Advice: A cover letter should center your expertise *relevant to the position/RFP*, not your career stage (bonus: cover letter template)

When you’re looking for job or funding opportunities, your cover letter does some heavy lifting. (Photo of me (#throwback) doing field research on bison in Canada)

Last week, Virginia Schutte and I released another episode in our podcast, Meteor: The honest podcast about scicomm with impact. Last week’s episode was about using your resume and/or CV to understand, define, and validate yourself, not to ask for permission.

I’ve been thinking more about this, since it’s “application season” for fellowships, jobs, grants, and more. In particular, I field a lot of queries about fine-tuning cover letters and application materials. I’ve shared various resources for them online (like a workshop series on applying for the NSF GRFP that’s applicable to most application types) and on social media. But today, I want to share something more specific and detailed about what is arguably the most important part of your application: the cover letter.

To my mind, the cover letter is most important because it may be the only part of your application that a hiring manager, grants program officer, editor, or whomever reads.* Your cover letter is your shot at (a) getting them to want to read your CV, references, etc. With the cover letter, your goal is to get on the short list for reading your full packet or even offering a phone/video-call interview.

To do that, you have to be what Virginia talks about in the podcast episode: you have to be convincing — as who you are — as the person they might want to hire. Your application, especially your cover letter, should not be trying to convince the reader that you can become who you say you want to be relative to the position or opportunity.

So, what can this look like? Here’s my deconstruction of my own most recent 2 cover letters. 👇 This isn’t a fail-safe formula, but it is a template you can build from. 🤗

If you use it, or if you have other templates you prefer, I’d love to hear about it in the comments or on Twitter! I’m always looking for resources to share with folks who are trying to connect their interests, training, and career next-steps.


Big picture

An application cover letter should be at least one page long and rich with information about you. What’s that information?

  • Your interest in the position and institution
  • Relevant highlights from your background/expertise
  • Tangible examples of your expertise in action
  • Any other background/expertise points that are compelling and relevant that might not be totally clear from a quick skim of your CV (Don’t expect someone to connect the dots. They don’t have time or deep-enough knowledge of your expertise.)
  • A final tie-in to how you can contribute to major initiatives, gaps, and/or the mission of the institution. This is your chance to stretch, though be thoughtful about how you do this, and try to connect with the position point person to see if you can/should pitch ideas beyond the position description.
  • The sign-off should enforce your interest in contributing to the goal of the position you apply for, in your own, unique way.

Cover letter “template”

Paragraph 1 – hook the reader’s attention by making a connection

  • Establish your interest in the institution/position in a couple of compelling sentences. By compelling, I mean specificity that indicates that you are keyed into the challenges, strengths, and mission of the place you’re applying.
  • Establish your credibility in a couple of brief sentences that clearly tie back to the interest sentences.
  • Tie that together with a clear statement of how your expertise and background contribute to the strengths/mission/challenges of the organization.
  • You might also say something about wanting to live and work in the specific location of the organization, but only if you can provide a credible reason for why. Otherwise, it can feel like fluff, not like a genuine interest in the locale.

Paragraph 2 – set the hook with your credibility

  • Provide more detail, maybe “name-dropping” some publication venues, awards, major projects or professional society connections – anything that (a) illustrates your skills/expertise and (b) does so by underscoring your credibility.
  • The expertise you demonstrate/detail should be directly tied to the work that you are applying to do.
    • Or should relate as directly as possible. For example, for a biological writing teaching job, you would probably want to write both about teaching writing/scicomm and publishing, editing, and journalism experience.
    • Note: unless you are applying for a student-specific opportunity, it may not be strategic to emphasize your identity as a student…even if you’re pointing to expertise developed in a degree program. If they aren’t hiring a student, don’t present as a student. 🙂
  • The aim is to demonstrate well-rounded expertise but keep on-topic.
  • This paragraph probably shouldn’t be any longer, or much longer, than the intro paragraph.

The goal of these first two cover letter paragraphs is to pique their interest by (a) talking directly to what they care about (their own program), (b) demonstrating you’re tapped into what they care about), and (c) efficiently/quickly demonstrating that you have the expertise and credibility necessary for what they are trying to do.

Paragraphs 3-6+ – tangible demonstration of expertise (story-based)

Use however many paragraphs you need (within a 2-page limit for the overall letter). Break into digestible, topic-driven paragraphs, so that it is easy to read)

  • Now, you need to convince the reader that you’re not making abstract claims about your skills and expertise. Everyone says they are a self-motivated team player. Give the reader a tangible, memorable reason to believe you.
  • Ideally, this is a story of a specific instance, scenario, or project that demonstrates the skills you claimed to have in the first 2 paragraphs.
  • This section should:
    • Weave together the scenario
    • Illustrate major challenges (e.g., logistics, size of class/budget/employee team, time frame, major tasks like designing a project or overhauling a curriculum, etc.), and
    • Provide tangible evidence of how you handled the challenges and what the positive outcomes were (student performance, successful funding, recovery of a program, etc.).
  • You should also provide grounding in the foundational reasons why you operate the way you do. For example, for a position relating to teaching or research, you would give a brief version of your teaching summary or research vision. Similar framing is valuable for other things like project management, employee/volunteer supervision, etc.
  • The final paragraph of this section should be a segue from this rationale back out to your expertise.
  • A possible paragraph-by-paragraph structure for this is:

3) intro to the project/effort/situation and the work that was required.

4) The actual project in action.

5) Rationale (including theoretical grounding, values/ethics, evidence-based reasons, etc.) for why you did things the way you described in the intro and project paragraphs.

6) Transition back out to your expertise, with more detail about either/or: another scenario/example of how you use this rationale (from paragraph 5) and a broader lens on how you apply your expertise wherever you work.

Paragraph 7 – conclude with specific efforts/programs/units you can contribute** to

  • Many positions may feel more limited than your interests and ambitions.
  • And/or employers may be looking for “team players” who not only could contribute beyond their role but likely will self-initiate doing so.
  • Note that this isn’t 100%, but if you’re a widely interested person, you may want to signal that even if it’s a very constrained role.
  • So, the advice for this second-to-last paragraph is to point out some specific efforts of the institution which you can contribute to beyond the role you are applying for. If you don’t know of anything specific, go spend some time on their website. What do they have going on that is a) interesting or b) well-aligned to you?

“Paragraph” 8 – final sentence that politely assumes an interview 🙂

  • The sign-off should reinforce your interest in contributing to the goal of the position you apply for.
  • Ideally it is framed with a positive, forward-looking assumption (e.g., I look forward to discussing how we can work together to…).

Signature

If you can, include current affiliation and/or credentials that reinforce your claims of expertise.


NOTES

*CAVEAT 1: If you’re applying through an automated system that uses machine processing to filter candidates, all my advice may be off-base. This is not my area of expertise, so read up (elsewhere) on how to get through those triage/qualification-checking algorithms and do what they say. Otherwise, a real human will never see your application, because the automatic sorting system will reject you from the qualified applicant pool.

**CAVEAT 2: This strategy (pitching wider than the position) doesn’t always appeal to employers. And, if you’re off-brief/outside the bounds of a funding RFP or fellowship call, you may not make it to the short list. Weigh your presentation of broader interests carefully: can you get more info/feel out the point person about whether you should present beyond the bounds of the call? Do you want to know if there’s room for growth/expansion, and if not, you don’t want the position anyway? Or, is it worth it to “fit the bill” and feel out that possibility in an interview or hiring stage? That will be your call.

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