I've been on search committees before, and this is in fact the second search that I've chaired. What makes this one different is that it's on the big-conference timeline and it's for a field that closely parallels my field in terms of the number and quality of applicants. I won't say what discipline we're searching for, but it's a tenure-track humanities position in a field saturated with high-quality Ph.D.s.
For a 4/4 low-endowment rural SLAC position, we received a staggering 139 applications. Of those applications, probably...well, let's be generous and say that 25 were eliminated immediately for not being in the right field (in English terms, think comp/rhet when we're hiring for literature).
That leaves 114. Of those, easily...80? 90? were perfectly fine. Good degrees, interesting-seeming research (this one is harder for me to judge, since it's not my field), solid teaching, strong recs.
We winnowed them down to 8 for phone interviews. That's 5.75% of the initial pool.
How did we get there?
This search, more than any other I've participated in, brought home to me the issue of fit and the sheer injustice (no news here) of the hiring process. As I annotated my list of candidates, I found myself writing "Seems strong," "Seems solid," "Worth a second look" far too many times. Gradually, these changed to, "Seems strong but nothing stands out"--and that was that.
So--what stood out? Because we couldn't interview everyone with a good degree, solid research, and strong teaching; that would mean 80-odd interviews. The problem is that what stood out were things that weren't in the job description because they couldn't possibly have been in the job description.
- Candidate A has some experience teaching in Z, and we have a part-timer in Z who might be retiring soon (and no budget to rehire).
- Candidate B has some study-abroad administrative experience that would dovetail nicely with our program in Y.
- Candidate C's service-learning experience would fit really well in this particular community.
- Candidate D's research interests are close enough to those of a few of my colleagues to spark some interesting team-teaching possibilities, but not so close that they would duplicate our department's strengths.
- Candidate E has high school teaching experience that might enable him/her to collaborate on developing a new secondary certification program at Field.
Fortuity starts to play a role. It's not the case that each of our finalists has some specific strength like this, but these were the kinds of things that started leading me (and the rest of the committee) to single out particular applications over the others. And you--the applicant--just can't prepare for that.
What you can do, though, is highlight interesting bits of your professional life that might cause your application to stand out, too. Conducted workshops for first-generation students? Mention that in your cover letter. Don't dwell on it, in case it's not relevant, but mention it. Organized or taught on a study-abroad trip? Mention it. Engaged in service-learning? team-teaching? curriculum design? Mention it.
There is one other concrete thing that I can mention, too. If you're applying for a job at a SLAC, somehow demonstrate that you're specifically interested in SLACs. Maybe this doesn't matter much if you're applying to the really top-tier elite schools (who wouldn't want a job at Swarthmore?), but, at least at a school like mine, a research-heavy cover letter that doesn't even mention the appeal of a liberal arts college pretty much gets you kicked to the curb--simply because there are too many applicants and we have to narrow the pool somehow.
Also: If you have a tenure-track (or tenured!) position and are applying out, EXPLAIN WHY. Give some explanation of the move, ideally one that makes you look good. Simply avoiding the topic in your cover letter counts as one big red flag.
Good luck, everyone.