but leave them wanting more.
If you’re thinking that this sounds like a lot of work, it is! And no, you can’t just use a template and change the names for each application. You need to tailor the letters so you can show that you have researched the employer and that you understand their needs. Even if a cover letter isn’t requested, don’t turn down an opportunity to persuade the employer that you’re worth a second look. In many cases, it might just be that cover letter that gets you the interview, especially if the other candidates didn’t submit one with their resume.
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