As a writing genre, the academic cover letter is surrounded by too much mystery, and it elicits unmerited levels of anxiety. Since we’re talking about academic writing in general, that’s saying something. As part of my fellowship at Northwestern University’s Graduate Writing Place, I developed a professionalization workshop on the dreaded “job letter,” geared specifically toward students in my department of media studies. The workshop included an overview of the letter-writing process;  concrete strategies for crafting a strong letter; tips on tailoring letters to specific job calls; and a Q&A discussion with our department faculty. The faculty’s advice was particularly surprising, because they stepped out of their roles as dissertation supervisors and spoke candidly about their experiences on job search committees. The workshop also benefited greatly from the generosity of several department alumnae, who shared their successful job letters with me.

While I cannot recreate the workshop here, I can share one piece of advice that emerged during my research and helped create an “aha” moment for many workshop participants:

In trying decide what to include in your cover letter and how to structure the various paragraphs, think about your curriculum vitae as a large art gallery, and your cover letter as a selective, focused walking tour of gallery highlights.

The cover letter and the curriculum vitae work closely as two paired documents, and the cover letter shouldn’t try to summarize or reproduce all the great exhibits that can be found in your CV. Instead, the letter needs to confidently and enthusiastically gesture toward those specific parts of the CV, that are most relevant to that particular job. Job committee members can then follow the highlights to uncover more specific and detailed information in the CV. If they subsequently wish to spend more time with your application, they can peruse through parts of the CV that are not even mentioned in your cover letter. Thinking about the cover letter in this manner can reduce the anxiety of trying to fit all of your accomplishments into 1-2 pages, as well as the mistake of writing overly long and detailed letters.

Several resources located online informed my preparation of the workshop, but Karen Kelsky’s popular blog The Professor Is In had the most helpful in-depth posts. Most of the relevant posts were taken down when Kelsky revised and published them as a book, but you can order the book through your university library. The online publication Inside Higher Ed also just published a brief overview of the academic cover letter. It offers a helpful starting point, but it may be too formulaic for some arts and humanities job applications.