The Art of The Cover Letter

Rick Bowman - Wednesday, February 16, 2011

In many cases, the cover letter provides the panel (read: potential employer) with the first glimpse of you – your experiences, skills, qualities and most importantly, potential for the new role. In fact, it is often the opening paragraph that sets the scene!

It is therefore essential that you get it right!

In 1935 Dale Carnegie in How to Win Friends and Influence People made the point that “in 90% of conversations, each participant regularly asks themselves the question What can this person do for ME?” While this may sound quite narcissistic, egomaniacal and severely self-centred, it is worth noting that this is the mindset of potential employers and panels as they fastidiously burrow through your hopefully gripping masterpiece!

Prior to applying for your new job, ensure you read the job description thoroughly. If it is sufficiently detailed and clearly presented, you should gain valuable insights into the panel’s expectations with regard to your future role, and in turn, some helpful ideas as to how to style your letter and résumé (CV). If appropriate, you may wish to contact the school and seek an appointment with the principal. This serves a number of valuable purposes – e.g. not only finding out more about the school, but most importantly – giving the principal a face to attach to the written application!  

And so to the cover letter.... this needs to be primarily driven by your new job – it should be styled with your new role clearly in mind and the language you choose should reflect this. For example - if you are applying for a leadership role within a school, then your letter needs to strongly reflect a leadership perspective – i.e. you need to talk primarily in a strategic, rather than operational, mode.  Or if you are seeking a position within a church-related school, then it may be wise to include details of your family, religious commitment, community work, personal beliefs and the like.

Like Dale Carnegie’s conversationalists, panels usually ask themselves two major questions:

  • Why does this person want to work for US?
  • What can this person do for OUR SCHOOL?

Your opening paragraph should answer the first of these questions. Your penultimate paragraph should answer the second.

In the opening paragraph – talk about your current job and how you find it rewarding and enjoyable. But  make the point that your new job will be even more rewarding and give a reason why. For example....

I find my present role as a teacher of Physics especially rewarding and exciting, having had the opportunity of introducing many interesting technologies into my classroom. I now feel that it is time for me to accept the challenge of leading and working with my new colleagues as together we work towards embracing new changes in curriculum and pedagogy.

This paragraph really answers both the panel’s questions – its real strength is that it gives the reader a window into one attribute the applicant could bring to the school.

In Paragraphs 2 and 3 you may wish to choose some major achievements and discuss these in some detail. This is your opportunity to talk in the mode of the  new job. So if you’re presently a classroom teacher and applying for a faculty head (secondary) or assistant principal or year level coordinator (primary) – make sure you choose examples at this level. If you are already a middle manager and applying for a senior job such as deputy or principal – then you should style your discussions using examples that mirror whole school involvements.  Remember though – your CV is the place to spell these out in detail. In your cover letter, just provide a brief description – enough to make the panel want to read on.

Paragraph 4 (penultimate) provides you the opportunity of discussing something you are passionate about and indicating that this is something you can bring to the new school. Consider for example this excerpt from a letter written by a current Faculty Head (Maths) aspiring to the role of Deputy Principal in a high school....

I am a very firm believer in the importance of teaching cognitive skills as a part of every curriculum area.  I see thinking skills as, like Literacy, Numeracy and Technology, a cornerstone of future success for every student. In my present role I have mentored teachers across the faculty in implementing aspects of Blooms Taxonomy into open-ended mathematical investigations. These have provided students with many valuable skills such as forming and validating hypotheses. This is a wonderfully exciting part of the learning journey and one which I would greatly enjoy sharing with colleagues on a whole-school basis.

The final paragraph (Paragraph 5) is the conclusion – this provides the brief closure, foreshadows the CV (résumé) and is the place to thank the panel for the opportunity of applying for the position.

When you’re done, read and re-read your application. Put yourself in the shoes of the reader ....

  • Is there evidence of achievement at the next level?
  • Have you explained why you’re applying for the new job?
  • Is your cover letter reflective of the nature and culture of the school?
  • Have you given them something to whet their appetite – what you can do for them?

If your answer to each of these questions is “Yes” – then you’re well on the way!

Rick Bowman


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