Never Underestimate the Power of Your Cover Letter: Personality, Brevity, Explanation and Quality Control (Part 2)

Category: Career Resources

Part II: Personality, Brevity, Explanation, and Quality Control

Personality: This is probably one of the more difficult parts of cover letter writing. Conveying a personality in your cover letter goes a long way in making you stand out and forming a connection with the reader, but it can also easily start to bleed into clichés, irrelevance, or worse, sound self-indulgent. Your cover letter should show that there is a person behind the paper, someone who is capable and enthusiastic about the position, as well as someone who would fit into the institution’s culture. That being said, do not use your cover letter as an opportunity to simply talk about yourself. Always keep it relevant to a specific job position that you seek.

So, how do you convey personality while maintaining a professional demeanor and without going overboard? Tone of voice is one way. Tone of voice put simply, is your style of writing. Is it formal? Informal? Friendly? Commanding? Whatever it is, it should be appropriate to the audience, and most of all, distinct. Keep adjectives and adverbs to a bare minimum, as these do not convey personality, and add unnecessary clutter and bulk. Remember that clarity and directness go a long way, and as in part one of our Cover Letter blog series, the rule is to “show, not tell.”

That leads us to another great way of conveying personality – through narrative. Using relevant and compelling anecdotes will not only demonstrate your skills and experience, but your work style and personality. The hiring manager will get a much better sense of your approach to the job position through what you have done, rather than how you describe yourself.

Brevity: In higher ed hiring, it is not uncommon for cover letters to run five (5) or more pages long. This is okay if it is truly necessary, but keep in mind that everyone, particularly hiring managers, appreciates brevity. Keep your cover letter as brief and to-the-point as possible. Keeping your letter highly relevant and specific goes a long way in that respect. Enlist someone else to read over it to help trim any unnecessary fat, do not reiterate the job description or where you heard about the job, and skip the hollow compliments and institutional praise.

Explanation: This applies particularly to candidates whose work experience is either limited or not an exact match to the position—for instance, if your experience is in a different discipline or type of school than your target opportunity. It should be evident how your particular set of experience and skills will transfer effectively to the new position. It can also apply to gaps in work history or seemingly short term employment. If there is anything in your resume that requires explanation, the cover letter is the place to address it.

Quality Control: This should go without saying, but we are saying it anyway. Revise and then, revise again. Whether it is spelling, grammar, or just plain awkward wording, there should be absolutely no mistakes in your cover letter. Mistakes in your cover letter demonstrate a lack of quality control, poor attention to detail, and poor communication skills. Higher ed applicants are expected to be educated and intelligent, and having errors in your cover letter reflects neither. Additionally, your cover letter should be easy to read. Anything that detracts from that, such as awkward formatting, will detract from your application as a whole. It is always a good idea to use spell check and to have a second pair of eyes read over it before you hit the proverbial submit or send button.

Hitting all these key points effectively and striking a balance between them is challenging, but with time and careful consideration it can be done. And, the time spent is well worth it, as a compelling cover letter can be the golden ticket to an interview. What has been your experience with writing cover letters for higher education positions? What writing imperatives have you found to be helpful or indispensable in your job searches or evaluations?

Read Part 1 of the Power of Your Cover Letter: Relevance and Narrative.

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James Norfleet

Search Associate - Spelman Johnson

Jim Norfleet earned his B.B.A. degree in business and marketing from Pace University and completed all coursework for an EdD in educational leadership at the University of California, Los Angeles. He joined Spelman Johnson after three decades in higher education, most recently as vice president for student affairs at The College of New Jersey. Previously, Jim served in several capacities at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, including associate vice president for student services and executive director of educational equity services. Earlier in his career, he worked in academic affairs at Nyack College where he directed the Higher Education Opportunity Program and served as associate dean of the college and director of the Office of Academic Development. Jim has served as an independent consultant to mission-driven organizations and leaders across the career spectrum. Active in professional and civic organizations, he speaks on higher education and social justice issues and has received numerous awards for his leadership, advocacy, and community service.