Here is how I applied for jobs the first couple of times: I put together my vita, rushed to finish papers as soon as possible, tried to come up with the best research proposal I could think of, and sent copies of the whole application to universities and colleges, hoping some of them would show interest. That was unsuccessful.
Then Lynne Butler looked at my application materials and pointed out:
- that I ought to get the name of the university right. Sometimes I addressed my application to, say, "Williams University" instead of "Williams College". I answered that it was a detail, but she said that such details show indifference on my part;
- that my cover letter, identical for all places where I applied, would be a turnoff and that in many universities they would not even turn the page and look beyond it.
That year, in the early 1990s, the job market in TCS was very tight. In Math Lynne told me that it was even worse, with 900 applications received for one temporary 1-year instructor position!
My discussion with her at that time shifted my perspective entirely.
Here is how I apply for jobs now: I look at the web page of the place I am considering. I try to picture myself being there. What would I like about it? Could I imagine being there in the long term? How could my being there help develop my research or my teaching? How could that place make a difference for me, and how could I make a difference for that place? What would be its most attractive features for me? After I've spent some time making up a story of my hypothetical future there, after I have, perhaps, visited, or at least explored connections, once the picture is a bit more clear, I can easily write an interesting cover letter, inserting a couple of personal specific sentences.