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.
O three remaining readers, do you think I say anything fishy in the following story?
I'm playing bridge against Allison. Allison has bid spades and then hearts, and then led diamonds. Since she bid that way, she must have five spades and four hearts. But if she doesn't have five spades and four hearts, she might have four clubs.