tailor your application?

I’m putting this out as a separate question to avoid hijacking the ask a scatterbrain thread about cvs.  I advise students to try to tailor their cover letter and cv to any job they really want, to make it sound like they know something about that specific department, especially if that job is at a non-PhD department, and have said that I think mailing mass-produced materials to dozens of jobs you don’t really want is probably a waste of effort.   But I base this opinion on relatively little data.   So that’s my question, to folks on either side of the hiring process in non-PhD departments.   In hiring, do you attend to whether the materials are tailored to  your department versus being obviously generic?  On the job-getting end, did you tailor your application materials?  Also, on both ends, how often was there a personal connection through the advisor that facilitated the job-getting, rather than the paper application package?

Author: olderwoman

I'm a sociology professor but not only a sociology professor. I keep my name out of this blog because I don't want my name associated with it in a Google search. Although I never write anything in a public forum like a blog that I'd be ashamed to have associated with my name (and you shouldn't either), it is illegal for me to use my position as a public employee to advance my religious or political views, and the pseudonym helps to preserve the distinction between my public and private identities. The pseudonym also helps to protect the people I may write about in describing public or semi-public events I've been involved with. You can read about my academic work on my academic blog http://www.ssc.wisc.edu/soc/racepoliticsjustice/ --Pam Oliver

18 thoughts on “tailor your application?”

  1. I think it’s very important to tailor the application, but I’m thinking along additional lines. I don’t mean to hijack the thread, but I think this is important: if someone’s applying to non-sociology departments (which I think people should do if they have interdisciplinary interests) then it is very important to tailor the application.

    I have a Sociology PhD, but I’m in a Communication Studies department. Over the years, I have seen applications from sociologists (and other non-comm scholars) to our jobs without any indication on the CV or mention in the letter as to why the person would be a fit.

    While we can recognize a strong candidate, we’re not going to bend over backwards trying to figure out how s/he makes sense for our department (including how s/he’ll be able to get tenure) if the candidate didn’t take the trouble to make that link for us.

    I know I tailored letters when I was on the market (both by field and type of position) and I also tailored CVs (mostly changing things just on the first page though). I got invitations for campus visits from a myriad of schools representing several fields. But that said, I’d already started attending conferences of several fields and publishing in various journals so I had material to work with that could be tailored.


  2. I have a general question: in the main, how would I (as faculty) know if a CV had been tailored? Of course, the applicant knows, and might choose to tell me, but otherwise, this is a pretty difficult empirical question, no?

    Second question: Isn’t a second, key issue the degree of customization necessary? It seems that it would suit us to do *just the right amount* of customization, but hitting that sweet spot between departmental expectations and (oh I don’t know) authenticity is the trick.

    On that issue: my guess is that most applicants who are asking this question are going to rise or fall based on the content of their CV, not its tweaking. The question does a better job of raising the issue for those who would send the same CV to all schools, expecting we all want someone to teach Sociology of Culture from a Production Perspective, or whatever.


  3. I don’t think there is any need for the recipient to know, as long as the application makes sense for the position advertised.

    As I mentioned in my comment above, I know for sure an application hadn’t been tailored (or I guess perhaps it had been tailored badly) when it has little to do with either the position we advertised or our department (or departmental focus) as a whole.

    Does this just mean that the person is a bad fit regardless? Possibly or perhaps even probably. But it’s also possible that the candidate has interests and experiences that s/he didn’t highlight enough for us to make the connection.


  4. “How would you know?” Good point. CV you would not, except insofar as the cv would look inappropriate for the position. Cover letter you would. Non tailored says “apply for a position in your department” or at best merges in the school name in the first line and is otherwise obviously stock. By tailored, I mean that at a minimum the cover letter makes some explicit reference to the details in the ad or, better, mentions something about the department or the school that would require at least looking them up on the Internet.


  5. I think tailoring makes a lot of sense, but be sure to put the right letter in the right envelope. We had an applicant this year for whom it was just lovely to read about how excited they were about the possibility of a job at Michigan.


  6. Jeremy, I think that’s happened every year I’ve been here, either with job candidates or grad school applications. Of course, everybody makes mistakes, but I agree, that’s not such a great time to be making that kind of a mistake.


  7. It is kinda funny — we understand the ceremonial value of professing excitement about the possibility of landing at X while at or communicating with X, but from the standpoint of Y, hearing about X is an error, anomaly, etc.

    If we’re on the receiving end this kind of impression management, perhaps we should take it for what it is.


  8. For Jeremy — I imagine the Michigan people felt the same way, reading their letter. I hope that the error was a simple reversal and not a cascade.


  9. Re bad switcheroo mistakes, when our church sent letters to finalists for our pastor position, two letters got mixed up! It could have been much worse than it was. Fortunately, the two who were mixed up knew each other well and laughed about it, although it was still very uncomfortable and potentially very bad, especially as a pastor being on the market is confidential information. We hired one of them.


  10. I’ve heard of a case where two job applicants had identical letters (except for names) sent by a single referee who presumably/somehow didn’t realize that two of his students were applying to some of the same jobs.


  11. While I take the good advice that it is important to tailor one’s own cover letter/CV, I have a question: How appropriate is it to ask referees to tailor their letters? I got a piece of feedback from the chair of a dept. that I applied to saying I would have been a stronger candidate if my advisor’s letter had made a more explicit case for me as a scholar in the particular subfield they were looking to hire in (Social Theory). In our department, the process seems to be that the letter writers do a one-size fits all letter. Is that standard? Is it negotiable?


  12. It is entirely appropriate to talk over your job-seeking strategy with your major professor and others you are close to and ask them to tailor letters for you for particular classes of jobs. Research vs teaching emphasis, or highlighting one or another or your specialties, or a letter for non-sociology departments, or highlighting your interdisciplinaryness or globalness or whatever. I always offer to do this when I’m writing for people I’ve had a fair amount of contact with. A lot depends on how many letters you are sending out and also how they are sent. Because we are a big department, we have a system whereby a staffer sends out the letters, and the writer may not even know to where the letters have been sent. Even in this system, it is possible to have multiple letters with names, as long as the job-seeker identifies which schools should get which letter, and we do this often. If you are applying to zillions of jobs and the writer is not your major professor, there cannot be a lot of tailoring. But if you are applying to relatively small number of jobs and the writer is your major professor or someone else you are close to, it is not unreasonable to ask them to have two or three types of letters and/or to tailor them for a relatively small number of specific jobs you are really interested in.

    You might also consider the mix of letter-writers. You may ask someone to write because s/he knows you as a teacher, or ask people in other departments to write for non-sociology or interdisciplinary jobs. You might use different letter-writers for different jobs. It is not a problem to have more than the minimum letter writers.

    To get in the position where you can ask people to tailor letters or choose from among a variety of letter-writers, you need to back up several years and think about whom you want to build mentoring relations with so they will know you and feel good about you at letter-writing time.


  13. It might depend on your relationship with your advisor, but yes, such tailoring is certainly done in some cases. My main advisor and perhaps even another letter writer tailored mine. I’m also quite certain that friends of mine had theirs tailored so that their teaching interest was emphasized in letters to teaching-oriented schools.

    Could it hurt to ask?


  14. @10, I wonder if that wasn’t a clerical error. As I note in my comment, many departments delegate letter-generation to a staffer who works with a mail merge program. If you see this, it would seem helpful to tip off the letter writer, for everyone’s good, regardless of whose mistake it was. I actually had a case once (for grad admissions) where big sections of the letter from two different writers were identical. I inquired of the writers, and it turned out there was student dishonesty involved.


  15. What about job ads that don’t list specialties, or are very broad? How would you tailor a cover letter for this situation?


  16. bedhaya @ 15: if the ad is broad, you don’t have to customize for it. If you are applying to any top department (or any department that thinks of itself as a top department), you don’t need to customize to make them believe you are really interested in them, because they will just assume you are interested due to their prestige. It’s the smaller less prestigious schools and the non-PhD departments that I’m thinking might be affected by an indication that you area actually interested in them specifically, not just mailing your cv to every department in the country. But as I indicated in my post, I don’t know for sure whether I’m right.


  17. @14: Wait… so the student who was fabricating their letters made two of their own letters partly identical?!


  18. @14, 17. I guess I have to explain a bit more. One of the letters was real. The letter writer had previously written for the student and had given the student a copy of the earlier letter. The dishonest student used part of the real letter in constructing a fake letter, obviously not realizing how repeat letters of reference for the same student get written. This was a very unusual form of dishonesty. When I saw the duplication, my first thought was clerical error in the office staff, not student dishonesty.

    A non-trivial fraction of graduate admission letters are faked and schools that have no check in place for this deserve what they get. I don’t think I want to post all of my fraud-detection methods on a public web site where fraud perpetrators can learn how to cheat better, but I will say that it is easy to catch only the fairly inept letter-fakers, but even the ones I have easily spotted have gone unnoticed by colleagues who apparently have their heads in the sand about this possibility.

    I think way too much emphasis is put on letters of reference. Even when the letters are genuine, close to 50% of the evaluation is really of the letter-writer, not the student. But that is another topic.


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