Friday, November 02, 2012

Reading Applications

I've been reading applications.  And reading some more.

And I have some advice.

1)  Follow directions.  Really.

2)  When you write a business letter, it's customary to put two headers on the letter.  (And make no mistake, a letter of application is a business letter.)  The top one, on the right if you prefer, should give your name and address.  Yes, even if there's letterhead, unless it's got your name, put your name.*

Here's how:

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Then the second header gets the name and address of the person you're supposed to address the letter of application to.

This, this you should have learned in high school.  It's the genre of the business letter, and if you choose not to do it, choose knowing that your letter will stand out, and not necessarily in a good way.

3)  Address your letter in some way: Dear Search Committee, Dear Department Chair's Name, To Whom it May Concern, whatever.  But address it in some way.  Again, this is a genre thing, and if you choose not to do it, choose knowing that your letter will stnad out, and not necessarily in a good way.

And yes, you should have learned this in high school.

4)  Start off with some sort of introductory phrase.  "I'm writing to apply to your position in deep-water basketweaving" will do, if that's what you're applying for.  Don't just start out saying that "I rock soxors as a basketweaver!"

Again, this is a social custom thing.  You can choose not to do it, but if you do, you should make that choice knowing that your letter will stand out, and not necessarily in a good way.

All these things stand out more because my department colleagues and I don't teach basketweaving.  We do pretty much all teach composition and writing, and if you haven't learned the basic generic skills of writing a letter, we're going to think that you won't be able to teach writing well, or write appropriate letters of recommendation, or write appropriate letters for other purposes.  And you might be surprised to learn that we'll expect our new colleagues to do all of those things.

Edited to add:
* I've been corrected, and told that you don't need the header identifying yourself if you've got letterhead.  Thanks, folks.


  1. Jobseeker3:54 PM

    Thanks for your posts on application etiquette and expectations! It's been fascinating to hear a candid perspective from the other side, as a job seeker.

    One thing that surprised me in this post is #2, about including your name and address in the header. My department has provided a number of sample job letters (letters from previous year's successful applicants), and none of them do this. All of the sample letters I have are on generic departmental letterhead. I know and have long known that what you describe is standard practice with business letters, but I assumed that academic job letter conventions were slightly different, having seen these examples.

    My problem is that at this point my letter has been revised and revised, and the space is so tight - the extra 3 lines that it would take to put my own address in a header, 4 with a blank line afterward, would mean having to cut a lot to keep it down to 2 pages. Should I be worried that the 11 places to which I've already sent applications to are going to toss my letter in the trash because I didn't include a personal address in addition to my department's address in the letterhead? (And no, sadly the letterhead doesn't enable me to just insert my name into the departmental address in the upper right.) Should I make the effort to pare down my job letter so that it will fit on 2 pages with an additional header?

  2. Huh. I've never typed a return address when using departmental letterhead unless I specifically wanted a reply to my home address. Isn't one of the *functions* of letterhead to provide the address at which you can be reached for business matters? When I worked a corporate job, we didn't include a separate typed return address either, for the same reason.

    But everything else, I heartily second and third!

  3. If you're working on letterhead, then I'm sure it will be fine. Letterhead sets things up pretty well. So don't worry about that. :)

  4. Letterhead is fine.

    But please, also if you include the name of the dept. chair or search committee chair, spell it correctly.

  5. I wouldn't expect someone to put their name up in a header if letterhead is used.

    My general piece of advice about application letters--which I am reading a lot of right now, too: remember that people who are not in your field are reading your letter. Be smart and plainspoken, not dense and technical.

    (this is the other Susan, not the same as the Susan who just commented, just to be clear)

  6. (Incidentally, I'm on a search too this year--but we haven't started reviewing applications. Thanks for the preview of what I have to look forward to!)

  7. ANd the follow directions point: yes, yes, yes. Don't send letters of reference if we did not ask for them. Don't include sample syllabi if we did not ask for them. Don't upload your course evaluations to our online application system if did not ask for them. Just read the directions.

  8. So, I get what you are saying. And I've been on search committees (although at a small place where all dept members are on the committee). But do also remember that job seakers are often applying to large numbers of jobs, and when you are doing that many, and are tailoring at all, even if you quadruple-check, some short-cuts are most likely going to be taken at some point, and people will also make mistakes.

    I've applied for 56 jobs already this season (denied tenure this past year). It is impossible for me, with a full-time job and a family, to tailor extensively (beyond hitting the highlights) for every single job. Perhaps that means I don't want the job(s) enough, but it is also WAY harder than a decade ago (my last search) to keep track of all of the different permutations of requirements from every job. So far I have 5 different types of materials requests: all online through an institution-specific employment website; all online through a clearing-house website; all paper; all email attachments; a hybrid of one of the above. Almost every search wants a slightly different set of stuff. Some of them get very specific (everything has to be in one electronic file - not a zipped folder - or some things need to be scanned originals and other things can be copies).

    I really wish the whole application system would get more uniform. People aren't sending you their reference letters because they are trying to irritate you. They are probably having them sent because most other places ask for them (this might be field specific; in my field asking for them with the initial materials is usual), or some other reason like that.

    I mean, I so get the point that a school/committee asks for what it wants, and that you don't want something different. But having been on the search committees and now for the second time in the applicant pool, so much of the variation is expected noise given the vast permutations, and I have a hard time thinking I'd hold it against someone. (Now, a tone-deaf letter or a weak teaching statement, yes, but not things like whether they sent me more materials than I'd asked for.)

  9. I hear you, Jeh! I don't think anyone is going to toss an application because it has extra stuff. Not at all.

    But when you're reading 100, 200, or more applications, and have to click through a ton of times for each thing, then the extra stuff is added work and not helpful, especially for the initial read-through.

    And we've all been there at some point, many of us back when most schools didn't have full catalogs on line, so to prep a specific letter, we had to go to the library and use a microfilm to get ideas about their curriculum and such. It's really time consuming and way difficult. I would never deny that!

    I read at least one app this time that said the person wanted a job at another place, shrugged, and went on. I didn't hold it against the person, because I know how it goes. But it also doesn't stand out as really good. With so many apps, standing out as really good is what makes the difference.

  10. I have to say I was astonished this year by how many people said nothing about us. And jeh, we don't want details, but something that suggests you know we're small, growing, different is good. We mostly didn't hold it against people, but it certainly counted in people's favor.

  11. Yes, yes, yes: I really am sympathetic to the demands on applicants with so many documents in play. And I've been happily helping people with various problems with their online applications (one person accidentally uploaded blank pages rather than CV and cover letter--I wrote to point that out and got her new documents uploaded via HR; I've helped other applicants who realized they put the wrong info for the letter writers into another part of our system; I've kindly responded to the handful of people who sent application materials directly to my email rather than to our (admittedly cumbersome) online application system. And I don't really mind too much the extra letters of reference that have arrived from some people (but I feel for the waste of $$ involved at that point). I'm just saving them, and the rest of the committee will never know about it.

    But....I still think the basics of matching your cover letter to the job as advertised is important. Our job lists a field speciality plus some involvement with a quasi-curricular-administrative role that's not uncommon in our field (sort of like an assistant director of composition position, although not quite). People who don't mention their interest in that part of the advertised job, or who don't mention their relevant experiences/ambitions in that area, are cutting themselves out of serious consideration.

    The (small # of) people who have really sent tons of stuff (and I mean TONS--one applicant uploaded a 50 page teaching dossier that was in no way shape or form requested by us--have tended to be people who are really not remotely qualified for the position in terms of their degree focus + research. I get that it is a terrible job market and people apply broadly, but I don't get why people who have degrees in basketweaving apply for jobs in scuba without trying to make any case whatsoever that their basketweaving is actually connected to the scuba position advertised.

  12. Anonymous2:31 PM

    So regarding extra materials, what are your thoughts on enclosing a 1-2 page dissertation abstract (for ABD applicants) even if only a cover letter and CV have been requested for round 1? My department's placement advisors have encouraged us to send our dissertation abstract anyway, but since that sometimes means sneakily including it in the same PDF as my CV or letter, that's made me a little uneasy. On the other hand, if it's an unspoken convention that everyone expects your abstract to be included...

  13. Hi Anonymous, I wouldn't have a problem if it were attached to a CV, but I would get it down to a paragraph abstract. I know that seems really short, but remember, the committee will ask for a writing sample if they want one.

  14. I wouldn't bother, anonymous. We just requested a teaching philosophy statement, a letter, and a CV for the first round. Some candidates uploaded a diss abstract separately anyway, and no one is reading them. Some people have a pretty hefty paragraph on the cv about the dissertation, but I would generally expect your cover letter to explain your dissertation (and to explain how much is already written and when you are defending).

    An extra document that can be ignored is way less annoying than one that can't (see my previous comment re: pages and pages of teaching documents that did not make it easy to find the darn philosophy statement!). But still, I would just follow what the committee asked for.