Launching a career in social change: Résumé and cover letter tips for college grads

I’m getting some great questions about job hunting from the class of 2013! Over the next few weeks, I’ll update and repost some of my best advice from earlier articles. This was originally written for Nonprofit Career Month in 2009.

So you’ve decided to explore a career in the nonprofit sector.  Great!  However, if you’re a recent college grad, writing a résumé for your first job out of college is tough. Unlike traditional résumés where you can highlight previous experience that is most likely connected to the job for which you are applying, time in college is often characterized by random jobs and classes that don’t go together. How can you package and present your experiences in a way that demonstrates you’re a good fit to a potential employer?

What you want to send to potential employers is not a traditional resume but rather a Career Launching Résumé (CLR). Lauren Friese over at TalentEgg.ca defines a CLR as a résumé that focuses on your assets, demonstrates your interest in the position, stands out, and is written like a sales proposal. What do these four characteristics look like when applying for a job in social change?

Your Assets:

You need to demonstrate to an employer that you can do the job well and fit into the organization’s overall mission. What skills are your bringing to the table that will meet an employers need?

Showcase accomplishments not just duties: If the job you are applying for wants management skills, give data that shows how you secured a partnership or followed through with a successful project. Throughout your cover letter adopt the language of the organization to connect what you did and who you are with what the organization needs.

Your Interest:

A common piece of advice given when applying for nonprofit jobs is to demonstrate passion for the organization and its mission. But what does passion look like in a résumé?

Highlight any academic research related to social change: Did you use your thesis to examine the impact of educational policy on a local community? Have you explored business practices that address poverty or expand employment opportunities? Integrating social issues into research is a great way to show passion while developing writing and critical thinking skills. Since you are just graduating from college, this information should be at the top of your résumé and listed under your college.

Emphasize service and fit: In the cover letter, discuss the organization’s track record and how your skills can fit in with their future plans. If you have done community service before, put it on the résumé and describe. Organize your résumé chronologically but use subheadings and titles that demonstrate the skills and experience applicable to the job. Instead of saying “Relevant Work Experience” try “Community Leadership Experience.” If the job is managerial or administrative related, use related words in your titles and descriptions.

Standing Out:

Many of us have heard of the frightening statistic that most hiring managers only spend 30 second per résumé which means you have less than a minute to catch someone’s eye. How can you make a person keep reading?

Get a personal contact: 90% of all jobs are filled by referral. Try having an informational interview with someone at the organization you would like to work at and use that person as a segue into a job, or tap into your networks (alumni are great for this!) for contacts. Look into organizations that your college has a great relationship with and see if they are hiring. Make sure to mention personal contacts in your cover letter.

Selling Yourself:

In the end you are selling a product: YOU. It is crucial that the packaging is put together and there are no surprises. What is your best presentation?

Proofread and share: Print your résumé and cover letter out and read it the day after your write it to scan for mistakes. Share your résumé with peers for some fresh eyes to ensure that everything you’ve written makes sense and is easy to navigate.

Use social media wisely: “Googling” is all the rage these days. Make sure your internet presence is clean and interesting. Try starting a blog to build yourself up as a thought leader in the field or simply to discuss pressing issues in social change while developing your communication skills. Use LinkedIn to keep people up to date on projects you are working on while connecting with others who share your passion.