November 16, 2007

Cover Letters: A Simple Proposal

Leiter has an interesting thread up on how departments decide who to interview at the APA. It included a vigorous discussion of cover letters -- unfortunately (for me), before I saw it, Leiter called a halt to it on the grounds that it was dominating the thread.

In it, Kris McDaniel argued that departments shouldn't expect much from cover letters, because candidates apply for so many jobs that crafting an individualized lletter for each one would take an unreasonable amount of time.

Chris Panza said that at his department it was important to have an individualized cover letter that showed knowledge of the department and how you'd fit into it. In response to "Friend of overwhelmed job seekers", who reiterated McDaniel's point, Panza said (effectively) that it was important to show that you're interested in that particular job (see also Patrick Fleming), and that it's worth taking the time to do the applications right.

I'm basically on McDaniel's and f.o.j.s.'s side here. Not only would it be an incredible burden to write an individualized letter for each of 60-80 applications, it seems like a terribly inefficient use of time to write 60-80 such letters if 50-60 of them will be completely ignored. But if you don't know which schools really care about individualized cover letters, you're forced to write them all (or take a guess as to which you write).

I think there's a simple solution to this problem. Departments that are expecting individualized cover letters that address how the applicant should fit into the department should say so explicitly in their advertisement. That way applicants will know when they need individualized letters and won't waste time crafting a letter that won't be read. This also should have the filtering effect that Panza and Fleming desire -- a department that asks for individualized cover letters will get only applicants who are interested enough to put in the time. It also saves the department from having to worry about whether they're missing applicants who are interested but who've been advised not to worry about cover letters. And I think there's a basic element of fairness here too; if the department will judge the dossier based partly on the cover letter, it should say so.


Posted by Matt Weiner at November 16, 2007 06:30 AM

Why won't every department say they require a personalized cover letter?

Posted by: washerdreyer at November 16, 2007 08:51 AM

You mean, under my proposal? Because many departments don't want one, won't read one, and don't particularly want to weed out applicants in the way that Panza and Fleming described -- Fleming in particular was concerned that people show they really want the job, and I think many places aren't so concerned about that (at least before the APA interview stage).

Posted by: Matt Weiner at November 16, 2007 09:54 AM


However, I would rather NO department required such cover letters, since they really are STUPID. And no one reads them, anyway.

Posted by: Diana at November 16, 2007 10:09 PM

That would be my preferred position too. But if some departments feel they're really important, they should say so upfront.

Posted by: Matt Weiner at November 17, 2007 06:17 AM

Your proposal (which has now been advanced by Kris McDaniel on Leiter's site) makes good sense for departments that value detailed cover letters as things in themselves, e.g. they expect to read some interesting information in them.

But other departments may not want to discourage applicants by demanding personalization, but still inevitably be pleased when they get it. Just as most people do not request (much less demand) flowers from all their friends, but are still happy to receive them.

"You got flowers from John? Well, that makes me look pretty bad. I think in the name of basic fairness, if you wanted flowers, you should have made that clear up front."

Posted by: Richard at November 18, 2007 11:36 AM

By the way, someone told me recently it is considered normal for economics Ph.Ds to send off 300 or 400 job applications. Stop the madness! There must be some diminishing returns to the "shotgun" approach.

Posted by: Richard at November 18, 2007 11:54 AM

The situation in which each economics candidate writes 400 cover letters and each department throws them all out maximizes everyone's utility and is Pareto optimal. So that's the way the world works. I have a simple proof of this proposition, which unfortunately is too small to write in this margin.

Posted by: Ben at November 20, 2007 12:27 PM
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