This is an ad from the job market a couple of years ago that has been annotated with some comments about how to read it and what information can be gained from it as you prepare your own materials.
Following the annotated job ad is a general overview of the parts—the paragraphs—of a cover letter and what their role is in relation to the job ad and the expectations of committee members.
Annotated Job Ad
General approaches to the cover letter
Generic research or teaching: Here you have a similar letter for every school. The only difference is that for teaching schools you move up the teaching portions of the letter and then move to research then to service. (Though, if there is a described admin component in the ad you may want to do admin ,teaching, and then research for those jobs.)
Customized: this one is more work and should be done for what you feel are your top choices (based on match between you and the job ad; the location; or other factors that mean a lot to you). When you customize, that means you can match your skills and interests specifically to the job ad. (E.g., One of my primary teaching areas is web design where I emphasis the technical development as well as information architecture and content. This dual emphasis is a complement to other courses already offered in you program such as usability or information design.)
Cover Letter Structure
What job are you applying for and where did you read about it? (Yes, there may be more than one search in the department.) In one sentence, how do you describe yourself as a scholar and what are your major and minor fields? (It’s best to do that in some way that makes an immediate and logical connection to the job that is advertised and the department you are applying to, don’t you think?) Then you need a sentence that describes where you are in your career. When do you expect to/did you defend?
Research paragraph (usually second for research jobs or after teaching for teaching jobs):
Summary of your dissertation where it explicitly tells what the key finding(s) is and how it can work at this school. If you are writing more generic letters, then it becomes even more important for your takeaways and implications from your dissertation research to be clear and precise in a language that any informed reader in rhetoric and composition/TPC will be able to understand. For custom letters, you can end this paragraph with how your research area matches the job description. E.g. in relation to the job description above, you could write: One of the main takeaways of my dissertation is that provides additional research methodologies for examining (and teaching) digital rhetorics. This shift in methodologies is best described by…..
The next paragraphs should describe the argument of your current major work; say why it adds to the field.One paragraph for the argument and its significance to the field. This is the part of the letter that can be reproduced verbatim for any job, because this is the one thing about you that won’t change. In paragraph two, you will move to what you have published, what is under review or what you will publish and show how that matters to any department. This is sometimes a good way to transition into the teaching paragraph.
The teaching paragraph should characterize your teaching experience, and why it, and your scholarship, makes you the person they should hire for thisjob.(this paragraph goes before the research ones in a teaching letter). Don’t make the committee figure this out on its own; This paragraph is the place to say what you have actually taught or to say that you haven’t, but you have thought about and included a syllabus (or can send one). Here is where you can highlight who you are as a teacher and how this could work at their institution.
The admin/service paragraph can take on a number of roles.It can highlight what else you can offer such as the fact you understand programmatic development of an undergraduate writing major or that you understand the importance of iterative course development for FYC or the TPC service course. This paragraph is especially important at teaching schools. This paragraph also can transition into a short next to last paragraph on your service to the field. This can be local or to show that you have thought about how you can contribute to university or national service. For example, my administrative work for the TPC program allowed me to understand the importance of building external relationships, which is an area I can see myself developing at your institution. It is also something that I can foresee guiding my choices for national service in X organization or X role.
Service to the field.Not everyone has alot of this (and it isn’t expected). This is where you can talk about the things you’ve done for the field or for the local institution. Sometimes you may not have space for it. Definitely depends on the type of job and what else you had to cover.
Final paragraph. This is your contact information repeated and a thank you.
General tips to remember
Know yourself:You want to be clear about who you are and what you do. Every sentence needs to contain basic and relevant information that will cause the committee to proceed with interest in and great openness to your candidacy. This is done through specific examples that reveal how you can use your skills to help their institution.
Eliminate jargon.By this, I do not mean eliminating language that is part of being a specialist, although you might take the trouble to prune it a bit so that you can demonstrate your ability to make your work accessible to the vast number of non-specialists you will work with and teach. Nor do I mean shelving the theoretical perspective, and its attendant language, that places your work in its field. But I do mean that you have to make yourself clear, and it is a sign of scholarly immaturity to not be able to express ideas in a way that most other people with Ph.D.’s will understand. Cause the majority of search committees will include a non-specialist, and lots of folks in the field are not familiar with every sub-area.
Know your audience: If you choose to do some custom letters, do some research to get a better sense of the school. Also, ask trusted senior folks in the field cause they may have insights into the program or department. This research should guide your choices about what you emphasize when trying to situate your research and teaching (and admin/service) in the context of that institution or department.
Proofread your letter: You also need to eliminate basic mistakes such as putting the wrong name in the salutation or inserting the wrong school. While not a deal killer, folks do notice these errors so you want to minimize folks jumping to conclusions.
Have multiple readers:having multiple folks from your institution and outside of it read your letter will help with not only proofreading but also in ensuring that the main ideas are coming through. He best readers are folks who are not in your niche specialty area and even better if they are outside of your field. (My best reader was the American literary scholar who tore apart what I did cause on the first go he had no idea what any of it meant.)