It’s All About the Ad

Cassandra O’Sullivan Sachar describes why and how you should tailor your CV to get the job.

February 6, 2019

In my position as a fourth-year, tenure-track faculty member, I’ve now had plenty of experience serving on search committees. From occasional universitywide searches to frequent temporary pool position opportunities within my department, I’ve read and rated hundreds of application packets.

And here’s what I want to know: Did you read the ad? Did you really read it and not merely take a quick glance? (To be fair, looking back on my own application materials during my job search, one could have justifiably asked me the same questions.)

It’s honestly frustrating to read through an obviously talented candidate’s materials to find everything but the qualities for which I’m looking. Sometimes I can tell from the list of impressive publications and presentations, as well as a beautifully worded and passionate teaching philosophy, what an intelligent and even awe-inspiring educator an applicant is. Therefore, it’s mind-boggling to me when that very same candidate completely neglects to address points in the ad’s criteria which clearly state the requirement to show evidence, forcing me to rate them with low scores in various categories.

Granted, some ads are rather vague in terms of what is desired for the position; they loosely refer to “experience” and “strong communication” skills without specificity. However, most of the ones with which I’ve come in contact are fairly straightforward about the expectations of the candidate, referring directly to the types of skills and background they will need. In fact, an institution’s social equity office will probably examine both the ad and criterion rating sheet to check for coherence between the two. That reveals that there are clues, sometimes very strong ones, about how you will be rated, and it’s your job to interpret and react to them.

Remember, you will be ranked against other applicants, and if they receive higher ratings than you, you may very well never make it to the interview stage to showcase yourself more personally. Thus, your CV and cover letter are tremendously important. Here are five tips for reworking your materials to present your best self.

No. 1. Write a separate cover letter and CV for each job to which you apply. Yes, I know this is a pain, but do you want the job? This entails more than merely changing the names of the search committee chair, job position and institution in your cover letter. (Although please ensure that you avoid a sloppy mistake like not changing these names.) Even if searching broadly, you’ll increase the potential for standing out against others by specifically addressing the points an ad lists.

If one job focuses on the need for information literacy skills while another one doesn’t, then expand or trim that information about yourself as needed. If a position wants a “team player,” emphasize the collaborative work you have done. In contrast, if a separate position’s ad states an interest in leadership skills, you should highlight projects you have spearheaded. A one-size-fits-all approach may be convenient, but it’s simply not effective.

No. 2. Think of the ad’s criteria as a list of topics to cover, and synchronize the headings on your CV as applicable. If you were given an essay assignment on World War II, you would absolutely want to write something about Hitler, the Holocaust and the Allies -- to broach a few points -- and your application materials should be dealt with in the same manner. “Scholarship,” for example, is an umbrella term for your CV that could adequately cover a few separate areas; there’s nothing wrong with such a phrase as a heading. But if a job description mentions publications and presentations as separate entities, then treat them as such. It may indicate that those areas are broken into two different rating categories, and you want to ensure yourself high marks in both.

No. 3. Focus on the qualities and experience the ad requests, using the terminology as much as possible. In a magical world, the best candidate would rise from the pile of applications like a phoenix from the ashes, ready to be embraced as the chosen one, truly the best person for the job. But before the interview stage, all the search committee has to go on -- all we have to rate your worth -- are the written materials you provide. And we must measure your materials against those belonging to other candidates according to the criteria rating sheet that the social equity office has approved.

Therefore, while I might think it’s intriguing and fascinating that you spent a year teaching in Japan, you need to directly connect this with one of the criterion points from the ad. If, for example, the ad states that the candidate must show evidence of working with diverse populations, make a point of using those terms as you briefly describe this experience in your cover letter. Add a few bullet points into your CV to help us make that direct correlation.

We want you to score well on the criterion rating sheets, since we long for wonderful people to work with our students (and us, too). But you need to connect the dots for us so we can fairly rank you against other candidates. We can’t just assume that you must have done some professional development during your 20 years as an educator. Use that term itself and flesh out some details as proof.

No. 4. Cut what doesn’t apply. I love that you run marathons or work for an animal rescue shelter. That makes me like you as a human being. But it doesn’t win you any favoritism on my criterion rating sheet, as I still require evidence of how you can reach the needs of underprepared students. If your CV is three pages and half of one lists your community activities, I’m wondering why you haven’t focused more on the meat of your career, as your hobbies or coolness factor aren’t going to get you the job.

Similarly, if you’ve worked outside of education or your particular field, this should not take up oodles of space on your CV. Relegate the experience to a line or two as proof of how you were employed during that time frame. That was a hard lesson for me personally. After my first year in higher education, a dean gave me the painful but valuable advice to condense several pages’ worth of accomplishments from my previous career into one sentence. No matter how much I had achieved, it didn’t translate into experience in higher education. Therefore, it had to go.

No. 5. Cross your t’s and dot your i’s. Seriously. Many job ads include a line stating that a candidate should exhibit excellent communication skills. While there are many interpretations as to what this may mean, it may actually be a simple yes/no rating that could stop your application dead in its tracks. How picky do search committee members get? That depends, of course. It’s true that not everyone was an English major in college, but the broad assumption is that materials should be virtually free of grammatical errors and demonstrate a degree of writing proficiency -- with a clear sense of organization and some variety in sentence structure and words.

Take the time to read and reread your application materials; consider asking a close friend to proofread as a favor. Despite your accolades, some raters may push you to the bottom of the pile if your writing reads more like a hastily sent text than a polished, professional piece.

In the words of Tom Cruise’s agent character to his client in the 1996 movie Jerry Maguire, “Help me help you.” Consider making changes to your application materials so your evaluators, good people who must pit you against other candidates, can perceive how qualified, remarkable and truly fitting you are for the position.

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Cassandra O’Sullivan Sachar is an assistant professor of writing at Bloomsburg University.

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