by Kate Wolfe Maxlow
I read a lot of job applications from teachers, and here’s the thing: most teachers have very similar job duties and abilities. This means that if you want your application (for a teaching, admin, or any other position in education) to stand out, you need to take some important steps. In addition to a killer resume, one of the best ways to stand out is the (frequently dreaded) cover letter.
Okay, so your uncle who works in IT at an engineering firm says you don’t need a cover letter? He’s not necessarily wrong…for his job. I have a friend who works for corporate companies and does something in the space where AI and human learning intersect. Her job, while maybe not 100% unique, has afforded her several advanced skills that not many people have, so she has the luxury of a resume that speaks for itself. In her case, a cover letter could be seen as a waste of time for both her and her potential employers, who care far more about the skills she possesses than anything she might put in a cover letter.
But if you want a job in education, you most likely have many of the same skills as everyone else applying. For instance, anyone who was a teacher planned lessons. We all should have been disaggregating data to inform instruction. Unless you have unique skillsets that most educators do not (e.g., you have an endorsement in special education, you’ve worked as a reading specialist, you’ve written and received multiple grants worth thousands of dollars), you need to convince the person in charge of reading applications not just that you can do the job, but why you, personally, are the best person for the job.
This is what the cover letter is for. If the resume indicates your skills, the cover letter describes your interest and explains both why you are a good fit for the job, and why the job is a good fit for you. Below are several things to do and not do to help you craft that perfect cover letter.
DON’T: Use a form cover letter that you have sent to multiple jobs.
Frequently, I read cover letters where it’s clear the person has been applying to everything and anything, and that makes me think that the person isn’t really looking for this job as much as any job. This may not be a problem if you’re in a desperately needed field (such as a teacher of mathematics or special education), but it will be if you’re going for a position where there are frequently more applicants than there are positions (e.g., an administrator, ITRT, etc.).
DO: Explain why you want this specific job.
Now, a quick word of warning: you want these reasons to focus on your skillsets, NOT on your logistical preferences. For instance, you never want to say, “I want to become an ITRT because I’m tired of dealing with parents” or “working virtually would save me gas money.” While these things may be true, they’re not likely to get you an interview. Instead, you want to explain how your past experiences, educational philosophies, or interests/passions make you the best fit for this job.
Even if you’re using a general template, you want to make sure that you personalize it to the specific position. Use the job description and choose some of the most salient requirements for the job. Use your cover letter to give more information about your experience with these requirements than you could fit into your resume.
Not only that, but you want to do some research on the district or company to which you’re applying. Even if you’re not from that company, spend some time researching their website. What is their mission? What are some of their strategic initiatives? Referencing those and how they align with your personal beliefs in a cover letter goes a long way toward showing that you’re willing to go above and beyond…and that you’re familiar enough with the organization that you’re less likely to experience culture shock if you actually get the job.
DON’T: Forget to proofread.
Especially for a job in education, proofreading errors can seriously hurt your chances of getting the job. I’m more likely to shrug at a single typo, but an error that shows a general misunderstanding of formal English, such as sentence fragments, words used incorrectly, awkward or confusing language, etc., is a big red flag. Employers want to know that they won’t have to proofread everything you send to parents or other educators.
DO: Put the cover letter aside for a day before proofreading and have a friend or colleague read over it to check for grammatical mistakes.
I try to always, always return to anything I’ve written after I’ve had a night of sleep because it usually doesn’t read the same way the next day. Things that made sense in my head no longer make sense, and it’s easier to see what I need to fix. Not only that, but my husband gets to read every cover letter I’ve written since we’ve been together…and before him, it was my parents or friends. I’ve also read over cover letters for friends. You need to make sure not only that your cover letter is error free, but that it makes sense to someone else reading it.
DON’T: Go too fancy or too plain with the formatting.
Look, if your cover letter looks like you opened a Microsoft Word doc and just started typing a random stream of consciousness, I’m going to wonder about your professionalism. Similarly, if you use a font like Bradley Handwriting or Papyrus, you’ll be lucky if I read more than a few sentences because both of those are difficult on the eyes.
DO: Choose a clean, visually attractive template with an easily readable font.
Using the templates in Google Docs or Microsoft Word can help you get all the correct pieces into a formal letter and will generally use professional, easy-to-read fonts. And while formatting won’t save you if the content isn’t quality, you do get “extra” professionalism points for clean but attractive formatting.
DON’T: Include irrelevant information or write too much.
I typically read a dozen or more applications for a single job. This includes combing through the application and any essays in it, reviewing your resume, and reading all your references. It generally takes me 15-30 minutes per application to do a thorough review. If I only have a dozen applicants, that is, minimum, 3 hours for me to go through all the applications. I’m sure your life story is very interesting, and if you’re hired, I’m excited to hear it…but for the cover letter, keep it short and simple.
DO: Tell me more about your skills and interest in this job.
You want to keep your cover letter about 2 paragraphs long. I don’t need to hear about everything you’ve ever done in your cover letter, but I do want to hear about the most important things that make you stand out. While there are different organizational structures, a solid one is: one paragraph about your educational philosophy and why you believe what you do, and one paragraph about why your goals align with the organization’s goals. In both paragraphs, include evidence of some of the awesome things you’ve done that make you a stand-out educator.
DON’T: Try to be overly creative with the cover letter.
Please don’t write your cover letter in the form of a haiku or all lowercase or over the top narrative style. I’m trying to assess your communication abilities in addition to your previous work skills. If you want to show me your creativity, put a link to your portfolio in your resume or underneath your signature.
DO: Keep to a formal, academic but easy-to-read tone.
You get extra points for clarity and omitting jargon and contractions. You do not get extra points for semicolons (especially when they are used incorrectly, which they so often are), Faulkner-esque sentences, or the word “utilize” when you actually mean “use.” It’s not an SAT test, so there’s no reason to brush off your thesaurus to impress the person reading your cover letter.
The cover letter can be crucial to getting an academic job, especially when many of the other applicants will have the same skillsets as you. Therefore, never pass up an opportunity to show why YOU are the best fit. Keep the cover letter short, sweet, and focused on how your experiences and educational philosophies align with that of the job for which you’re applying. I can’t guarantee it’ll get you the job…but it can frequently help you get the interview.
Kate Wolfe Maxlow is the Chief Creative Officer at eObservations and DCD Consulting. She has worked as: an elementary school teacher; an instructional coach; a Director of Innovation and Professional Learning; and a Director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment. She’s taught classes from PreK to PhD. She has a slight addiction to Canva. She can be reached at email@example.com.