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:
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.).
(Bonus) LOVE ALWAYS,
The Hiring Committee