Since there were a couple questions, and different folks also have different advice, I thought I'd start a thread about some common application issues. I guess what I'm trying to do is help applicants see what I do when I read. Other people will do other things, and hopefully, they'll chime in.
We read a LOT of materials. And that means that on a first run through, I skim. I look to see if the applicant meets our basic job requirements.
Let's imagine, for a minute, that our job description looks something like this.
Assistant professor of Underwater Basketweaving.
Terminal degree in Underwater Basketweaving or a related field.
Specialization in Deepwater Basketweaving.
Secondary specialization in International Basketweaving or Reed Cultivation.
Ability to teach basic basketweaving.
Strong assets include a commitment to undergraduate teaching, liberal arts, and multicultural basketweaving.
When I look at an application, I'm first looking for evidence of a terminal degree and appropriate specialization. If someone's a specialist in Reed Cultivation, and not Deepwater Basketweaving, they're out. There are two reasons for that. 1) We REALLY need a deepwater specialist, and there are plenty of applicants who are. 2) Legally, we can't hire someone who doesn't actually meet the requirements of the job description over someone who does.
Pro Tip: Even though you're desperate, don't apply to a job if you can't make an argument that you actually fit the job description. Focus your time on applications for which you're well-qualified.
Then I'll look for people who do have deepwater specialization, and have one of the secondary qualities.
Pro Tip: Here's where some applications really stand out. If you can talk meaningfully in your letter about your work in reed cultivation or international basketweaving, do. If you've taught basic basketweaving, say so in your letter, and sound enthusiastic about it. If you have multicultural experience, foreground it, along with your commitment to liberal arts. If you see a "commitment to undergraduate teaching," you probably don't want to talk lots about how much you look forward to directing dissertations.
People who foreground the things we're looking for get a star next to their name on my list. People who do that and whose dissertations sound really interesting get an extra star.
Then I look at schools and publications. Depending on my familiarity with the field, I'm looking for publications in decent journals, and a strong school. I don't care if it's Ivy or Big State, so long as it's a strong school in that field.
People who've foregrounded the things we're looking for, and come from a strong school rise to the top of my list. A publication or more (depending on the field) helps a little in addition.
Pro Tip: Here's where a well organized CV is a real boon. I want to know where you went, what you've done. I don't want to know that you worked at the local hardware store, but I do want to know if you did tutoring in reed cultivation. If you're applying for our deepwater position, foreground deepwater stuff to the extent you can.
By the end of my intial read through, I have a list of applicants, with "no" next to some names, stars next others, all on a grid with information about their schools, publications, and which of our secondary qualities they have.
If all has gone well, my colleagues on the search committee have a similar list. That's when we meet and take away the applicants who aren't qualified, and start to work out the group of people we'll ask for more information from or whose references and writing samples we'll read.
Pro Tip: If you're downloading your materials onto a computer system, make sure to label your files in some way that will help the readers. For example, I might label my CV something like "BardiacCV2012.pdf" and my cover letter "BardiacCover2012.pdf." And so on.