How to Write a Winning Cover Letter for Professional Roles in Academia

Oliver Drake

Oliver is recruitment specialist who specialise in recruiting to academic, research and university administration roles. Oliver has gained, over 20 year resourcing for the higher education in the UK and worldwide.

Preparing an exceptional Cover Letter is often the first step to getting invited for an interview for a professional role in academia. In fact, the Cover Letter is your chance to stand out amongst many other candidates applying for the same position, so it is well-worth investing your time in getting it right. If you want to learn how to prepare a winning Cover Letter for professional university roles, check out this example Cover Letter of John Smith who successfully applied for a Senior Admissions Administrator position. John’s Cover Letter along with the advice below will help you understand how you can prepare an outstanding Cover Letter that really makes your experience stand out.

STEP 1: Impress your prospective employer with your introduction

You only get one chance to introduce yourself to your prospective employer in the first paragraph of your Cover Letter. The way you do it will determine whether they will continue reading your Cover Letter or move your application to the “Rejected” pile. There are three things that an outstanding first paragraph of a Cover Letter must do: explain how your learned about the job, provide basic information about your experience, and briefly state why you want to work for your prospective employer.

How you learned about the job

By stating the various ways in which you researched the position you show your enthusiasm for the role to your prospective employer. These can include reading through the job description, analysing the website materials, researching the university in various rankings and the press as well as speaking directly to one or more members of the department. For example, John mentioned in his CV that he not only read the job description posted on the recruitment site but also spoke with the staff members from the Admissions Team at the University of London, where he sent in his application:

It has recently come to my attention that your Admissions Team is currently recruiting for a Senior Admissions Administrator position. I have spoken with some of the staff members from the Team in the past. Based on the information they shared as well as the details included in the job description you posted, I believe that my expertise in student admissions could be an asset to the University of London.

Basic information about your experience

The first paragraph is also a great place to sell your experience to your prospective employer and gain their attention. Your Cover Letter will be accompanied by your CV, so there is no need to mention here every single detail about your work history. But you should definitely include in the first paragraph a highlight of the most relevant pieces of information. As you will see below, John mentioned in this part of his Cover Letter that he has 4+ years of experience in university administration, that he received awards for his work, that he has the relevant education and that he regularly attends trainings to expand his skills:

I have over 4 years of experience in administrative and customer-focused roles within the academic sector from the University of Leeds. I have also been awarded numerous awards for my work – both personally and as part of a team – including the Best Student Support Award 2020 and Best Student Support Team Award 2018. I hold both a BA in Business Administration and a PgCert in Higher Education Administration. I also regularly attend training sessions to further develop my professional skills. For instance, in recent years I have attended trainings on Data Protection in Higher Education, Effective Administration in Higher Education and Diversity and Equality in Higher Education.

Why you want to work for your prospective employer

In the last part of the first paragraph you should explain briefly why you are drawn to this specific role and why you would like to work for this particular employer. Here you can call on the information you researched online or obtained when speaking with the employees of your prospective employer. You should mention at least two to three factors which are very specific to the role you are applying for and cannot be mistaken for generic information that could apply to several different roles. For example, John mentioned in his Cover Letter that his prospective employer – the University of London – is a renowned academic institution, and that the Admissions Team at the University follows strict procedures while leaving space for initiative as well as that the Team members engage in frequent collaboration:

I was attracted to the role which you offer for several reasons. Firstly, it has been my career goal to relocate to London and work for one of the top universities in the city. The University of London is one of the most renowned academic institutions in the United Kingdom and I would be proud to contribute to the high standard of your work. After speaking with some of the staff members from your Admissions Team I understand that the Team follows strict admissions procedures but at the same time exercises initiative where required. I find this type of environment with strict rules and space for proactivity very stimulating. I have also learned by talking to one of your staff members that the Admissions Team members are frequently and closely collaborating on assessing different student applications. I am very keen to share my professional experience with colleagues and work closely together as part of a team.

This part of your Cover Letter is also a very good place to address anything which your prospective employer could potentially see as a disadvantage. For example, John prevented his prospective employer from raising doubts about his application for a job in London while being based in Leeds by explaining in the second sentence of the above extract that it has always been his career goal to relocate to London.

STEP 2: Assure them that you can take on the responsibilities

Once you have gained the interest of your prospective employer in the first paragraph of your Cover Letter, your job in the second paragraph is to show them that you read the job advert thoroughly and believe that your experience prepared you well for taking on the responsibilities listed in the advert. The responsibilities listed in the advert for the position that John applied for were as follows: Effectively assessing UCAS applications using a range of criteria, Developing admissions criteria in collaboration with other academic teams, Acting as point of contact for prospective students with complex circumstances, and Liaising with various university departments to ensure admissions are fair. You will see below that in the second paragraph of his Cover Letter John mentioned each of those responsibilities and provided examples of how his previous experience prepared him for taking on the new role. Now, you might have heard of the STAR technique for answering interview questions, which asks you to explain a specific situation, task, activity and result that show you are competent do deal with certain types of situations. Your task here is similar. The only difference is that you will have to include a much shorter version of the STAR approach in relation to each responsibility mentioned in the job description. Let’s call it the “Responsibility-Evidence” approach. Here are some examples included by John in this section of his Cover Letter.

Responsibility 1: Developing admissions criteria in collaboration with other academic teams

In order to demonstrate his ability to take on the first responsibility of developing admissions criteria in collaboration with other academic teams John called on the project he worked on in the previous workplace, which required him to implement a new procedure for reviewing UCAS applications:

The role which you offer also requires a person to develop admissions criteria in collaboration with other academic teams. I have assisted my previous Admissions Team in implementing a new procedure for reviewing UCAS applications, due to which I understand the process of developing new procedures within a university setting and the value of inter-departmental collaboration.

John also emphasised that this experience enabled him to understand the process of developing new procedures – knowledge which could be used to develop admissions criteria at the University of London – as well as to appreciate the value of collaboration between different university departments.

Responsibility 2: Liaising with various university departments to ensure admissions are fair

John showed to his prospective employer that he can take on the second responsibility of liaising with various university departments to ensure admissions are fair by mentioning the experience he gained in his previous position in communicating with members of different departments:

Additionally, you require the Senior Admissions Administrator to liaise with various university departments to ensure that admissions are fair. In my previous role I was used to regularly communicating with members of different departments over e-mail, phone calls and during inter-departmental meetings to discuss individual applications from prospective students. As a result, I have learnt to navigate issues related to applications from prospective students with care and fairness. I would be happy to use my expertise in this area as a member of your Admissions Team.

John emphasised that because of his regular contact with other departments and the specific requirements of his previous role he “learnt to navigate issues related to applications from prospective students with care and fairness”. This showed to his prospective employer that he is used to liaising with other university departments and appreciates the value of fairness in relation to admissions.

STEP 3: Show them that you have the right attitude

Similar to the second paragraph of your Cover Letter, in the third paragraph you will need to present some evidence of why you are the perfect candidate for the role. This time you will not be addressing the responsibilities of the role but rather the approach/attitude required for the role, as described in the job advert. For each characteristic you will need to provide evidence of why you believe you have that specific characteristic. Let’s call it the “Characteristic-Evidence” approach. For example, when applying for the Senior Admissions Administrator role John had to prove in his Cover Letter that he is: Proactive and innovative, Collaborative/team-worker, Organised and able to meet deadlines, and Communicative (both internally and with students). Here are some examples of how John managed to demonstrate these characteristics based on his previous experience:

Characteristic 1: Proactive and innovative

John chose the perfect example to show that he can be both proactive and innovative. He recalled the project which he delivered in relation to modernising the materials on the student admissions page of the university’s website and explained how his initiative in starting the project helped to increase the overall number of new applications and decrease the number of e-mail enquiries received by the department:

For instance, you specified that you are looking for a person who is proactive and innovative. In my previous position I have initiated and headed a project seeking to modernise the student admissions page on the university’s website. The updated page provided more detailed information to prospective students and decreased the number of e-mail enquiries received by the department while helping to increase the overall number of new applications.

By showing the impact of his project, i.e. decreased enquiries and increased applications, John demonstrated to his potential employer that his proactivity and initiative contributes positively to the operation of the entire team.

Characteristic 2: Organised and able to meet deadlines

Staying organised and being able to meet deadlines was another characteristic listed in the job advert of the Senior Admissions Administrator position for which John applied. John mentioned in his Cover Letter that he relied on those skills when heading the project of designing a new system for assessing the priority of students’ e-mail enquiries and then described the success of the project, i.e. it was delivered on time, by consistently achieving the set goals:

As per your requirements for the position, I am also able to meet deadlines and stay organised – skills which I relied on when heading the project on designing a new system for assessing the priority of students’ e-mail enquiries. The project was delivered on time and I was praised by my colleagues for consistently achieving the set goals. I would love to use my organisation skills as a member of your Admissions Team.

By choosing a specific project to call upon John made it easier for his prospective employer to imagine how he works and in what circumstances he can meet deadlines and stay organised. Such an approach is much more convincing than simply stating that you are organised and able to meet deadlines on a regular basis without providing specific evidence. This rule applies to discussing all characteristics in your Cover Letter. The more specific you are about projects and situations in which you demonstrated a particular characteristic, the more likely you are to land yourself an interview.

Further resources:

Michael Harrison, How to Get Hired: An Insider’s Guide to Applications, Interviews and Getting the Job of Your Dreams (Independently Published, 2018)

John Lees, How to Get a Job You Love 2019 (McGraw-Hill Education, 2018)

Sarah Shearman, Five ways to get your CV and cover letter noticed (The Guardian, 1 June 2017): https://www.theguardian.com/careers/2017/jun/01/five-ways-to-get-your-cv-and-cover-letter-noticed

Rogier Creemers, A Machiavellian guide to getting ahead in academia (Times Higher Education, 21 December 2017): https://www.timeshighereducation.com/features/machiavellian-guide-getting-ahead-academia

Jack Kelly, How To Really Read A Job Description Advertisement (Forbes, 18 March 2018): https://www.forbes.com/sites/jackkelly/2018/05/14/how-to-really-read-a-job-description-advertisement/#570538d5f4ff

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