How long is too long?
March 19, 2008 12:18 PM   Subscribe

I am applying for psychology instructor positions at community colleges and have lots of cover letters to write. What is an acceptable length for these cover letters?

I've been told that I need to address each minimum/preferred/desired qualification, skill, & ability listed in the job descriptions in the cover letters. In doing so, my letters end up being 3 pages long, and this seems kind of long to me. Do letters this long get dismissed, or are letters several pages long acceptable in community college applications?
posted by Four-Eyed Girl to Work & Money (19 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
Cover letter for a job - any job - should be one page long. One and a half is the absolute outside but any longer than this MEGO.

Note that one and a half pages includes sender and recipient addresses, date, salutation and sign off. Be concise.
posted by dmt at 12:40 PM on March 19, 2008


Absolutely no longer than one page. Whoever told you that you "need to address each minimum/preferred/desired qualification, skill, & ability" in your cover letter is a practical joker.
posted by gum at 12:47 PM on March 19, 2008


One page max.

A reviewer who received a three-page cover letter would probably read the first paragraph, skim the rest and move on.

The point of both the resume and the cover letter is to make you stand out. Your cover letter should be concise but memorable, rather than comprehensive. If the company wants more details, they can ask for them in an interview.

I like to think of cover letters/resumes as similar to a teaser trailer for a movie, or the blurb on the back of a book -- things that should draw someone in.
posted by the littlest brussels sprout at 1:02 PM on March 19, 2008


As an academic (who has in fact taught at community colleges in the past) I have to disagree with the strict one-page rule. Academic cover letters are a different animal from business letters, though it may vary somewhat by discipline. My department (communication) recently had a seminar for our grad students on writing cover letters, and the general department consensus was 1.5 single-spaced pages should be the limit. And all academic job search workshops, etc. I've ever gone to have stressed addressing the job ad qualifications in your letter. You can do it briefly, but you should do it. The Chronicle of Higher Education has great advice on writing academic cover letters. I don't think it's too much different for community college vs. 4-year schools, though you might get away with a little less detail.

Also-we don't use resumes in academia, we use the CV, which is in fact much longer and more detailed than a traditional resume.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 1:03 PM on March 19, 2008


I don't know if CC's are different from four year institutions in what kind of letters they want, but at four year colleges letters of 1-2 pages are normal (and I have seen a lot more 2 pagers than 1 pagers); letters I have seen for senior administrative positions have ran 2-3 pages. There is a lot in academia that is different from the usual job-seeking advice, so make sure you are getting input from people in your specific field.
posted by Forktine at 1:04 PM on March 19, 2008


In my experience in academia, it is essential to address the required and relevant desired qualifications in the cover letter. It may be different in other industries.

I have regularly seen candidates whose cover letters do not address the advertised qualifications be weeded out by the search committee in the first pass through. A one page letter usually expresses a desire for employment and notes relevant credentials, and that's usually not enough information for screeners to distinguish candidates from one another.

Our application requirements explicitly ask candidates to make a case for how they will successfully fill the position. This includes addressing every relevant qualification, showing that they understand the goals of our organization, and pointing out what the applicant brings to the table to further those goals.

Don't rely on the HR department or search committee to analyze your resume. Take the cover letter as an opportunity to sell your knowledge, enthusiasm and teaching skills.

(this is not a practical joke!!)
posted by zepheria at 1:08 PM on March 19, 2008


I like to think of cover letters/resumes as similar to a teaser trailer for a movie, or the blurb on the back of a book -- things that should draw someone in.

This is a great example of how academic and non-academic job searches are really different. Job letters and CVs in academia are quite codified in format and content, and are not meant as "teasers" in the way a letter and resume to a major corporation is. While you may not have to address every little piece of the job ad, you absolutely do have to address the major points, in addition to the usual teaching/research/service pieces.
posted by Forktine at 1:09 PM on March 19, 2008


Also, what zepheria & Forktine said.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 1:21 PM on March 19, 2008


Should I include the classes I've taught in my cover letter and not assume they'll read in in my CV?

(I've now cut my letter down to two pages.)
posted by Four-Eyed Girl at 1:46 PM on March 19, 2008


Yup, nthing those that say one page. Your cover letter is an advert for yourself, your skills, knowledge.

More than anything, it's an opportunity to say why you're passionate about getting the position, and what you could bring to the workplace. Go ahead and point out the qualifications you have in your CV, but note in your covering letter how you achieved them through your character, personality and desires to succeed.

Try thinking of it as a mini-interview with yourself, and look at it from the viewpoint of the employer. What first impression would you want to give to them, and what qualities do you fulfill for them?
posted by TheWaves at 1:59 PM on March 19, 2008


I have not been a part of searches in community colleges, only vaguely research-oriented universities. So, maybe CCs work differently. But.

All the advice from the business world would be dead wrong in an R1/R2 setting. Not arguably mistaken, not slightly off, but dead fucking wrong. Application-killing wrong. You should utterly ignore everyone who used the word "resume" and everyone who is not giving specific advice about academic employment.

If anything, people who follow the advice of well-meaning friends in "normal" industries get royally fucked. When I see "GOALS:" or some other resume-speak at the top of a CV, that's two and a half strikes against you. At that point I skim ahead looking for some other reason to stop reading, and generally find it quickly.

Be as concise as you can, but do address the major points of the ad. Do not be afraid to write "As you can see on my CV, my evaluations are excellent." or something like that to save space.

The cover letter is not the teaser. The teaser is the first page of your CV, and you should have more than one depending on whether you need to put your teaching or research credentials first and foremost.

If this were an R1/R2 hire, a search committee member's flowchart might look like this:

(1) Look at CV. Glance quickly for dealbreakers -- wrong field, wrong subfield, no committee, no conference presentations, etc.

(2) No dealbreakers? Read the cover letter. How closely? Depends on how good the CV was.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:21 PM on March 19, 2008 [2 favorites]


I no longer seem to have copies of the letters I wrote for CC jobs, but as a general rule, when I have applied for jobs at teaching-oriented institutions I have mentioned titles or subject areas of classes I have taught if the job ad asked for teaching experience in specific areas. How much detail I give usually depends on how the ad is worded. I think it's important to remember that CCs are *teaching* institutions, so if you have limited (or no) teaching experience apparent on your CV, you will need to spend a paragraph in your letter demonstrating how you are qualified to teach.

Feel free to memail me if you would like to talk more about CC teaching; this is more fun that revising the stupid journal article I'm working on!
posted by DiscourseMarker at 2:50 PM on March 19, 2008


Nthing ALL those who told you to IGNORE advice that includes the word "resume."

Unlike the private sector, your letter and vita will actually be read by folks who have the job you want. And they'll want to hire someone to join them, but they'll want to know that this person fits the environment, as well as the needs, of the institution.

To that end, make sure each of your letters addresses each minimum/preferred/desired qualification, skill, & ability listed in the job descriptions.

you asked:
Should I include the classes I've taught in my cover letter and not assume they'll read in in my CV?

Absolutely, if the classes you've taught speak directly to the minimum/preferred/desired qualification, skill, & ability listed in the job descriptions. But if they don't, then a mere brief mention at the end of a sentence ("and many other courses in [insert field here]).

you said:
(I've now cut my letter down to two pages.)

You may want to rethink this. Go back to the folks who gave you the right advice. Ask them what they think.

In my experience (and I've taught at all institutions), the CC job search is often different from the R1/R2 search only in degree: the well-qualified candidate seeking placement at an R1/R2 may send out twenty or thirty packets (letter + vita) in a season. The successful candidate seeking placement at the CC will likely send out ten-fold more packets than her R1/R2 counterpart. So I can understand wanting to keep letters brief. I can also tell you that your packet will not make it past screening.

Finally, there is one similarity between the academic and private sector job search: your network and your professional acquaintances will provide you with the most rewarding leads. Take advantage of them.
posted by deejay jaydee at 2:54 PM on March 19, 2008


Should I include the classes I've taught in my cover letter and not assume they'll read in in my CV?

CC's really, really, really prioritize and value teaching. You will almost certainly want to make the case in your letter that you are an excellent teacher. Your CV has the list of classes; your letter has a paragraph or two talking about your teaching experience, approach, and abilities, which includes the kinds of classes you have taught, your evaluations, etc. You may also need a "statement of teaching philosophy" or something of that sort, if the schools ask for it, as well as perhaps copies of evals, syllabi, or whatever other supporting documentation they desire.

Your cover letter is an advert for yourself, your skills, knowledge.

Again, here is the difference between academia and the rest of the world. The letter is not an advert -- it is a response to the job ad, following a narrow set of field-specific guidelines, emphasizing a very specific set of experiences, approaches, and qualifications. It is not free-form, it is not an advertorial, it is not made up on the fly. It is read, as in ROU_X's flowchart, by people who are intimately familiar with the genre and who have very clear expectations of what they do and do not want to see in a job letter. Cutting your letter to one page and using lots of action verbs, or whatever is done in the real world, may mean that you do not have the space for a clear and descriptive presentation of your teaching, your research, your publications, and so on.

Normally the advice with job searching is to make sure you are talking to your departmental and university resources, but the truth is that at many graduate schools, not many people are familiar with how CC's work, what makes them different, and what they are looking for. The letter that gets you a job at an R1 publishpublishpublish school may get you laughed out of a CC job search -- but many of the trappings of the process are very similar, just different emphases and approaches.
posted by Forktine at 2:54 PM on March 19, 2008


You may also need a "statement of teaching philosophy" or something of that sort, if the schools ask for it, as well as perhaps copies of evals, syllabi, or whatever other supporting documentation they desire.

Even if the job ad doesn't explicitly ask for a separate teaching philosophy, it's a good bet that they will ask you about this in the interview, so addressing it in the cover letter is a big plus (and gives you a head start on thinking through this topic.

Also, when I taught at CCs (both in TX) diversity and distance education were big issues that I got asked about in interviews. Read the job ads carefully for any hints about these topics, and be sure to also address them in your letter (and diversity here can mean the traditional ethnic/racial diversity and diversity in terms of a range of interests and experiences, i.e. non-majors).
posted by DiscourseMarker at 3:25 PM on March 19, 2008


Thank you, everyone, for your responses.

I no longer have any departmental or university resources, given that I graduated last summer. This was me, and I did not get a full-time position. I'm currently adjuncting in an area that has no full-time prospects, and I am applying yet again for positions in other areas of the country.

DiscourseMarker, I may take you up on your offer. Any tips are definitely welcome!
posted by Four-Eyed Girl at 3:30 PM on March 19, 2008


I respect everyone's opinions, but I decided to listen to those with academic experience.

My letter is at two pages, and I believe I've still covered all of the relevant qualifications, skills, and abilities. I'm hoping I've arrived at a happy medium.
posted by Four-Eyed Girl at 4:12 PM on March 19, 2008


so addressing [the teaching philosophy] in the cover letter is a big plus

Agreed, and if you are interviewing for a CC position or another "teaching" faculty position, it could come a little sooner in the mix.

Cutting your letter to one page and using lots of action verbs, or whatever is done in the real world, may mean that you do not have the space for a clear and descriptive presentation of your teaching, your research, your publications, and so on.

It means you are a novice with little understanding of the rhetorical conventions of the genre know as the the job letter and probably an equal lack of understanding of other key features of the institutional culture to which you are petitioning acceptance.
posted by mrmojoflying at 7:22 PM on March 19, 2008


I agree with all the above posters... In fact, having mainly applied for academic positions, I didn't realise this approach wasn't the standard method of operation!

Interestingly (and bear in mind I'm in Australia), every job ad I've written for has specifically asked for me to address the selection criteria separately from the cover letter. This means you write:

1. Cover Letter
2. Selection Criteria
3. CV

This allows you to actually do a one-page cover letter which summarises your skills, and then more detail as you address each of the criteria. The ad sometimes limits the criteria, but it's usually to something like 6 or 7 pages, not one! Isn't this the approach in other parts of the world?
posted by ranglin at 9:11 PM on March 19, 2008


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