Landing an academic job is tough, and at no point in the process are the odds longer than in getting a foot in the door to interview. Often the number of applicants for a position, particularly in the humanities, exceeds 100. The letter of application is, arguably, among the most important documents an academic writes. When academics who haven’t worked at community colleges seek jobs at those institutions — as more are likely to do this year, given that there are more jobs at community colleges — the letter takes on even more significance.
The following suggestions are born of a quarter century’s work in a community college English department, including service on a score of instructional and administrative screening committees; read no further if your ambition takes you to a Research I university. If your heart is set on teaching, however, these hints may help in crafting a rhetorically effective letter.
1. Explicitly match the description of your skills to the requirements of the job as it is posted. That match-up will distinguish your letter from the pack because screening committees read many generic letters from applicants who fancy they can teach everything. What new applicants seldom know is that at public institutions, some committees are constrained by evaluation documents that limit what they can value to the job as it is advertised. The committees themselves create job descriptions and screening instruments, but at many institutions, a human resources officer reviews these. Such oversight by a legal authority means that a candidate could be the brightest nabob of post-colonial literature and have published five articles in the last two years, but if the college hasn’t advertised for that specialty, the committee cannot legally value it highly.
2. Since the subject of your letter is way you’ll fit the institution, show yourself to be professionally active and intellectually engaged. Screening committees don’t want to hire slackers, so they look for candidates with intellectual muscle, believing those people to be more professional and thus likelier to grow the department. Every act of hiring is an act of molding a department, infusing the fresh ideas incarnated in the new hire. Also, the college is gambling when it hires, so you can assure the committee you’re a good bet by knowing about the college as it appears on its Website. Note its mission statement and any expression of its core values, and advert to those values subtly or explicitly in what you write.
3. Offer generous specific examples from your teaching or other relevant experience in order to provide the audience with information they’ll find helpful. Be clear about the contributions you could make to the existing department, using the department’s Web site to advantage. If you know what’s taught, you can also see the holes in the curriculum and thus suggest your secondary usefulness to areas not advertised; just be subtle enough to do so without accusation about the department’s current inadequacies. It is not a mistake to suggest how you would approach the general education or core courses of the department as well as specialty courses because doing so involves concrete examples and details.
4. Demonstrate you’ve got the chops -- Part I. Let your readers hear your students’ voices or see their reactions to your work. This can be done in a variety of ways: by quoting particular passages from student evaluations or by including single-page summaries of numerical evaluations and comments in an appendix (avoid sending scores of pages). If you’ve been nominated for or won a teaching award, talk about it as modestly and tastefully as you can.
5. Your chops -- Part II. In the jargon du jour, show yourself to be both student-centered and discipline-oriented. My department’s most recent hire Jared illustrates how these can be combined: “Teaching basic writing at X Community College and at Y State University, I have worked effectively with students from diverse backgrounds [who] have been identified by placement examinations as under-prepared for college-level writing. The most important thing I can do as a teacher in that situation is to help students develop confidence in their own abilities [in order] to believe that they belong in college and that they can successfully navigate its challenges. We work on developing it by critically analyzing academic discourse features, which students then consciously introduce into their writing based on their own rhetorical goals.” Notice that he identifies one target population of the community college, but the discussion doesn’t stop with under-prepared students; rather, he identifies the rhetorical strategies he helps students to recognize and use, which a composition program would find attractive.
6. Show your interest not only in the topic, your fit for the college, but connect with the audience evoked in all teaching, the students. They are the reason for our institutions, so applicants must demonstrate an interest in students generally and the college’s students particularly. One recent hire Ann returned to my college after completing her Ph.D. in another part of the country. She eloquently addressed why students matter and how her understanding of them has developed: “My experience teaching the undergraduate population at [remote university] — a population that consists of many first-generation college students, students from rural areas such as Appalachia, and African-American students — expanded my understanding of the ways in which issues of class, region, and race profoundly influence students’ experiences in the classroom . . . . I loved the environment and the students at Spokane Falls, particularly the nontraditional students.” Of course she curries favor by mentioning her previous experience at our college, but more important, she shows how her further education and interaction with other students have made her a better teacher.
7. Connect to your audience in such a way as to let them “hear your voice”; they should know what’s relevant about your ability to do the job, but it’s important to leave them a little hungry to know you better, thus making them want to invite you to interview. Your letter affords a hundred ways to do this, but make your conclusion the piéce de résistance. Consider describing the way your learning has shaped your teaching or your own journey to this career point. Ann does it in juicy detail: “The cadre of graduate students to which I belonged was encouraged to desire teaching positions at only the most prestigious universities . . . [always moving] in pursuit of the ideal job: one at a research institution, where teaching loads are light and research opportunities abound. I believed in this goal for years, until I realized that no one ever said anything about where teaching — the very reason I chose to pursue a Ph.D. in the first place — fit into this career schema. I loved teaching, and while my gifts in the classroom were recognized with awards and the appreciation of students, none of my peers or mentors seemed to value teaching nearly as much as they valued research. I believe that good teaching — at any level, and at any college or university — should be valued, and I believe the desire to teach should be deeply respected and highly esteemed. It is my hope that I will have the opportunity to work not as a novice but as an experienced teacher, one who has finally recognized that her dream was not about a degree so much as about having the opportunity to build a career around that which she loves the most: teaching.” Every member of the committee reading that conclusion wanted to invite Ann to interview, confident that we were a good match for her and she for us.
The seven foregoing suggestions are substantive issues expressed in positive terms, but this list would be incomplete were I to ignore those niggling features of a letter that can irk screening committee members. Here are three stylistic choices to avoid (admittedly fussy, perhaps idiosyncratic, but nonetheless worth noting):
8. Avoid the salutation “To Whom It May Concern”; instead, use “Dear Members of the Screening Committee” or “Dear Selection Committee Members”—more accurate and personable.
9. If the posted job asks for a résumé rather than a CV, do not tell your audience the kind of job you seek. (Fortunately, the CV format does not invite this practice.) Your audience does not know you and is therefore indifferent to your needs; rather, they focus acutely on those of their department. Your job is to convince readers that you can fulfill those needs, and starting with your ideal job description makes that document “all about me.” The audience will worry.
10. Don’t overuse “I.” It’s possible to show your accomplishments by having others recognize them. “I’m an effective teacher” said 42 ways becomes dull but “Students find my classes challenging and engaging” less so.
The level of work involved in writing an effective letter may seem daunting, but the skills applicants have honed in graduate school — research, analysis, synthesis — serve them well when it comes to the job hunt. Sure, it is serious work to comb through college Web sites, but the work introduces you to the audience so that you can adapt your message to them. The letter that is more interesting than 95 others will get its writer into the interview pool where the odds are much friendlier. Instead of being one of a hundred, you’ll be one of four or five candidates. That’s why the writing matters.
Alexis Nelson remembers the 60s as a participant rather than as a student of pop culture; she has taught writing and literature classes at Spokane Falls Community College since the early 1980s and currently serves as chair of the English department.