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7 techniques for avoiding the job interview you want

Sadly useful cover letter advice

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For the last couple of years, I’ve been coordinating a TESOL program in which all of the teaching team has decided there isn’t anywhere else they’d rather be. Despite a dearth of what some may consider standard extrinsic incentives, we’ve developed an amazing capacity for professional development in many different forms, and as a result all the courses we teach have continued to evolve as well. Many, perhaps even all of the faculty regard the job as the best job they’ve ever had (direct quote without the quotes), and I’m just thrilled about that. New faculty have arrived and stayed. Office doors are open, emails, chats and google+ notes and hangouts arise at all hours of the night and day… and it hasn’t always been like that. When I arrived seven years ago, no one ventured into another’s office, doors were closed, help had to be begged for, mentoring wasn’t in the vocabulary, development wasn’t in the culture, the one guy that had a website jumped ship at the start of my second semester, lots of faculty didn’t last more than a year or two…

So it’s understandable that when we’re hiring we’re very careful about who we interview — part of the reason we’re doing so well is that our hiring mistakes are far outnumbered by the ones we guessed right on. I’m writing this post because I’m sure that nearly all institutions worth working for are similarly careful, even if they are looking for different qualities than we are. Sadly, this hiring season I see the same thing as always — a few potential jewels are visible, and a ton of other potential jewels aren’t going to get an interview because they remain buried under muck of their own making — for what to me seem like obvious reasons, but must not be so obvious to them.

This is the rejection letter I’d like to write to lost diamonds:

Dear applicant,

Unfortunately, the hiring committee (3 of us) has made the very difficult decision to pass up the opportunity to discuss with you how you might contribute to our workplace culture. I’m terribly afraid that we might be missing out on a golden opportunity, and we feel that you are, too. That said, here are a list of factors that weighed on our decision — perhaps with some consideration of these points in relation to the packet you sent us, if you really want us to talk with you, you could revise the packet and persuade us to reconsider in the next round. It has happened, so good luck!

1. Let us know you love being part of a team

Nothing develops in isolation. We love your vast and varied work experience, your online learning platforms, your four countries, your admin experience, but your cover letter is a LETTER, not a work summary. Its purpose is to communicate, and it will, whether or not you choose to control its message. The message we got from yours was that you were too busy to communicate with us directly about why we want to get to know you better. We wonder what else of importance you might also usually be too busy for.

2. Get personal – it’s a 2.0 world

See #1 above, and then make sure that if you’re applying for a job in English Teacher Education, you wait at least until your third sentence to try to slip a careless omission/error past us. Your cover letter isn’t a blog post, for goodness’ sake. When sentence #2 reads “First I got my BA in from (emphasis added) XYZ University” we skim the rest, and notice that this same letter went to everyone else, so we’re going to assume that you treat your students the same way or worse than you treat yourself and us, ya dig?

3. Wait until after the interview to risk alarm bells

We are impressed by the mention of our job title and program in the opening sentence, not to mention an appropriate addressee, but less so by the complete lack of personal connection to our job description for the rest of your 1.5 page “look at everything I’ve started” letter. Trust me, if after that you’re also attaching a 5-page CV, we’re inspired to read your reference letters before diving into it; too bad you didn’t send us those. Do you see how your package scares us off? You sent us 7 self-authored pages about you, and a salary request that suggests you’re mostly interested in getting your money back on one of your multiple master’s degrees. All we want to know is whether your colleagues think you’re great.

4. Show us you’re proficient in cover letter salutations (because it’s pretty much the first thing we see)

I mean, you know — do you respect yourself or us enough to show some respect to either party? If we ask for a cover letter, and you’re a language teaching professional, for better or worse it probably better be a cover letter. UPDATE: Let me be direct this time. I’m not trying to be rude or condescending: because it’s a letter, it really must INCLUDE a salutation… and your odds are better if it’s appropriate for/meaningful to the addressee (us)Also, in your “English Teaching Experience” section, it’s “advanced”, as in “from beginning to advanceD”.

5. Someone needs to miss you when you’re gone

All right — here’s the big secret. Far more important than your CV (personal narrative about yourself), as long as it’s carefully composed, are the references you give us (how others see you) and everyone’s all sound/read the same except the ones who really care about you, who truly valued the contribution you made to their program, and who want you to continue to have professional success so badly that they take the time to write a powerful communiqué that promises us we want to meet you. Two of the three you sent us read like you’re hard to please in and out of the classroom…

I know this from the other side, too – I’ve written a ton of reference letters, and part of my professional reputation depends on producing accurate letters. I love the chance to tell someone they’d be a fool to pass up one of my favorite people, but I don’t get that chance very often, because those relationships don’t happen everyday.

So here’s your task — track down someone you really made a deep impression on sometime during the past five years or so, and tell them what you need. I can’t wait to learn about why an employer or maybe even a colleague truly values your professional presence in the workplace.

6. Set bait for bottom feeders

We get that you’re fishing, but do you get that we’re fishing, too, and we’re paying attention to our line?…what kind of fish are you trying to catch? A small, soft, squishy bland one that could taste like anything and might be a little past ready for the grill, or something a little finer? We’re all trying to catch something that will make the finest sushi.

UPDATE: Again, to ‘speak’ plainly: If you’re in a career that a) doesn’t require much in the way of interpersonal skills, b) has more job openings than applicants, and c) means very little to you, then feel free to send the same Big Mac to all your potential paycheck-issuers and wait for someone who cares just as little as you do to bite into it. 

7. Promise to save us from Obscurity’s vise

If the job posting doesn’t say “please tell us how you will save our dinosaurish company from the dunghills of time”, it’s probably best to not position yourself as a savior. I can’t be sure, but I’m guessing it’s a safe bet that hiring committees expect you to be a team-player first and then, once part of the team, to contribute your unique and wonderful qualities to evolving the institutional culture in a well-thought out, organic way.

We know it’s a tough line to walk, but you can’t worry about trying to impress us yourself (it comes off as a little too desperate; I do it, too…) — let other things do that for you: reference letters like I mentioned above; an online portfolio of past work; teaching videos; your website where you do stuff like this (blog, network, read & comment, etc.).


The Hiring Committee

7 techniques for avoiding the job interview you want

Comments (15)

  1. My online friend John McCrarey directed me to your blog, Tom, and as a veteran expat (8 years in Korea, all told, including three years at Sookmyung Women’s University’s Lingua department, on the other side of the campus from you), I appreciate everything you said in this post.

    I’m currently seeking work in Korea again, and have flown to Korea for this purpose (I’m here from April 19 to May 19). My problem is the flip-side of what you’re talking about: the lack of professionalism from the hiring side. I applied twice to Sungkyunkwan University last year as a US resident and was roundly ignored both times. No communication, no explanation. I was left to hypothesize that I wasn’t considered for a position because I wasn’t living in Korea—a hiring policy that makes no sense to me, especially since I can fund my own airfare to Korea and have no objection to filling out any extra paperwork. This magisterial silence from SKKU was highly frustrating to me, and I would have welcomed a rejection letter like the hypothetical one you’ve outlined here.

    Part of the reason I’m in Korea now is precisely to foist my presence upon hiring committees that fail to respond to my applications—to be physically present for interviews, and not to be ignored. I certainly don’t see myself as anyone’s savior, but I do think I have good credentials and great recommendations from people who know me and have worked with me. I deserve better than silence.

    So I suppose the purpose of this comment is just to blow off some steam: while it may be frustrating, from your end, to watch candidates shoot themselves in the feet, it’s equally frustrating, from a candidate’s point of view, to be stonewalled by any given university’s human-resources department. Not even sending an automated response, a simple acknowledgment of receipt of application materials, is both lazy and unprofessional. Pleading that HR has to screen hundreds of applications is no excuse: an automated response takes 30 seconds to write, and can work for even thousands of applications.

    To their credit, some universities that I’ve applied to over the past couple of weeks have announced, in their job ads, that they simply will not reply to rejected applicants. While still rude, that’s at least honest: “We won’t provide you even the minimum of courtesy. Know this in advance.”

    I do hope that Sookmyung replies to all of its applicants, even if only with automated responses.

    Kevin Kim

    • Hi Kevin,

      If we’re not currently, we certainly will be! I’ll be looking into who we respond to tomorrow thanks to your comment. I’m not on that end of the process. but I can put myself there. You raise an interesting point. If no replies is the industry standard here (and well it might be), that may explain the reciprocal lack of care in applications. “I don’t need to be human because all you’re gonna do is look at my age, education, experience, and references anyway.” Something like that. No need for a place I coordinate to encourage that learned behavior on either side.

      John’s a caring, compassionate human being and a great friend, despite his politics 😉 I remember he talked about you one night over darts while he was here recently. I’m sorry I’m not better connected among the University General English Programs. Drop me a line if there’s something I might be able to help you with all the same. Thanks for the comment and good luck with your search!

  2. Thanks for your response, Tom. Yes, indeed: John’s a stand-up guy. He and his Korean family are letting me use his daughter-in-law’s apartment for a month while I’m in Seoul, this despite the fact that John and I have never met face-to-face. That’s an amazing gesture of trust.

    Are you familiar with Joe Walther? I know him, too. He’s storing a massive pile of my books, which I left in Korea in 2008. Another stand-up guy.

  3. Hi Tom,
    I clicked on the title of your article because I had sent out about ten cover letters and applications over the past two months. I had never thought of teaching as an employment but rather as belonging to an interest group, which worked wonders for me. I was always happy going to meet my fellows who share the same interests and students – some older and better grounded, and some younger with a tendency to try new ideas – but at some point I changed countries for family purposes. Since then I have come to realize the teaching could be an employment. The image of the program your words conjured up in my head is to be celebrated; in certain countries or regions it is difficult to come across such a positive teaching team and it is not a practical thing to move a whole family in search of the perfect program. In my search for a happy and giving teaching circle, my degree of sincerity in the cover letters I sent had surely dwindled from the first to the last. It becomes a practical thing to make a few changes to your letter and send it off with hopes of getting any kind of reply. As Kevin explained, you never know if your email will even be opened. All what you said is true from the receiver’s point of view and thank you for the insight which I will sure keep in mind and apply when I get the urge to send out my eleventh application. From the sender’s end though, I hope decision makers would realize that a cover letter is at the end a single less-than-a-one-page letter written in response to an impersonal teaching job announcement. These are just some reflections triggered by your very nice and needed article.Thank you for writing it. Nashwa

    • Hi Nashwa,
      Thank you for taking so much time to share your thoughts. You’ve really made me think a lot about how this “I don’t care what my cover letter says about me” phenomenon started. One thing raised by both yours and Kevin’s comments is the idea that applicants are replying to the job posting, and not its author. I understand it, and I know that in some industries (and perhaps in some of the world’s largest language school certificate mills) machines read the first batch, but it is certainly true that most of us in our field are too small for that. In our case, I see all the applications after a staff worker has written an X across any that don’t include reference letters and the other required docs, or won’t have an MA/MS in hand by the job start date.

      So the conversational analysis question is “who is starting the conversation”? I think the only reasonable answer to that is “the applicant”. The applicant has the job app description, and the ability to do background research on the company. After that, it’s courtship time. Applicant is looking for a date, and the company has plenty of choices. To carry the analogy perhaps slightly too far, unless the company is looking for a one-night-stand, we’re only going to respond to proposals from suitors whom we believe are seriously interested in us. After all, the best places to work are the ones that care about and nurture its employees.

      The takeaway for me from your comment is that I need to include something very brief in the job post that communicates the expectation of a ‘serious enquiry’. Perhaps combined with Kevin’s expectation of a response. “Serious enquiries will be answered.” Something like that. Or maybe just, please begin with a serious cover letter explaining why you want to work with us.” Something like that…

      Thanks again for the great comment — somewhere out there a great human being is hoping to find you 🙂

  4. Hi Tom,

    First of all there are some really great tips here, and while not currently job hunting this post is now in my bookmarks to return to at a later date.

    I did find a couple of things that I think are in need of a response to on the part of applicants.

    First of all reference letters, something I have experienced in Korea is a difficulty in obtaining very personal reference letters. There are a number of reasons to this, first and foremost, it is actually an extremely difficult task for most Korean co-teachers. One reason is that their English is not always that great, I wonder if you have considered the fact that you might be selecting applicants who simply have co-teachers with the best command of English? Secondly, and please correct me here if I am wrong, but I do not believe they have the personal type of reference letter in Korea that we have in our home countries, and therefore they are often not sure what should be contained in the letter. Of course, it could also be that you are selecting participants that have written the letter themselves and had a colleague sign it (very common practice in Korea) or have a native speaking colleague.

    Regarding cover letter salutations, while I think it is normal to put some weighting on this, I was a little surprised it came up as #4 on your list. Whilst it was not necessarily something I would do, being slightly informal in the salutation may simply be a reflection of someone’s personality, and who is to say that personality would not make a fantastic teacher? I guess I would be a little more interested in other stuff. Nevertheless, I think most employers would see it as you do and that this is some good advice!

    Anyway, thanks for taking the time to write this post, I think it will help out a lot of applicants!

    • Hi Alex,

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post and find it useful. see the updates I added in red to clarify some stuff for you. I agree with you about the difficulty getting “very personal” reference letters from Korean supervisors; cultural differences. This shouldn’t be an issue if applying for jobs in the Korean market where Korean supervisors make the call, as I believe these letters serve as invitations to talk privately. I’ve witnessed several occasions in which my Korean counterpart here has gone to bat strongly over the phone for a departing employee.

      That said, many and perhaps all of the best places are run like ours, where someone like me does the major screening. It’s a cultural thing in this direction as well, and the point is the great reference letters stand out. Not the most perfectly written ones, as you seemed to suggest (command of English may not be all that important). I’d say half our current faculty were interviewed primarily on the strength of a letter, or at least the letter was the tipping point. Usually an a job posting asks for two or three letters — they don’t have to all be supervisors. I would advise including at least one by for someone in your network – a mentor, a grad school associate or professor, perhaps even a colleague, who really knows your work and character, and has something important and meaningful to say about you.

      I’ve sniffed out a number of what I assumed were “self-authored/foreign-supervisor-signed” letters, among other faux pas, so I doubt this is really the way to go, because you have to count on the supervisor to rephrase it all for “his/her voice”, which is asking a lot in a 2nd language.

      As for the salutation — perhaps my point is clear now above. When I wrote about showing some respect for self and others, I am again not suggesting kow-tows, etc., or proscribing less than the most formal salutation… I’m simply saying a letter should start with a salutation, and that it should mean something to the intended audience. You’d be surprised how many I saw that began the candidate’s summary on line 1.

      Thanks again for the clarification requests and thoughts. I think it all comes down to the fact that I’m not a unique app-reader — wouldn’t YOU be more taken with a letter that shows some knowledge of your workplace and a palpable interest in the job?

  5. Great post, Tom. I’ve been through this on both sides, though my last real application was nearly 7 years ago (also from abroad, Kevin). I agree that it was much more difficult to do this from the US. The job I finally accepted gave me a phone interview while my wife and newborn (that day newborn) son where sleeping in the hospital room. Maybe they appreciated my commitment 🙂

    Hi, Alex. I always recommend that people write their own letter of recommendation (or at least an outline) and have the recommender edit it. In many cases, you’re just helping someone who doesn’t have the confidence to do it themselves. In other cases, you’re reminding them of what you did for/with them and the company. I always have my students give me outlines regarding what they think I should say about them. Most are right on, others not so much. But often I only have past grades and digital work to judge them by, otherwise.

    • Hi Daniel — thanks for stopping by. Just hit your blog. Wow! I look forward to going through your posts — very interesting stuff. I also haven’t had to apply for a job in seven years (OH NO – I just CURSED MYSELF), but I would put more effort into my cover letters next time, as the odds of persuading your wife to birth a baby on the same day as an interview for a dream job again … well, let’s just say you have way too much luck for one good man… 🙂

  6. I am usually pretty good at cover letters, however I never quite know how to address it. Often you don’t know to whom you are writing! Often I am given a rather vague e-mail ( and even when a friend has told me, “Oh yeah Michael’s the hiring head,” I’ve made the mistake of addressing it to him and getting a response back from Julie. However, I’ve also read that starting To whom it may concern, comes off as too generic. What do you suggest?

    Dear hiring committee,

    To whomever is so fortunate to read this letter,

    To the powers that be,

    • Hi Carissa,

      I think picking a salutation is a bit nerve-wracking, but in the end the only thing I can do is imagine who the individuals on the other end are (and hopefully I’ve done whatever research into this that I can), and what they would like to hear. I also think about what the kind of people I enjoy working with would like to hear. So — keeping it simple is what works for me. Dear + Mr/Miss/Mrs/Ms + Family name if I have that information (and I to really hard to get it), ‘To whom it may concern @nameofompany’ if it’s a small organization, and ‘Dear hiring committee @name of company’ if it’s larger. Our ad lists the name of a staff member as the person to reply to; it’s telling when the cover letter fails to have her name at the top…

  7. Dear All (My salutation!)
    These posts made very interesting reading. As a professional who has been, is now, and probably forever will be operating on both sides of the fence, I agree wholeheartedly with both Tom’s and Kevin’s comments.
    As a seasoned recruiter, interviewer and employer, the issues Tom has mentioned stand out like a sore thumb! On the flip side, as an applicant and prospective employee when one puts a great deal of thought and effort into the CV/cover letter and this isn’t even graced with an acknowledgement of receipt, let alone a ‘Dear John’ negative outcome reply, it is somewhat soul destroying and leaves one questioning today’s lack of standards, moral, ethical and professional.
    However, word of mouth is a powerful tool and the way an organisation handles any contact from beginning to end can hinder their own reputation, albeit it in a relatively small way perhaps in the grand scheme of things, though interesting to see which companies have taken this on board! Those who have are the companies I want to work for, as well as my colleagues and friends, these are also the companies I would re-apply too at another time.
    We could call it ‘Karma in business!’
    Thanks to all of you for truly well thought through comments and suggestions.

    • Thanks, Yvonne — I’ve been enjoyinbg the dialogue and response to this post as well. As a follow-up, I can confirm that we do reply to all applicants, and that I’ve recently updated the text of those responses;I think we’re covering our end there. Thanks again — if only people remembered to communicate as people, to other people, with the respect to themselves and each other that we all deserve… we’d be building a better world, wouldn’t we?

  8. Good list, especially for the many immature and/or recent graduates with a stunning lack of perspective. Beyond forgetting their audience, too many applicants forget to consider context, conduct minimum research on potential employers, and favor adjectives over facts by a strange ratio. It does behoove applicants, it seems to me, to at least try to avoid self-sabotage.
    Alas, many novice and too many experienced teachers still signal more interest in leaving their current situation than demonstrate an ability to contribute to new institutions.

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