Dos and Don’ts: Cover Letters and C.V.s

Today’s post was spurred by some conversations between Junto contributors about cover letters, C.V.s, and the dos and don’ts of the applications process. Whether applying for research grants or starting out on the job market, how do we make sure we’re presenting our best selves on paper?

We thought that this would be a great opportunity to ask our Junto readers: Do you have any advice for formatting C.V.s and cover letters? What do you look for in a strong cover letter or C.V.? Do you have any ‘must haves’ or pet peeves? How can we best tailor our applications for either academic or professional settings?

We welcome any thoughts, links to additional resources, or tales of application joy and woe.

For the graduate students and junior scholars in our midst, here are some helpful links from the AHA:

Cover Letters and C.V.’s for History Job Seekers

The Convincing Cover Letter 

Some Dos and Don’t’s for an Effective C.V. and Cover Letter 

On grant-writing

36 responses

  1. Lots of good advice here. I would dissent from the advice “don’t ignore personal and lifestyle issues.” Telling the committee you like the weather or have always wanted to live in the middle of nowhere can come across as pandering. But worse, if you mention anything about your family, you give job search members who should know better an opening to start asking inappropriate and illegal questions like “what does your spouse do?” and “do you plan to have children?” While it is important to tell the committee what attracts you to working at that specific type of institution (be that rural traditional liberal arts institute, suburban, not traditional commuter school, etc) I would not get too personal about your life. Some jerk may ask you illegal questions anyway, but you don’t want to hand them an excuse.

    • But, on the flip side, if you want to discover if the institution or community are accepting of the way you live your life, then floating balloons during the campus visit can be helpful in determining whether you want to be employed there. That decision should be made, however, only after careful thought and only if you can live with the possibility of not obtaining the position.

  2. Also I’d agree with wkerrigan above; hold your cards close in a cover letter about personal issues. Those will come up in a natural (i.e. not illegal) way, if they need to, during a campus visit – the committee does not need that kind of info before then.

    • I’m going to dissent mildly on this one. Her advice is usually very good, but on occasion there are issues that she’s either wrong about or that don’t apply in the same way within history as a discipline.

        • Agreed on the qualification for her limitations, especially on discipline. But don’t all religions have limits? [grin]

          • TPII is an incredibly useful tool for graduate students, many of whom are completely unaware of the professional aspects of building an academic career. Some of her advice is not applicable to history, sure–all disciplines are different–but I would guess that the majority of it is. And even if one didn’t read it for specific advice, the blog as a whole serves as a good look into the behind-the-scenes of academic career-making, especially for the uninitiated.

  3. Some generic advice, which is to NOT use a generic resume, cover letter, CV or other document. Tailor it for the employers, grantor, opportunity in general by removing things that would not be relevant to ensure that the parts that will be most important don’t get buried. No one’s going to dig through your 5 page CV to find the salient points.

  4. A couple small details on the CV that I’ve picked up over the years:

    1. If you are listing articles “under review,” don’t list the journal to which you submitted them.

    2. I have become converted to the format that places the dates (for degrees, publications, fellowships, applications, etc.) to the left-hand side of the page, with the content then indented away from it. This helps emphasize your chronological progression.

  5. Here’s a question I’d love to hear answered: at what point should grad students remove honors, awards, distinctions, etc., from their undergraduate years? Are those even relevant in a job search, or are they excessive? And are publications in graduate journals worth leaving on the vita when applying for jobs?

    • Personally, I would leave off undergraduate awards, honors, etc. You are trying to present yourself as a peer to the hiring institution, and those things undercut that presentation.

      I would include any pubs., but the reality is that for some jobs, grad. journal pubs. will look weak.

    • 1. So, if a student receives a tuition fellowship from an undergraduate institution or external organization, the student should delete said fellowship from his or her CV (after graduate school)? I surveyed the CVs of several professional historians and previously requested advice from the Chronicle of Higher Education. Both contradict the above statement. Please clarify.
      2. I agree that publications in graduate journals alone look weak. What if the publication receives an award from a professional institution/organization?
      3. What about online journal articles and reviews? Blogs?

      Thank you for the helpful post.

    • At the Liberal Arts colleges where I have taught, election to Phi Beta Kappa is still an important distinction to note on the CV, especially if applying to an institution that has a chapter…or would like to have a chapter.

  6. One note I’d add for the grad students: in addition to your advisors, see if you can find a friend who’s been out a few years (and ideally has already served on a search committee) to take a look at your materials. Whatever your advisors’ strengths, they almost as a rule work at large research universities, and don’t necessarily see the letter or CV the same way that faculty do at the schools where you’re applying.

  7. Hester Blum at Penn State recently published a good essay on grant/fellowship/etc application writing. She focused on the essays/proposals, but she mentions the CV as well (they’re often part of one package, anyway). In addition, I have a history professor who pointed out that, as a historian, she likes to see dates/years along the left of the CV document. It helps her quickly formulate a “timeline” of your career. (Sounds like common sense, but I didn’t always put dates at left.)

  8. Re: undergraduate honors, I think it’s fine to include those that are generalizable across institutions (Phi Beta Kappa, magna cum laude, etc.), but none that are specific to your own institution.

    Another CV note: nobody cares where you went to high school, even (or particularly) if you went to Andover.

  9. Pingback: Juvenile Instructor » What has Mormon Studies to do with Curriculum Vitaes?

  10. Hello Junto Readers!

    This discussion has been great so far! Lots of really helpful information that I will certainly take to heart.

    I have a question (disclaimer: totally self-serving on this one, but hopefully others will find it useful)–for those of us junior historians and graduate students who have a multidisciplinary background (for instance, I have experience in history, material culture, architectural history, historic preservation) how can we tailor CVs to be as streamlined and informative as possible, rather than a seemingly disconnected laundry list? I often wonder about the best way to say a lot with out saying much at all . . .


    • Hi, Katy, I have a similar background. I think how and what you list on your CV (teaching versus public history work) and where you list it on your CV really depends on the purpose the CV is serving. If you’re applying for a traditional academic fellowship, for instance, you might need to emphasize your academia-type experiences; if you’re applying for a summer museum fellowship or internship, on the other hand, you might emphasize that work instead. I think this aligns with what has been said already in regard to tailoring your CV for the fellowship, job, etc. In addition, for my generic CV (which I post on my website and the like), I have two “work” headings: “academic employment” and “cultural heritage employment.” Seems to have worked for me so far…I’m sure others will have additional feedback!

    • Katy,
      As someone who reads a lot of fellowship applications, I find that it’s very helpful to a committee to see evidence of other kinds of experience on a CV (things like work in public history, material culture, and historic preservation, but also other kinds of non-academic employment). It speaks to a breadth of background and flexibility that often indicates that an applicant is someone who can make more out of a period of residence in an archive than someone whose background is entirely academic. An additional note about tailoring your CV for fellowship applications, particularly if there is a page limit: specific details about your teaching experience are not terribly useful to a fellowship selection committee. Frequently people will devote a lot of space on their CV to listing courses they’ve taught, semester by semester, which is absolutely appropriate in an application for a teaching position. But it’s less helpful on a CV that’s part of a fellowship application.

      • Thank you for this advice–it’s very helpful. I’ll definitely put it into practice as the fellowship and summer research applications loom!

  11. To offer my two cents on when you jettison undergraduate or minor lines from you CV, I think it really does depend on where you are sending it. I keep a full version that has everything on it as the base template, and each time I need to send out a CV I delete what is not relevant. If you are applying to the same kind of institution that you attended, leaving information about your undergrad self on your CV can offer clues as to your level of engagement in a comparable campus setting. For example, if you attended a Catholic university and are applying to one, leave in the Jesuit Honor Society, the Father Roberts History Department Thesis Prize, etc. But if you’re applying to a large state research university, cut it. That’s my basic rule of thumb. The title of my M.A. thesis comes and goes depending on whether I’m trying to exhibit breadth (keep it) or expertise in my narrower dissertation field (axed!).

    I also reorganize and downsize when applying for grants and fellowships. When I apply for funding from sources that are geared toward American history, I leave off most of the information on my language training and the name of the European university where took classes for a semester after college (they likely don’t care). For European sources of funding, on the other hand, I retain those parts and cut out my experience teaching high school U.S. history before grad school (they likely won’t care).

    I think it’s normal and preferable for CVs to remain fluid, especially when we’re still figuring out where your strongest interests lie.

    • @ KP and Professor Adelman, Thanks for tailoring the helpful responses to an array of readers and trolls in a very concise, clear, and cogent fashion.

  12. Great site you have here but I was wanting to know if you knew
    of any community forums that cover the same topics discussed here?
    I’d really love to be a part of community where I can get advice from
    other knowledgeable people that share the same interest. If you have any recommendations, please let me know.


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