The best candidates read the ad



Too often in campus meetings, I hear people accuse others, sometimes me, of “wordsmithing.” I hate that word. The notion that caring about language is somehow different from — and not as important as — attending to content confounds me. We are what we write.

That lesson was reinforced for me recently when I served on a search committee for a new provost. Here’s something that may surprise you: It was loads of fun. To be sure, the workload was challenging. We had a ton of reading — more than 100 applicants, who each submitted cover letters of five to nine pages long (single-spaced) and vitae of 30 pages or more. Our meetings lasted hours. We didn’t always agree, but everyone was unfailingly polite and we really listened to each other.

But our human-resources liaison worked late into many nights to make the logistics manageable, and the chairs of the committee made the meetings pleasurable. Other than the warm fuzzies I got from the experience of working with such a good group of smart people, serving on a search committee for a senior executive post gave me the opportunity to see how differently candidates present themselves on the page.

The provost is, of course, the chief academic officer of a college or university, so my expectations were high. Certainly these applicants would be able to communicate well and clearly. But too often, that was not the case.

There were, of course, obvious and embarrassing blunders in their applications — typos, inadvertently omitted words, and misspellings. Those weren’t a major problem except when the mistake involved the name of our president or our institution. Only a few of the letters seemed too brief; most were overly long and, to be blunt, painful to read.

Here in this column, I want to consider the cover letters we received from would-be provosts. What made some of those letters stand out? And why did others — from people who seemed well qualified — fall short? Other job seekers would do well to keep in mind the mistakes that our executive-level candidates made.

It’s understandable that Ph.D.s just out of graduate school, or assistant professors who have never served on a search committee, would underestimate how much time and energy goes into crafting the announcement for a job opening. But anyone who’s spent more than 15 minutes in an academic position knows that job ads are more carefully written than a 19th-century pantoum.

Most of our candidates were so intent on proving what a good fit they were for the job that they forgot the task of their cover letter was to seduce us into wanting to meet them.

Every word that goes into the ad has been weighed, vetted, and debated. The job responsibilities outlined and the qualifications required have been the subject of endless argument. The ad’s wording is often the result of consensus; sometimes it’s a compromise. Applicants who have never been on the other side of the hiring desk can be forgiven for not understanding how essential it is to craft a cover letter that responds to every single point in the ad. Academics applying for a provostship should know better.The biggest mistake I saw in the thousands of pages of dense prose we had to slog through was one of the most common — and dumbest — moves in writing: not keeping the reader in mind. Many times I (and others) have stressed that if you want to find an audience, what’s important is not only your information — your research, your data, your discoveries — but the experience of the reader. You ignore readers at your peril.

Most of our candidates were so intent on proving what a good fit they were for the job that they forgot the task of their cover letter was to seduce us into wanting to meet them.

The best letter writers were obviously aware of how search committees perform their hard labor. We had worksheets with lists of the qualities we sought. These were not mysterious; we had described them in the job ad. Applicants who systematically dealt with each point in the ad made our work easier. And, of course, the key to getting what you want — whether it’s a job, or a book contract, or a date — is to make it easy for the person on the other end to say yes.

You’d be shocked at how many of these applicants with long histories in higher education didn’t seem to think about the work of the committee. (You might also be shocked at how many people used the letterhead of their current institution to apply for a new job. Did they also use other resources belonging to their employer for the personal gain? Hinky!)

Certainly anyone seeking a position as provost would have read tons of files for promotion and tenure. Since our would-be provosts had no doubt struggled themselves to make sense of disorganized files, you would think they would realize how important it is to make sure information is clear and well presented so that busy people reading many files can quickly find what they need. You would be wrong.

When an organization says it seeks candidates with “demonstrated commitment to providing a high quality education to students from diverse backgrounds and experiences,” you might want to provide your own definition of diversity. Getting more women into STEM fields is great, but really, is that all you’ve got to offer on this issue? If we say that more than 50 percent of our enrollment is first-generation college students, your own experiences as a first-generation college student might be worth a brief mention only if you go on to describe what you think are the special challenges facing that group and how their needs can best be met.

Some of the most interesting candidates elaborated on their vision of the issues in higher education and showed that they had paid close attention to the challenges faced by institutions.

The strongest letters are always those that: (a) suss out and decode what is really being asked in the ad and (b) offer responses that anticipate possible objections. If it looks on paper like you are underqualified or overqualified for a job, you need to say why that’s not the case. You can be sure committees are going to raise those kinds of questions. If your experience is not obviously applicable, you have to show how it will translate. If you know you have a weakness — no exposure to the liberal arts, a gap in employment — you can assume your readers on the hiring committee will find it, so why not tackle it directly?This is all obvious. The best applicants had read the job ad carefully and made for themselves an outline of how to reply to each concern. Some did it with bullet points (the scientists and engineers), and some did it in gigantic, headache-inducing paragraphs in weird fonts.

It was the rare applicant who seemed to give any thought to keeping overburdened search-committee members engaged as we waded through a recitation of 30 years of someone’s academic life and accomplishments.

Naturally people are proud of what they’ve done. Few undersell their abilities, especially for high-level jobs. But many letters included far too many unimportant details, or focused on the wrong things. A lot of candidates forgot that their argument should not be entirely about what they’ve done; the purpose of the letter is to show what they could do — for us. If the simple formula for writing a good cover letter is to answer three questions — Why you? Why us? Why now? — most of our applicants didn’t go beyond the first.

I tell my writing students that the reader is always in it for herself. She cares about your story only insofar as it helps her to understand herself. This is even more true when applying for jobs. How will hiring you make all of our jobs easier?

My favorite quote about writing is from Pascal: “I would have written you a shorter letter but I didn’t have the time.” The strongest applicants wrote letters only a few pages long. They used their letter to highlight only the most important activities from their vitae, and then made those activities specific to our job ad — that is, they didn’t include the equivalent of 8th-grade spelling-bee victories. If you’ve been promoted to full professor, you can leave off all the committee work and good course evaluations that got you there. When readers have to slog through 10 single-spaced pages of leaden prose, they’re likely to be too exhausted to argue on your behalf.

One candidate noted how he and his wife would together serve the university and fit in with our community; he was the only one I remember who mentioned a spouse or partner. In other words, he outed himself as human. An applicant I liked a lot showed a cheeky wit. My positive impression was not shared, however, by some of the members of the committee who didn’t find a sense of humor an important quality in an administrator (I begged to differ; I pleaded to differ).

Remember that administrative hiring committees are often made up of representatives from diverse groups. That doesn’t mean you should dumb things down or write pablum, but don’t use an alphabet of acronyms or jargon that excludes readers. Only if you want to offend members of the faculty should you write in corporate-speak.

Some of the most interesting candidates elaborated on their vision of the issues in higher education and showed that they had paid close attention to the challenges faced by institutions like ours, a regional comprehensive university.

The best letters were those where we could see the person behind the prose and that person was someone we would want as a colleague and a boss (in so far as faculty members ever think they have bosses). Instead of writing in formal, stilted prose, they introduced themselves to us in a way that made us want to meet them. And that’s the whole point of the letter: to get you to the campus. Candidates for any position in higher education would improve their already challenging odds by remembering that.

Author Bio:Rachel Toor is a professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University’s writing program in Spokane. Her website is