Several years ago, violin virtuoso Joshua Bell staged an unannounced concert in a crowded Washington subway station during morning rush hour. For 45 minutes, he performed on a violin valued at $3.5 million dollars. Planners speculated that the Metro might be shut down by commuters enraptured with this unexpected gift. They needn’t have worried: few paused to listen. Tips totaled a mere $32. And yet, days earlier, Bell had played a sold-out performance to an audience that paid $100 per seat. What happened? Various theories surfaced. His street clothes signaled he was just another busker, part of the expected backdrop of the busy scene. His “audience” was distracted by schedules, cell phones, work commitments. People may have caught only a few notes in their rush by. In short, nothing invited commuters to single out this one performer in this brief encounter, no matter how accomplished, renowned, and verifiably brilliant he is.
It’s the same with your faculty job application. While we’d like to think that brilliance and skill will always call attention to themselves and that genius will rise above the merely mundane, apparently, appreciation requires context. The job application is there to help your interviewers see you. It calls attention to specific qualities and accomplishments that make sense in the specific context set out by the position announcement. Application letters do the same thing that tuxedos, spotlights, and advanced press buzz do for Joshua Bell. They don't create brilliance, but they do set the stage so your potential audience knows where to find it.
By now we hope you’re rethinking your plan to send generic application packets to every school with an opening. That’s a little like hitting the "I’m feeling lucky" button on Google. Two reasons. First, are you sure you would actually want to work at every campus with an opening? Pay attention to the specified job duties. If a primary requirement is something you would abhor doing, or the college is in an area where your partner would have difficulty finding work, why do that to yourself? Both of us have refrained from applying to -- or even declined offers at -- colleges that we didn’t find to be good matches. As much as the job search seems to be about filling everyone else's requirements, it’s about finding a place where you will thrive.
Second, while a generic "press kit" may accurately show your background, skills and training, it can’t connect these qualities directly to the specific situation each opening represents. A one-size-fits-all application packet asks potential colleagues to connect the dots for you. Since they don’t know you yet, this is risky business. Better to help them interpret the connections that are so obvious to you by referring to things they’ve already told you are on their minds.
Use the position announcement to narrow your search. Your letter of application expresses your desire to become one of many colleagues at a particular institution. Job announcements are written by committee. They represent a consensus among thinking people who value teaching and research. They pass through multiple lively debates about priorities, needs, and funding among your potential colleagues, administrators, and human resource staff before they’re posted. There are very specific job requirements that campuses include in their ads (areas of focus, probable teaching assignments) along with things that are left a bit generic because we want to see different points of view, methodologies, theoretical "camps," and personal achievements. But these announcements are your first, best window into whether or not you want to be part of this community. Use the job announcement to target institutions where you think you’d actually like to work, as well as show how marvelously you would fit in there. You're looking for what fits your temperament, skills and training as much as we’re looking for what fits our parameters.
Use the position announcement as a launch point for your application letter. Picture this. You need someone who can do six specific things. You put the word out: "Here are the six specific things I need." You may even use a bullet list for clarity. When people respond, what do you hope they talk about? The position announcement is the baseline description of what a campus says it needs. Clearly address the categories in the ad: working with Generation 1.5, teaching at an urban campus, contributing to specific research. Help readers see who you are in the context of the needs they’ve already identified. After you’ve addressed the specifics in the ad, feel free to delight your readers with anything else you want to showcase.
Use "kitchen sink" ads, which list everything (in)humanly possible, to isolate 3 or 4 items to address. These should be 1) tasks that likely compose the majority of the job (for example, teaching a certain type of student or level of coursework) and 2) things about which you have something specific to share. If you don’t have direct experience with a key component of a job, help your reviewers connect with similar experiences you do have. For example, you may have tutored, but not been the “instructor of record” for developmental classes. Or, you may have taught a standardized curriculum as a teaching assistant, but had full responsibility for designing, implementing, and assessing instructional materials and student work while teaching part time at a community college.
Before you send out your application, reread it as if you had only the job announcement and your cover letter to determine a good match. Your readers will have only the words you put on the page, whether because they have never met you or because their institution requires them not to consider anything but the material you submit. Adjuncts, especially, need to be sure the letter notes everything they’ve done, even work done alongside search committee members! If it’s not on the page, your committee doesn’t "know" it.
In short, make the position announcement work for you. It represents a consensus across groups that often have very different priorities. It can help make your application the start of a real conversation with real people who want you to join them to accomplish things that are important to all of you. One and a half pages isn’t much to get to know you — use it to create some buzz.
Cheryl Reed, who teaches at San Diego Miramar College, and Dawn M. Formo, who teaches at California State University at San Marcos, are the co-authors of Job Search in Academe: How to Get the Position You Deserve (Stylus).