Reducing your life’s work and experience to a few pieces of paper—known as the cover letter and resume—can be a humbling and frustrating experience. Especially when you know the person making an organization’s initial hiring decisions will spend, on average, 15 seconds perusing your efforts before placing you in the “yes”, “maybe”, or “no” pile. While presenting yourself through a resume and cover letter is a challenge, here’s one tack you can take to drafting the most effective docs.
Each time you sit down to prepare application materials, take a moment to get inside the head of the person doing the screening. There are ultimately only three things this person asks during those crucial seconds of analysis:
1. Can you do the job?
In other words: do you have the skills, experience, and education to fulfill the requirements listed in the job description? Have you demonstrated that you were able to succeed in a similar role or under similar circumstances?
Don’t expect the employer to figure out how your past experience can be applicable to the position in question. For example, it may be obvious to you that your Peace Corps work overseeing a village well-digging project shows management skills, but few hiring managers will have the time to sit down and figure out that connection. So spell it out: your management of the well digging exemplified your ability to organize, motivate, and stay on schedule; then list the leadership skills you developed while helming the project.
Remember that your resume isn’t merely a way to show what you have accomplished in the past—it’s also one of your best tools to demonstrate what you could accomplish for each organization, and in each role, in the future.
2. Will you do the job?
Are you committed to the mission and/or central issue of the organization? Have you previously demonstrated the work ethic necessary to succeed in this line of work? To nonprofit employers, your visible commitment to and passion for the cause is important to your credibility. In fact, according to Idealist’s 2012 Voices from the Sector survey report for organizations, 86 percent of hiring managers say that understanding their organization’s mission is a very important quality in an applicant, and 88 percent say they consider candidates’ previous volunteer or internship experience with a nonprofit either “somewhat important” or “very important” when making hiring decisions.
So emphasize any previous experience you’ve had with the mission of the organization, whether through volunteer service, work, or education. Highlight your commitment to other issues if you think it’ll describe other relevant skills you have, but concentrate on the focus of the org in question.
3. Will you fit in?
Do you speak the language of nonprofits (i.e., do you know when to say “organization” rather than “company”)? Do you exhibit enthusiasm for this job, and this place? Do you use language that reveals your familiarity with the organization’s mission? Does your sense of humor resonate with the prospective workplace? Employers want to know that you’ll feel comfortable working in the organization and that your colleagues will get along with you. By the same token, you want to find out if you’d like to work among the staff here, and if you’d be happy coming to work in this office every day.
Your ability to fit in with any organization’s culture is not something you have a lot of control over. It’s like dating—you and your date either have the chemistry to continue, or you don’t. It’s never advisable to try to be someone you aren’t in order to get the job. If you’re passed up for a job that seemed perfect for your skill set, have faith that another will come along that will be a better cultural fit for you.
Bottom line: remember that your cover letter and resume are meant to attract hiring managers’ attention and entice them to invite you (not the other 100 applicants) in to get to know you better. Your application materials are not meant to tell your life story, nor could they. There will be lots more time for that—first in your interviews and then around the water cooler.
Your turn, hiring managers—any other tips for us?