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Over the past two years, I had several opportunities to talk to pre-service teachers about applying for their first jobs. Each time, these teaching candidates responded to some basic tips for preparing cover letters and resumes as if I was revealing a great secret of the education world.
Now, I am quite sure that their education professors and college career centers provided them with much of the same information, but, for some reason, hearing it from a school administrator seems to go a long way.
A word of caution: Every administrator, school, and district look for different things when screening applicants for interviews. What I am sharing is based on my personal experiences as well as the collective wisdom of trusted colleagues I polled. However, each individual context is unique.
These are not rules so much as tips.
Your cover letter provides the person screening candidates (this may be a secretary) with some basic information about you. Cover letters should be no more than one page with your contact information clearly displayed. Follow standard business letter writing rules for address format by using templates found in word processing software programs.
I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to carefully personalize each cover letter. It is astounding how many cover letters I screen that include information intended for another recipient. When I look at a cover letter that names another school district, I do not read anything else in the application. If you cannot take the time to change your header, you are not right for my district.
On the other end of the spectrum are candidates who take a few extra minutes to address the letter to the specific administrator responsible for making the hiring decision. If you have access to the information, use it. Such attention to detail makes the letter stand out just a little, which could be the difference between getting an interview or not.
The greatest debate about resumes is about how long they should be—one page or two. When I asked this question of administrator colleagues, I wound up with almost a 50–50 split in opinions. However, there were some areas of agreement.
For one, it should never be more than two pages and it should only go beyond one page if you have some amazing experiences to include. A few additional tips:
Whether talking about cover letters or resumes, the copy should be pristine. Double and triple check to remove typographical errors, spelling mistakes, and poor grammar. These documents should reflect the best you have to offer, and sloppy writing at this stage is a surefire way to hit the “no” pile.
A final caution for those applying via online tools: if you are asked to upload files for review, save them as PDF files so that the integrity of the fonts and formatting is maintained.
Matthew Mingle is the director of curriculum and instruction for Madison, N.J., Public Schools, New Jersey ASCD Board Secretary, and a 2011 Emerging Leader.
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