Desperate Cramming

Let’s imagine that I am doing some sort of cover letter “blind taste test” and I have to guess, by content only, which cover letter has been written by a graduate student.

I will know by one element above all others—what I call “desperate cramming.”

Desperate cramming is when you cram everysinglelittlething into your letter.  You not only have an article under review, but you were also invited to contribute a chapter for a project that may or may not be happening, and you also wrote two encyclopedia entries, and you were chair and presenter last year and the year before at your regional conference and the editor from X Press said your work sounded neat at your disciplinary conference but then also the editor from Press Y said over email that when you are done with your book proposal to send it for a look, and you were invited to give a guest-lecture in the undergraduate survey course on the satellite campus of your university, and you also applied for and made it through the first round of this grant, and even though you did not get it, you will build on your grant application for the grant you are going to write and submit this August, and you are also the webmaster for your interest group in your big national association, and you also pet-sat your department chair’s cat when they were doing archival research.

Okay, maybe not the cat.  But everything else is crammed into your letter, which, by the end, will appear to the totally overwhelmed search committee members like one of those visual tricks, where a chaos of dots and swirls can theoretically coalesce into an actual image, but only with an extreme effort of focus.  Guess what—the search committee members aren’t going to make that effort. They are tired. They are distracted. They aren’t going to sift through the laundry list of every single little thing you have done to figure out if there is any substance to you as a candidate.  They are going to see you as a graduate student who is lacking a key professional skill–the ability to understand what are the elements of a competitive academic record.  When you engage in desperate cramming, you broadcast yourself as a desperate wannabe who is terrified of leaving anything out.

You might think: “but I don’t know whether something is desperate cramming.”   First off, please read the blog post, Don’t Get Your Career at Costco, and get clear on the difference between high-status, impressive accomplishments, and small, quick and cheap endeavors that do not distinguish you in any way against your competition.

Beyond that, here is a quick check-list:


Brief factual presentation of dissertation framework and methodology

Description of major, high status peer-reviewed publications (books and journal articles)

Brief mention of presentations at the major, national conferences in your field

A few examples of named classes you taught and are prepared to teach (but not the institution at which you taught them—see the post, How To Describe Teaching: Not When and Where but What and How) and one or two short and sweet examples of concrete classroom strategies.


A long discussion of where you learned the methodologies you used (“As I was trained in ethnographic methods during a graduate seminar led by Professor Malinowski and subsequently participated in the NSF ethnography summer course, I was successfully able to use participant-observation and life history interviews in my study of workers migrating to Rapa Nui from Chile”)

Discussion of every single edited volume chapter you have in preparation, as well as book reviews, encyclopedia entries, and other publications that are not commonly recognized as first-tier scholarship.  (“In addition to the two articles, I also have a chapter under review for consideration for publication in an edited volume on post-crisis migrant flows.  The editors are currently in discussions with several publishers who have expressed interests.  I have also been invited to write encyclopedia entries on Eastern Polynesian languages in general and Pascuan in particular, and this summer I will prepare a book review of an edited volume on sweet potato cultures, for Third-Tier Journal”).

Discussions of every single conference you attended, going back to your first year in graduate school, as well as exhaustive discussion of the various roles you have performed there.  (“In addition to presentations at the AAA and the session I am organizing this year at theAES, I have also presented papers at the conference XYZ in 2005, Regional Association Conference ABC in 2007, and in 2009, despite still being a graduate student, I was invited to chair the session on yams, organized by Scholar 1 and Scholar 2, at the Mid-Atlantic Biannual Conference in 2006”)

An over-detailed discussion “proving” that you are a qualified teacher. (“In addition to teaching two classes as a lecturer at University Down the Street, and serving as a Teaching Assistant in My Department, in the summer of 2009 I participated in a selective two-week pedagogical training workshop at My University, which focused on syllabus design strategies and effective rubrics in assessment.  I also enrolled in a voluntary peer classroom observation program available at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at My University, with consistently excellent feedback from my peers.”
I’ll finish by remarking that you don’t have to be an actual graduate student to fall into desperate cramming.  I see it with recent PhDs—lecturers, postdocs, brand new assistant professors.  The degree may be in hand, but the graduate student mindset is still there, and that is even worse.  So check your letter.  if you are insecure about how to present yourself, then chances are you do engage in it.  Do yourself a favor and honestly assess the achievements you include in your cover letter.  Do they all communicate that you are a tenurable colleague?  If not—delete, delete, delete.

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Desperate Cramming — 6 Comments

  1. Thanks for writing this — I think students really need to hear this advice. What I always tell students (and colleagues/friends) is: no one is going to read more than a couple of pages of statement — they are going to skim. The decision is, do you want to have them decide which parts to skip, or do you want to do the cutting yourself and decide for them with a succinct statement.

    I recently was an external reviewer for a 16 page tenure review statement. That assistant professor needed someone to tell her to cut before letting her submit it.

  2. Hi Karen,
    (I am leaving this comment here as I do not see a post on this topic anywhere) Do you have an opinion about whether or not to include “optional” application documents? In the postings I see writing samples or a teaching philosophy often falls into the optional category, while CV, cover letter & research statement fall into the required category. Based on the fact that search committees are busy I would assume I should skip submitting those and let the other docs. speak for themselves. Thoughts? thank you!

  3. I have also seen desperate cramming in grant proposals (ie, the Specific Aims page). I didn’t know quite how to explain it to my colleagues — we use terms like, “over ambitious,” or “overly broad,” or “unfocused…” The advice on this post was so well suited to critiquing a draft grant proposal that I actually used some of the phrasing. Now when I write & read a grant proposal, I look over the Aims page and question whether the contents are desperate cramming or sufficiently specific. There is a difference and it becomes obvious.

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