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Cecil Burrow

In the initial round(s), I don't read the cover letter at all, but focus on the CV, letters and skim the writing sample. Only if that gets someone into the final 25 or so will I bother with the cover letter. The cover letter typically doesn't contain enough substantive content to make it worth my while. Only if the rest of the dossier gives enough reason to think the candidate is a real contender will I be interested enough to read it.

I have no doubt that others do things differently.


I read cover letters along with the c.v. First, I want to see if the applicant fulfils the basic requirements for the job - expertise in the area, ability to teach the courses that need to be covered, etc. Second, I am looking for discrepancies. I think someone mentioned this before in another post - sometimes people just add a new specialization in a cover letter and fail to have it on their c.v. This is a quick way to catch those applications and set them aside. I am also looking to see if they know what they are applying for. Do they understand the research and teaching expectations? Do they understand the student body at the university and the town/city where it is located?
I have worked at a 4 year state college, as well as a research university.

R1 faculty

I skim cover letters at the first stage to look for red flags but not positive content. However, I don't tend to rule anyone out unless the red flags are very extreme. Otherwise, I don't look at them after that unless I am directed to by a colleague. Red flags are evidence of arrogance, ego, obviously thinking you are too good for my university/department (happens! and I work in an R1, phd granting department), racism, sexism (I would rule people out for those things, though I can only remember one case ever of a clear indication of that in a cover letter), and not caring about teaching/service. (Though, caveat--I don't take not discussing teaching and service much in a cover letter to really indicate that someone doesn't care about them, especially in an R1 job application--they might just be following advice to focus on research/make themselves look serious to a department like ours. Still, sometimes you can get the sense that someone isn't interested in doing their fair share of service etc. in the department.)

As I said, none of these things are things to rule someone out with, but they are things I would keep in mind throughout the process and especially if I also get bad vibes in an interview or heard other negative things about a candidate from the grapevine. I basically think cover letters are completely useless to discern any positive information, though I definitely have seen some of my much older colleagues who are not in touch with the current state of the job market point to a lack of the candidate explaining why they want to be at our institution specifically as counting against them. (For what it's worth, I don't think that's ever actually worked in deliberation, since enough of us understand that 99% of job candidates would kill for a job at our institution and it seems obvious to us that you don't have to say that in a cover letter, and if anything it's hard to figure out how to without sounding desperate.)

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