If writing a cover letter is your least favorite part of applying for a job, you’re not alone. But don’t skip it! That page of extra information can make a big difference.
A cover letter offers you a front-and-center opportunity to make your case for why your skills, experience, and passion fit the job. It’s a place to tell your story and to give life to what’s laid out in your resume.
Here are some specific situations in which a strong cover letter can have an big impact.
When you don't know anyone at the organization
A good cover letter offers you a chance to let your personality shine in a way that a resume cannot.
The important thing is to show enough of your personality to leave a good impression without oversharing. For example, telling a compelling story in a few sentences about why you’re passionate about the organization’s work is good; telling your life story for half the cover letter is too much.
There are some specific ways to appropriately share parts of your personality in a cover letter. For example, I once started a cover letter with this line:
“I’m an eternal optimist, and even I didn’t see this one coming.”
Then I described how I worked with my current organization’s members to achieve an outcome that no one expected. This story was directly related to the kind of work I would be doing in the position for which I was applying, so I was able to connect my experience while giving the hiring manager a glimpse into my personality as an optimist. This cover letter was enough to get me an interview even though I didn’t know anyone at the organization—and, spoiler alert: I got the job!
When you don't meet 100% of the qualifications
You don’t have to meet all the qualifications in a job posting in order to apply. But if it’s clear from your resume that you don’t meet all of the qualifications, your cover letter can be your secret weapon to coming across as a competent and confident applicant.
Identify your transferable skills and explain in your cover letter how they would help you excel at the job. If the job involves distilling complex topics into easy-to-understand language, talk about your journalism experience or the skills you developed writing research articles for a lay audience.
Remember to go beyond your professional experience by drawing on your volunteer experience or student leadership experience. The skills you gained planning a school-wide lecture by a prominent speaker can translate to a job in event planning. If you ran a Relay for Life team or another fundraiser, highlight that experience when you apply for a development position.
When you are switching sectors
If you’re switching to the social-impact sector from a for-profit job, your cover letter is the strongest tool in your toolbox. It can be what convinces the hiring manager to seriously consider your application, even if they thought they wanted someone with experience in the social-impact sector.
All the tips we’ve covered so far—talking about your passion for the mission, identifying transferable skills, and drawing on more than just your professional experience—apply to this situation. When you describe your interest in the organization’s work, be clear about why you care so much that you’re willing to leap into an entirely new sector. What motivates you to work on this issue as a professional, as opposed to as a supporter or volunteer?
The skills you developed in your for-profit career can be an asset in the social-impact sector. For example, if you worked in sales, you probably have valuable customer service skills that can help you manage volunteers or handle conflicts while preserving relationships. That goes in your cover letter too.
And of course, if you’re interested in breaking into the nonprofit space, use nonprofit speak (like “organization” instead of “company”). This shows that you’ve taken the time to learn basic things about the sector you’re seeking to enter and that you adjusted your language accordingly.
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As a nonprofit advocacy professional living in Washington, D.C., Deborah works with groups across the country to educate their communities and lawmakers about public policies that can help low-income residents make ends meet. She is passionate about helping people connect their interests to a cause they believe in and empowering them to take action.