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.