Monday, October 22, 2007


Cover Letters for Admin Jobs

A longtime correspondent writes:

Okay, so everyone and their brother/sister/mama has done a post on cover letters for academic jobs. I have not seen a post on cover letters for admin jobs. I remember you talking to someone about how to prepare for the interview, but nothing on what makes an admin cover letter different from an academic job letter. And I am so new, I feel a little out of my element.

So, what do you think?

Full disclosure: I've applied for more admin jobs than I've received. However, I've been on several admin search committees, so there's at least a modicum of comparative perspective there.

In my observation, the industry standard seems to be four or five pages, single spaced, with spaces skipped between paragraphs. (Readers outside of higher ed: pick up your jaws off the floor. Higher ed is a quirky industry, with its own folkways. We need a Penelope Trunk or Evil HR Lady of higher ed.)

Search committees frequently do a first screen using a rubric, assigning point values to the various categories they included in the original position description. The way to work that is to address, at some point, every single criterion (including the merely 'preferred') listed in the position description. (Hint: don't just go by the ad. Go to the college's website, click on 'HR' or 'employment,' and find the actual position description, which is almost certainly longer than the ad by an order of magnitude. That will include the criteria the search committee is likely to use.) This can also save you time, if the position description includes criteria that you just don't meet, no matter how charitably interpreted.

If it were up to me, colleges would be relatively sparse in listing their desiderata, the better to allow cherry-picking from across institutional types, and the inclusion of some new perspectives. Of course, if it were up to me, a lot of things would be different. As it is, you'll frequently find criteria like “must have experience in a collective bargaining environment.” If you only go by the ad, you might not see that, and might not think to include it on your own. But it matters. It matters for the rubric, but it's also true that managing with a union is different from managing without one, and that folks who may be perfectly capable in the latter environment could get eaten alive in the former. In the absence of good performance measures, experience is better than nothing.

To the extent that you can show actual performance measures (and they flatter you), do it. If you took direction of a program and grew it, give the percentages or numbers by which it grew. (Be aware, though, that most educated people are at least a little skeptical of percentages: a program that went from one student to two experienced 100 percent growth, but is hardly a success.) In the context of R1's, I'd imagine that success at grantsmanship would count here, but I'll have to confess being out of my element in that neck of the woods. Any readers who know that stuff well are invited to comment. Look for quantifiable measures of success that you can explain in a sentence or less.

The letters I've seen succeed typically tell us relatively little about the candidate, and a great deal about the candidate's achievements. Don't do the 'inspirational life story' thing – it smacks of narcissism. (For reasons I don't understand, prospective faculty fall back on that all the time. I have never – not once, not ever – seen it work.) Instead, address problems you have solved.

To the extent that you know the dilemmas the institution is facing, it's good to address those. (To be fair, unless it's a place you currently work or where you have close friends, this could be hard to come by.) Does it need a change agent, or has it just gone through a wrenching change and it's looking for a consensus-builder? Does it need to increase enrollments, or is it bursting at the seams and struggling with managing growth? (The latter is much more fun.) Is it trying to change its mission and/or profile? (If so, expect the usual resistance from the usual entrenched suspects.) Are the demographics of its service area changing in important ways?

The paradox of job applications is that even though they're initiated by the applicants, and a tremendous amount of judging is directed at the applicants, they're not really about the applicants. This is especially true at the admin level, where there's rarely time to allow someone to grow into a role. (I've never not heard someone say at an interview for an admin position that the winning candidate will have to “hit the ground running.”) They're hiring to solve what they perceive as a problem. To the extent that you can suss out how they define the problem, you'll be able either to present yourself as the solution, or direct your time and energy elsewhere.

Finally, and it's embarrassing to have to say this, proofread the damn letter. I mean, really. I've been on cabinet-level search committees on which we've received letters that made me wince. I remember one that was entirely right-justified, so the left margin would start pretty much wherever. Why would an intelligent, educated person do that? (And this was when we still received hardcopy, so it wasn't a matter of our system chewing it up.) That application was DOA. Don't include salary requirements – there's time for that later. The point of the letter is to get you an interview. That's all.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – what do you think?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

Four to five pages SINGLE spaced? Yikes! Even with my well-honed narcissistic streak and plenty of career accomplishments to brag about, I'm not sure I could live up to that one!
It sounds like academic cover letters are to business cover letters what CVs are to resumes- they look analogous, but they really serve different purposes
Does that include references?
At every college and university for which I've worked, a four-page letter for anything below the vice presidential level would get you tossed from the pool. Yes, you should absolutely talk about your programmatic successes and how you'll help their (declared, not inferred) institutional problems. But if you can't do that in two pages, readers will think you are either (a) egotistical and not collaborative, (b) a long-winded faculty type who doesn't know when to stop talking, or (c) both.
Are any universities looking for people whose careers have been outside academia, but who have always maintained academic connections and productive collaborations? One would think experience working for nonprofits and research contractors would transfer to academic administration. Colleagues advise me to go into university administration, but I do not see any real openings.
I would have to disagree with this advice. Yes, I've seen four to five page cover letters. I've promptly sent those to the circular file without reading the letter or the resume. A cover letter is exactly what its name suggests...a cover or introduction to entice the reader to review your resume. A cover letter should never exceed one page in length. Perhaps the people on these search committees need to attend their Career Services workshops on cover letters before mulling over rambling cover letters.
This is helpful information, however, is there a rule of thumb when they ask for more information beyond the cover letter. I guess I'm wondering if there is an internal round before the search committee decides who will be interviewed.

Any feedback on this?
I've seen very long applications (from candidates who successfully secured positions) in the higher education field. In particular, for positions above the Director level, this seems to be the case. When a search committee asks you how to describe all of your experience and how you match particular attributes (sometimes five or ten categories are requested), it seems an impossible task to fit all of this on one or two pages, especially if you have more than 10 years of experience.
I liked it. So much useful material. I read with great interest.
thanks for your information.... :)

resume cover letter samples
In writing a business letter you have to be very careful on every part like the cover letter. It is one of the most important parts of any letter.
Typically for positions on the VP level and above, a one page cover letter is required, along with a few 2 page written statements that would discuss the candidates philosophies--say regarding diversity, or cross-institutional collaboration, or something like that.
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