+5 votes
asked ago in Job Market - Candidate Questions by (230 points)
I have received some conflicting advice on cover letters. The distilled version is: you should write a detailed cover letter if the program is a particularly good fit; otherwise, a version addressed to the hiring institution with your program information, expected graduation date, basic information about the job market paper and intention to attend ASSA is fine.

Is this the case? It seems like a form cover letter won't help your application, but it can hurt you.

4 Answers

0 votes
answered ago by (1.3k points)
In most cases a form letter is fine. You should include relevant institution specific information. When I read cover letters, I note things like geographic preference, but I generally think the cost of a detailed institution specific letter exceeds any benefit for almost all institutions. One exception is places that may not interview you because they think you wouldn’t accept an offer. However, if your advisor is willing to contact people she knows at these institutions, that’s almost certainly a more effective signal of interest at the pre-interview stage.
+1 vote
answered ago by (3.3k points)
You don't have time to write custom cover letters everywhere.  But sometimes, there are crazy people in departments (we have a couple) that read every single cover letter when on a search committee (I never did).  It mainly comes back to signals of gettability, and geographic presence.  Its a cost on you and a non trivial one to customize a cover letter.  So if its a place you really love, I could imagine customizing your letter for a few places.  But will it guarantee an interview? No.  And not all departments will have people that bother to read through 800 cover letters (we received over 800 applications the last time we had an open search).  

Funny story, when I was on the market, I accidentally sent the wrong cover letter to Cornerstone Research (they got the Bates White Cover Letter).  When I was on I flyout there, they brought this up to and laughed about it.  I think it didn't hurt me there, because it suggested I was applying to all of the litigation firms which for them was a positive signal because they want to separate out who's going to academia and who isn't.
0 votes
answered ago by (1.2k points)
I don't have a strong opinion on this, but there was a forum for grad students on Twitter on 9/25/2018 with the hashtag #econlife, and several people weighed in on topics like using the letter to signal interest in a credible way.
+1 vote
answered ago by (2k points)
For a liberal-arts college, the cover letter is very important.  It will be read to see if you are truly interested in teaching and if you have taken some time to look at what the department and college is doing.  If it is a form letter like described in the question, our search committee most likely would eliminate that candidate from contention just based on the cover letter suggesting a less-than-optimal fit with a LAC.