If you’re a musician looking to land a college teaching job, and you’re wondering how to improve your chances of getting hired, I’ve got some good and bad news for you—plus I’ve got the cover letter secrets for musicians—the secrets needed to help you make the short list.
First, the bad news: Most musicians shoot themselves in the foot (ouch) by using ineffective cover letters. Worse, most of these musicians never learn why they’re not making the shortlist and getting interviews.
Now the good news: To help, I’ve put together this in-depth guide for writing effective cover letters. It’s based on my 30 years of experience helping musicians upgrade their application materials. And it’s designed to bring you one step closer to the college teaching job of your dreams.
In this guide you’ll learn . . .
- How to avoid the common cover letter mistakes most musicians make
- What a cover letter needs to do in order to be effective
- How to structure a cover letter for success
- The do’s and don’ts of what to include
- Plus, a handy template and examples.
What IS a Cover Letter, Anyway?
As the name implies, it’s a letter that “covers” or accompanies your CV or résumé. It serves as your introduction to a prospective employer and highlights your most relevant qualifications in relation to the specific job at hand.
Why Cover Letters Matter
Your cover letter is what search committees read first, so it’s your one opportunity to make a great first impression. And it’s your chance to distinguish yourself from the typical 200 other applicants applying for the same job.
Because it’s the first part of your application that’s read, if your letter fails to pique the search committee’s interest—if it’s generic-sounding and full of clichés—you lose out. Readers won’t spend longer than the average 6.25 seconds on your application materials. And of course, you won’t make it to the short list.
But you can do better.
Test Your Musician Cover Letter Assumptions
To clear up the common misunderstandings that musicians have about cover letters, answer the following statements as either True or False. (Click the question to see its answer.)
1. Your CV is what REALLY counts. The cover letter is just a formality.
Cover letters reveal far more than you imagine. Beyond the factual content, your cover letter also conveys your values and priorities. It’s a window into how you think, how you communicate, and how you see yourself in relation to others.
That is what the employer is sampling when she/he reads your letter. And from this, employers make assumptions about who you are as a teacher. Assumptions about how clear, self-aware, and convincing you are (or are not).
2. All you really need is a generic cover letter you can use for all your applications.
If your cover letter reads like a generic form letter it’s insulting to search committees. Why? Because you’re essentially saying to them you don’t care where you teach, you just want a job. ANY job. And that you don’t care enough about this job to spend a little time researching their website so you can address their particular needs in your letter. So, if you want to get hired, go the extra mile and customize your letters—don’t go generic.
3. Your cover letter should focus on details NOT included in your CV.
To be effective, your letter should highlight the material that’s most relevant to the job, previewing what you most want readers to focus on in your CV. That way, you’ll motivate committee members to then read your CV in depth for further details about your experience.
4. In your cover letter, all you need to do is write about your experience.
Your cover letter shouldn’t scream “me, me, ME!” Don’t give an overview of all your experience. Instead, focus on meeting the specific employer’s needs. Choose the details of your experience to highlight based on the job description for the position you’re applying for and what you learn about the school and department on its website.
5. Make sure you sound like a professor: use fancy, “academic” language in your letter.
Don’t try to sound professorial. Your cover letter isn’t a term paper. The search committee is trying to find out who you really are—so be concise, direct, and human. Stick to nouns and active verbs and don’t try to dress things up with impressive words or fancy adjectives.
6. Be super confident in your letter: tell them that you can meet their needs and that you’re perfect for the job.
Watch your tone: You may believe that you’d be perfect for the job, but that’s just your opinion. It’s actually up to the search committee to determine who’s the best fit. Don’t be presumptuous. It’s fine to express your enthusiasm but don’t overstep or overstate. Don’t exaggerate—and God forbid, don’t lie—it always ends badly.
Effective Cover Letters Are Structured for Success
Like a lawyer building a case, your cover letter should lay out a rational argument for why you’re an excellent candidate for the job. It should be organized according to the employer’s priorities as found in the job description. Each sentence and paragraph should be part of a logical sequence contributing to a compelling case for your being hired.
Take it From the Top: Your Letterhead
“Letterhead” refers to your name, instrument or voice type, and your contact information arranged in an attractive graphic design at the top of your materials. This is the equivalent of a logo—a recognizable consistent design of information that conveys your professional identity.
Any letter you’ve ever received from a legitimate company or organization featured a letterhead. You should have one, too. It conveys to readers that you’re a professional.
It’s worth taking some time with the choice of font and layout because this is the first thing the employer will encounter from you. And we all know that when it comes to first impressions, there are no “do overs.”
Use your letterhead at the top of your cover letter and use the identical design on your CV and any other supporting materials. Find more letterhead help HERE.
Cover Letter Secret: Structure Made Easy
Below your letterhead, each paragraph of your letter should have a specific mission and be organized around a clear topic. Effective cover letters are memorable, laser-focused, and kept to one page.
Here’s a template below so you understand what goes where and why.
Cover Letter Secret: Watch Your Tone
You DO want to come across as enthusiastic about the position—but not desperate or overly “gushy.” And yes, you want to come across as confident and direct in conveying your skills and experience. Just not over-confident or presumptuous: that often translates as unprofessional.
The balance can be tricky. To help get it right . . .
* Check to see how many of your sentences and paragraphs begin with “I.” That’s a give-away that you’re too focused on you and not enough on the employer’s needs.
* Beware of overuse of adjectives and adverbs. Steer clear of describing your own teaching as creative, effective, popular, ground-breaking, or innovative. Instead, stick to the facts—the nouns and verbs of what you actually did.
For example, perhaps you created a custom curriculum for teaching adult beginners, or maybe you designed 3 new community engagement programs that you toured with in 5 states. Or perhaps you successfully tripled your studio in 7 years, recruiting students from 3 countries.
* Beware of clichéd phrases. Don’t tell us that you “enjoy” teaching. Everybody does (or says they do). Employers don’t care. They want to know what you can do for them. Likewise, don’t tell us that you’re passionate about, dedicated, or committed to teaching: these are all clichés that all the other candidates use.
Instead, give concise examples that demonstrate your skills, your creativity, and the results you get. Give us the facts. That way, your love of and fascination with teaching will be self-evident and all the more compelling.
Secrets to Editing Your Cover Letter
Once you have a completed draft of your cover letter, go back and read the full job description for the position you’re applying for. Put yourself in the shoes of the search committee members and consider their priorities. Then, lean into your empathy skills and read your letter OUT LOUD imagining that you are on the search committee. Listen to it from your prospective employer’s perspective.
As you read, notice any run-on sentences, awkward transitions, or redundancies. Rework as needed.
Ask yourself whether or not you have addressed the employer’s priorities. Have you given enough relevant details to make them genuinely want to read your CV or résumé in depth?
If you find that you’ve described your teaching in a way that you imagine 87% of the other candidates could, that’s a sign you need to dig deeper to find what’s more distinctive about your approach.
I find most good cover letters only get good after 6 or 7 revisions — over a number of days and sometimes weeks. It requires time, reflection, empathy, and a willingness to work on communicating your most relevant strengths. So, it’s not a “45 minute and you’re done” kind of deal. Whipping together something right before the deadline doesn’t work so well with promotional materials or job applications.
Once you’ve worked and reworked your letter and read it several times out loud, then ask a coach, mentor, or other trusted professional for feedback. Don’t ask your friends or your spouse: you need someone who’ll be objective and who has perspective as a hiring manager for the kind of job you’re applying for.
Send It Right
Make sure you send your documents as PDFs so you can ensure that your fonts and layout will appear as intended no matter what software the reader is using.
Be mindful of how you label your files. I suggest using your full name, the item, institution you’re applying to, and the date (e.g. Jane Rhodes_Cover Letter_UNH_2.28.23 and Jane Rhodes_CV_UNH_2.28.23).
Labeling files like this will ensure that the employer can easily identify your materials among the 200 other candidates. This will also help YOU keep files organized and make it easy to find any version of your earlier materials.
I recommend sending the cover letter, CV or résumé, and any other requested documents as separate PDFs in one email. In the body of the email itself, I’d simply write something like:
Enclosed are my application materials for the X position at Y institution.
Thank you for your consideration,
So this is NOT the cover letter; it’s simply a note identifying the attached PDFs which will include your full cover letter, CV, etc.
Use these tips and you can upgrade that crucial first impression you make on employers.
The Bottom Line
In the end, to be effective, your musician cover letter needs to clearly showcase your most relevant qualifications for the particular job you’re applying for. Beyond that, it also needs to highlight what distinguishes you from the 200 other candidates.
I hope you’ll use these tips and strategies to improve your cover letters and advance in your job search.
The good news is that once you’ve done the work and written an effective cover letter, any future letters will be a relative breeze because you’ll have gotten the hang of using empathy and sticking to the one-page rule. You will have learned how to structure and research for success, and how to take care of the layout, format, and tone. Plus, you’ll know how to tailor your letters to any job or situation.
Remember, your cover letter is just one piece of your application portfolio. You’ll also need a well-written CV and often a teaching philosophy statement as well as an EDI statement focusing on how you will support the institution’s equity, diversity, and inclusion policies.
If you’d like a handy PDF of the complete Cover Letter Secrets for Musicians Guide and Template, it’s free and all yours—just add your info below, and you’ll get it—along with my weekly email newsletter Monday Bytes with career tips and insights for musicians (which you can unsubscribe from at any time). But my guess is, if you found this helpful, you’ll like getting the Bytes, too!
Let’s get your brighter future going now,
Dream Big, Plan Smart, Live Well