An Academic Career

Covering letters

Dr Andrea Simpson explains the application procedure for her job and how she targetted her covering letter.

Improve your chances for interview with a strong covering letter

Covering letters are sometimes the neglected part of the application for an academic job.  After spending hours on composing impressive CVs and personal statements on application forms, many candidates send them with a cursory note:  'Enclosed please find my application for your consideration,' and do not take the opportunity to expand.

It may feel that covering letters merely repeat what is already written in an application form or CV, yet they are a vital way of showing your enthusiasm, highlighting key achievements and reiterating your interest and suitability for the post.  Taking the time to write persuasive covering letters and tailoring each one for every job application, will improve your chances of being invited for an interview.

A good covering letter need not be longer than a page or two and should include: 

  1. Why you want the job.  Demonstrate your research into the institution/department/position and what attracts you to the role.
  2. Why you are a suitable candidate.  Select a few compelling examples (eg your research interests, your teaching record, etc) which closely match the job and person specification.
  3. What you can offer. Describe what you could make to the department and to the university.

Using language to make an impact

Use proactive, positive language to convey passion and enthusiasm. Avoid using the 'passive voice' when talking about your skills and experiences in your covering letter, this is also referred to as talking in 'the third person'. Passive language gives the impression that you were an observer, looking in from the outside, rather than an active participant.

It is important you take personal credit for your achievements so try to be explicit about your achievements and contributions. Use dynamic action verbs and 'I' in your sentences to help the reader to be clear about what you personally achieved.

Other top tips

  • Establish any common ground - for example, if you have previously met or if their name was given to you by a common contact.
  • Aim to address your covering letter to an actual person and not 'To Whom It May Concern'.  Failure to do so may be interpreted as lack of research and motivation.
  • Even if you know the person you are addressing very well, adopt a formal, business-like tone.
  • If applying by email, include the covering letter as an attachment.
  • Quote any reference numbers given and say where you saw the job advertised.