Never Underestimate the Power of Your Cover Letter: Relevance and Narrative (Part 1)

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Category: Career Resources

Although it is ultimately your qualifications, experience, and achievements that hiring managers and search committees are looking for, there is only so much you can do to tweak a resume or CV for a particular job position. A cover letter can go much further in convincing a hiring manager that you are the right person for the job (or the right person to interview for the job), and a great cover letter will give your job application an edge and polish that lists and bullet points simply will not be able to confer.

Think of your cover letter as more than just an introduction to yourself and your achievements. It should be a compelling treatise to invite you to an interview. In many situations a hiring manager or committee may skim your cover letter first, before deciding whether to look at your resume, particularly if communication skills are paramount to the position. However, some will skim resumes first, and use the cover letter as a deciding factor for whether or not to invite the candidate to an interview. Either way, this makes your cover letter a tipping point in the job application process and an integral factor that can influence the reviewer to take further action on your job application.

Like every industry, higher education has its own job application and evaluation dynamics. SJG is publishing a two-part blog post series on cover letter writing imperatives for higher education applicants. We welcome you to share your own comments, suggestions, or cover letter writing/evaluating experiences in the comments section below.

Part 1: Relevance and Narrative

Relevance: Your relevance to the job position is one of the most important things to demonstrate in your cover letter. Each cover letter should be fully customized and institutionally specific. You want to highlight your achievements that are most significant and relevant to the position, without simply rehashing your resume or CV, and position yourself as the solution to their hiring needs.

Being a relevant job candidate goes beyond having extensive experience and achievements in the position you are applying for; it means that your particular experience and achievements match well with the current and specific needs of the institution to which you are applying. It can also mean having a work style or vision that meshes well with that particular university’s culture. Be aware that this is a tricky area, as many institutions use boiler plate language and requirements in their job ads. Careful due diligence to build an understanding of the position, history of leadership, reporting structure, and institutional culture is important before setting fingers to the keyboard.

Some useful questions to consider while writing your cover letter are: What needs or requirements is the position that you are applying for expected to serve or fulfill? What problems or issues is the institution or department currently facing, that your particular skills or experiences would be able to address? You should be able to answer these questions based not just on the job description, but on your extensive research of both the position and institution.

Where appropriate, incorporate keywords and phrases from the job description into your cover letter (note: be sure to access the full job description, if one is available). These keywords will very often be part of the criteria rubric the reviewer is using to evaluate your candidacy. However, it is important to not just reiterate the keywords in connection with your work experience. Instead, you should use active examples that demonstrate why those keywords apply to you and your experience. This leads us to the next imperative.

Narrative: A famous writer’s rule is to “show, don’t tell,” and it is a great rule for cover letter writing as well. The selective use of narrative and anecdotes to demonstrate your qualifications, achievements, and vision will help distinguish your unique candidacy. Simply asserting your extensive administrative experience or your vision for the department’s future will not impress a search committee. Likewise, using boilerplate language and objectives will make very little impression. Keep in mind that most job candidates will have a strong commitment to higher education, a respect for diversity, a collaborative management style, a strong and positive vision for the future involving better research, enrollment, funding, etc. What other job applicants will not have is your particular experiences that demonstrate these qualities—such as measures you have taken to increase enrollment diversity or your commitment to research as visible by your list of selected publications.

Describe a challenging administrative compromise you brokered in which both parties were satisfied and the university benefited in a specific way. Or, illustrate the development of your vision and management style by articulating how you have addressed critical issues, especially as relevant best practices have evolved throughout your career. How have you changed protocols for the better or reevaluated routine issues that come with running your particular type of department? Threading your experience and qualifications through situations and problems solved gives the search committee a vivid picture of what you will be like as an employee and how you will fit into their department.

Read Part 2 of the Power of Your Cover Letter: Personality, Brevity, Explanation, and Quality Control.

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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.