how do I write a compelling cover letter when I don’t have much work experience?

A reader writes:

I’m applying for administrative/production assistant jobs, and I don’t know how to start the cover letter. I hate starting with, “I was excited to see a position open…” or, “I’m writing in response to [position title] opening.” The third example I’ve seen, while ideal, doesn’t apply to me: “As [director/editor/higher up title] for ten years, I have made ABC company profit with [specific and impressive statistics].”

I’ve done unpaid art internships, data entry, and a bunch of cashier jobs. That’s it. What major accomplishments could I boast about? I know I have to show the company why I’m their best match. But I don’t know how to do that when I don’t have an actual career, or fancy stats I can show off.

Do you have examples that could help me? Or are there other resources I should look into? I just need a direction to take.

How you open the letter really doesn’t matter as long as it’s not cheesy (“have you been searching for a self-starting visionary with a penchant for data?”) or off-putting (“you’ll never find a stronger candidate than me”). You don’t need a flashy opener — in fact, you’re generally going to be better off without one. “I’d love to be considered for your X position” or “I hope you’ll consider me for your X position” or “I was excited to see your ad for X” are all fine.

The big issue is where to go from there. How do you explain why you’d be great at the job when you don’t have a long professional track record to point to as evidence?

The question you want to answer for yourself before you start writing is this: Why should the hiring manager be excited to hire you? What do you know — that they might not, because it might not be clear from your still-limited resume — about why you’re likely to excel at this job?

If you can’t answer that, you can’t expect someone who doesn’t know you to figure it out. So step one is to get really clear on that in your head. At this stage in your career, it might not be direct job experience. But maybe you’re a highly driven person who lives for data and plays around in Excel for fun. Maybe your summer job wasn’t directly related to this one, but you were continually lauded for how diplomatically you dealt with customers, and the job you’re applying for has a client service focus. Or maybe you’re like the person I once hired for an assistant job who talked in her cover letter about how her friends teased her about her obsessive organization because she color-coded her closet and used a spreadsheet to organize her music.

I don’t know what the answer is for you — but to put forward a good candidacy, you’ve got to figure out what “evidence” exists in your background, traits, skills, or experience that demonstrate “hmmm, yeah, this person might do really well in this role and here’s why.” It doesn’t have to be strictly work-based, as long as you can compelling tie it to what you’d be doing on the job.

Another way to think about this: If you were explaining to a friend why you think you’d be great at this job, what would you say? It’s probably not just about what’s on your resume, but about skills, orientations, approaches, talents …. and your cover letter is the place to convey that.

Of course, you can’t just assert “I have talent X” because that’s not especially credible or convincing. You need to demonstrate it. For example, while “I have great initiative” tells me nothing concrete or reliable, “I founded and led a campus drive to raise funds for a rice sculpture of the university president, exceeding our targets by 20%, and was able to get the piece featured in Rice Sculpture Weekly” shows me initiative (and that you have weird hobbies). Similarly, “I have great communication skills” is meaningless fluff, but “In my volunteer work, I’m regularly turned to as the person who can explain our not-easy-to-understand X process to new volunteers” has weight.

(To be clear, once you do have more work experience, you want to draw your evidence from work history, for the most part. But when you don’t have it yet, hiring managers understand that and this approach makes sense.)

{ 86 comments… read them below }

  1. Not the Droid You are Looking For*

    Do you have anyone from your internship who can look at a letter for you? Or someone who is a PA who can look one over?

    1. Liane*

      This. When I decided to pursue a freelance editor job at Big Gaming Company, it was a new field for me, except for my Copy Editor side job at the blog, which was too new for me to have a track record. A game developer/writer who had worked on BG Co’s games not only gave me great feedback on my resume and cover letter (both tailored to position), he let me see the ones he used so I could see what worked.

    2. JM*

      OP here–
      That’s actually a good idea. I’ve gotten my administrative/data entry jobs through a temp agency that has been supportive to me, I can ask them. It’s been a few years since I did the internships, but I’ll try to contact them too. Thanks!

  2. Artemesia*

    I’m betting that in an art internship, cashier job and data entry position, and in activities you undertook in school that you have the grist for the cover letter. There will be some concrete examples of something that makes you a credible choice for the job.

    1. fposte*

      I hire a lot of young people just out of college, and that’s exactly what they do with this kind of history. This is plenty to work with.

    2. Shell*

      Yup. You (probably) won’t get to say “increased revenue by 20%” in an art internship or cashier jobs, but the point is to demonstrate why and how you’re an excellent worker. They can be things like “created autofill templates for form letters which lessened the time required for writing correspondence” or “top 5 fastest cashier on staff” or “had a reputation of making the scanner work when no one else could”. (I figured out the secret to scanning a certain type of gift card that wouldn’t scan for anyone else: the scanner had to be scrupulously clean–freshly wiped–and you had to bend the card slightly in the curve of your hand and sweep it past the scanner very slowly. I never had a problem scanning these gift cards when most cashiers–even ones who had been there for 8+ years–couldn’t get any of them to scan for love or money.)

      I’m sure you can find something to write about, OP!

        1. Shell*

          It was a combination of stubbornness (those cards had scanned before, if unreliably, so I knew the scanner was capable of picking up the barcode) and trial-and-error. I had a 10-15 minute period where my line was dead, and I just picked up a stack of those cards and kept scanning them until they worked. :)

  3. SirTechSpec*

    I work in higher ed and I would pay good money to see a rice sculpture of our last president. OP, if by some twist of fate Alison’s example applies, definitely play that up! XD

    1. JM*

      OP here–No I haven’t done a rice sculpture, but I did make flowers out of cigarettes for a class. It wasn’t meant to have any compelling meaning (it was the only thing I could think of for that assignment), but the teacher absolutely loved it, and put her own deep interpretation into it.

      At least the rice sculpture would smell nicer!

    2. Artemesia*

      I worked for an institution that when the President left packets of cool aid were left on his doorstep so yeah — a rice sculpture of him too.

  4. Turanga Leela*

    I used to open my cover letters with a brief biographical statement: “I’m a recent graduate of Mars University, and I am interested in your opening as a Teapot Analyst.” Boring, but it gets to the point, and it’s not hokey—and I think the boringness is not a big deal if the rest of your letter is good.

    1. Ultraviolet*

      That could backfire if the hiring manager then associates you with Robot House though.

      This is how I’ve started the few cover letters I’ve written so far.

  5. LisaLee*

    It’s ridiculously cheesy, but one of the best pieces of advice I got about cover letters was to look at the specific skills phrasing in the job description and work it into your cover letter (organically of course). So if the job description says “We’re looking for an efficient person who can work collaboratively with a diverse team with excellent organizational skills” then you could take those phrases and do something like this: “As part of my internship at Teapot Artists, I collaborated with other interns to organize X showing which had Y attendees. My experience in retail has also taught me efficiency and excellent customer service, and I’m proud that former managers have called me [insert praise here].” I always get more takers when I use the same descriptors as the job description.

    Also, I think most hiring managers will understand that people applying for entry level positions aren’t going to have the most stunning job history. It’s okay to have examples of skills that don’t seem very impressive in the scope of a whole career (like “I assisted in training other cashiers” or “I worked with other artists to do X.”).

    1. Anonymous Educator*

      Eh, I think that can go a bit far sometimes. If you do it once or twice subtly, it can work, but I’ve seen applicants write cover letters that are essentially a regurgitation of the job posting using all the exact key words. I’m not a bot—I’m a real human being, so that looks very green and fake to me. I’d prefer people leave out the key words and just talk about their actual skills/experience. Maybe that’s just me.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Yes, I see this a lot and it ends up coming across poorly. But certainly look at the job description to get a feel for what they’re emphasizing, and that can guide you in what you focus on in the letter — just don’t parrot the language the way so many people do.

      2. LisaLee*

        That’s true–it has to sound organic and not like you’re parroting the job description. But I do think it’s a helpful starting point for people who aren’t experienced writing cover letters.

        (Also I’ve had more than one job where the hiring manager ran people’s resumes through a keyword search and eliminated the ones without key phrases–but that’s probably got more to do with my industry than anything).

        1. TootsNYC*

          If someone was worried about that, I might personally say, “You say you need someone who can work collaboratively.” and use their words in the introductory phrasing, not necessarily my own example.

        2. Artemesia*

          I have been on hiring committees where at least one member was hung up on the language of the ad like this and so having those echoed in the application and interview were helpful to candidates.

    2. Newbie*

      I don’t think this is cheesy at all and it’s something that I do with my own cover letters. The resume is where specific skills and experiences are listed in a somewhat generic way. I find the cover letter to be a good vehicle for bridging the resume and job ad. As Alison mentioned, it’s important to explain to the hiring manager why you are the best candidate for the role. The cover letter provides an opportunity to list specific examples that highlight how specific skills required in the job have been accomplished in the past in a less formal way than on the resume.

  6. Adam*

    You haven’t had particularly exciting jobs, but they WERE jobs. Your managers must have given you some sort of positive feedback at some point that you could cite? In my current position when I went in for my official one year evaluation my manager and director both exclaimed that they were really happy with me as I had learned the position faster than any new hire that they could remember in the role previously. That isn’t a hard stat per se, but it’s solid feedback from the people who were expressly in charge of evaluating me, so I drop that into my cover letters and interviews as a means of showing potential employers my work ethic.

    1. Terra*

      A lot of cashier jobs, depending on how long they lasted, may not include official feedback. Also customer service is kind of notorious for the fact that it’s almost impossible to get customer complements but you can get a complaint from breathing wrong. That in mind if you do have any compliments from customer service/cashier type jobs it should be fine to play them up since they tend to be fairly rare.

      1. Adam*

        I’ve done retail cashier and fast(ish)-food jobs and while there wasn’t a lot of it there was usually some kind of feedback at some point. Even a stray compliment from a manager could count assuming you have a decent manager that does give at least some compliments.

        Totally feel you on the customers though. A personal point of pride for me is one year ago I took a second holiday job in retail to make extra money in a high traffic electronics store, and one mother was buying a gift for her kid some two days before Christmas and I was her cashier. She was generally pretty grumpy with the whole holiday consumerism process and it was a busy noisy store, and I made her so happy with my customer service she wanted to give me a high five. I’m totally telling that story in my next interview if I can find a good place to bring it up.

        1. Elsie*

          I once located a CD for a customer when other people were having a hard time finding it. She was so happy and excited that she punched me right in the bicep. It was a happy punch, but it hurt like hell. Maybe I should bring that story up in my next interview.

        2. Shell*

          Yeah, cashiers don’t get a lot of compliments, which sucks because they have to deal with the combined wrath of a lot of people.

          My highlights from my cashiering days were 1) being able to scan a certain type of gift card that no one else could (which didn’t get me compliments, per se, but at least didn’t get customers annoyed at me for being unable to scan the thing), 2) one guy telling me “that’s the best packing job I’ve ever seen!” when I packed his groceries, and 3) one of the senior staff mentioning I had one of the fastest checking time on staff. You take what victories you can, I guess.

          1. Adam*

            “Yeah, cashiers don’t get a lot of compliments, which sucks because they have to deal with the combined wrath of a lot of people.”

            And while there are certainly bad cashiers out there, SOOOO much of what causes an issue in a typical cashier-customer interaction is not their fault. The company has a bizarre policy they have to follow, the scanning equipment was used by the Flintstones and now works only on a whim, a deal expired three days ago that you don’t have the authority to extend, on and on ad infinitum.

            I worked for a well-known US department store once between “serious” jobs, and there were days I was flat out embarrassed because of how crappy the place was and there was nothing I could do but hang in there until my next job came along.

      2. Amberrr*

        Part of the reason I left my cashier job was because it was sooo toxic!! Everyone was competing for the attention of the supervisors to get the “cool” tasks off cash, and there was a lot of favouritism going on (the supervisors picked their friends for some of the ones that were actually useful, like cash counting and whatnot), and no one would ever tell you when you were doing good but boy, you’d sure hear when you were doing things wrong! I did hear compliments from time to time but the one that sticks out most in my mind was when I was leaving and one of the store managers told me that she was sad to see me go because I was a good cashier. Like, gee… could I have maybe heard that while I was there?! I heard more nice things from my senior coworkers at my factory job and I worked there for less than half the time I ever worked in retail.

  7. TootsNYC*

    I remember helping a colleague w/ her niece’s resume (the initial request was to proofread/copyedit).

    As I was looking at it, I realized that she showed a ton of initiative in her jobs. She’d taken over the inventory control for the fridge at the college cafeteria, for example.

    So telling just that story: “At the college cafeteria, I became frustrated that we were always out of cheese, so I started watching the supplies and created a form and process for ordering refills before we were out–a move my managers told me they greatly appreciated.” would make her look like someone you REALLY want to have working with you.

    Think of one little story that is: “a good thing I did at that job.”
    You handled a crabby customer; you reorganized the broom storage so sweeping the sidewalk in front of the art gallery was simpler and faster; you managed seemingly repetitive tasks to provide a little more efficiency.

    Do some “pre-writing.” Tell the stories out loud: a good thing I did at that job.
    or, “I thought I was pretty good at that job because….”
    “My former colleagues will remember me because I am the one that….”

    Write them down. See if there’s a trend. See if any of them demonstrate some bigger “quality” that seems like a good fit for that sort of job.

    And then, pick one of them to be “the” story in your cover letter.

    I helped a cousin write a cover letter / prep for an interview for an admin job. Here’s what I told her:
    • pretend you are the hiring manager; what qualities and abilities do you want in your new employee, and what questions will you ask to try to find that out?
    * now pretend you are you; what stories can you tell, or examples can you give, of things you’ve done that prove you have those qualities and abilities? And how would you answer those questions?

      1. TootsNYC*

        It’s really pretty easy–just pretend to be the person you want to understand.

        I’ve never really grown out of the dress-up box phase.

    1. JM*

      OP here–I’ll try that! This also seems really good practice for the interview. And it also helps customizes my cover letters more. Thanks!

    2. VGN*

      I’m going to use your “I got frustrated…” wording for one of the changes I made at my job. Thanks!

  8. TootsNYC*

    Oh, when I real a cover letter, I pay very little attention to the first sentence. I start reading a little further down.

    1. Adam*

      My opening paragraph for cover letters is at most three sentences, citing the position I’m interested in, how I heard about it, and how I’d like to work for the company which I name. It’s totally a copy-paste job with the specific details altered. Definitely no more thought required.

      1. TootsNYC*

        My point exactly! I know all that stuff already, bcs it’s my company and my job, so I skim through that really fast and focus on the 2nd graph. So don’t stress the opening paragraph.

        Most of us know they’re hard to write.

        And, this is not a feature story, where readers often want something enticing. This is news: Who, what, when, where, why and how.

        who = I
        what = am applying
        when = no need to state unless it’s different (“available in September”)
        where = your job
        why = (presumably because you want it; more money, better commute, need a job, I don’t really care, though if you can say, it might be a plus) “ready to move up” / “particularly interested in your company” / “better utilize my skills in X”

        That’s all we need.

    2. So Very Anonymous*

      Yep. Though I will notice if you got the job title/name of organization you’re applying to wrong. I.e. “I am excited to apply for Position X at Organization Y open” — except that we’re Organization Z.

  9. Tammy*

    Based on the experiences I’m having hiring for an admin position on my team right now, just the fact that you HAVE a cover letter puts you ahead of the curve. (Eleven people have submitted resumes for the position so far, and only four of them included cover letters.)

    That said, I concur wholeheartedly with the advice of others: Think about the question the hiring manager is asking her/himself, which is likely some variant of “is this person a good enough fit for the role that I want to move forward with interviewing her?” and give concrete examples that answer that question. Ornate, flowery language isn’t likely to matter much if at all — unless, perhaps, you’re applying for a writing-related job — but clarity and good examples of why you’re a good fit for the role matter a lot.

    For an admin position like you describe, I’d be looking for some evidence of organizational skills, communication ability, ability to juggle multiple tasks without dropping any balls, and perhaps some ability to navigate conflicts. Think about things you’ve done in your life that speak to those things, even if they’re not work achievements. For me, those would be the things to highlight.

    1. TootsNYC*

      I would suggest the OP focus less on “fit,” which can so easily come across as “do I like her?”

      That’s far less important than: “Can she do this job?”

      So, what kinds of things will the admin do?
      More important: What will be the challenges of this job?
      And do you have examples you can give that prove you can handle those challenges.

      For my cousin, I told her to flat-out say: “I’m sure you are looking for someone who can handle unhappy customers. Since I used to be on the front desk and phone for a utility company, I’ve had a lot of experience with that. I did XYZ/short story here.”
      And “I know that people often think admin work is boring–filing seems kind of pointless. You’re going to need someone who recognizes that getting forms filled out, the office supplies ordered in time, and the files kept organized actually makes it possible for the other employees to more efficiently do the core work of the company.”

      My point: the mere fact that she could IDENTIFY the tough parts of the job would be huge in her favor. That’s more than half the battle. And she will have won it in the INTERVIEW, not even on the job.

      (She got the job, btw, and posted on Facebook that she owed it all to me. Preen!)

      1. JM*

        OP here–that is some of the most solid advice I’ve heard. I’ve heard people suggest mentioning how they would handle the challenging tasks of the position in the interview, but mentioning that in the cover letter is certainly a stand out feature. Thanks a lot!

        1. TootsNYC*

          Since you don’t want the cover letter to be a book, once you’ve got that set of abilities/skills/qualities, and all your stories to go with them, pick the one that you think it most powerful.

          Most powerful because:
          -it’s mention in the ad
          -it’s sort of “overarching” (like, “I recognize that the admin work seems boring but is very important; because I was able to take over the paperwork for mailing exhibit material at the gallery, my boss was freed up to recruit new artists. I am proud of being able to contribute to the success of the gallery in that way.” indicates that -whatever- the duty is, you will view it as important, and so might be more likely to succeed than someone who kind of thinks it’s boring)
          -you are particularly strong at it
          -you think it’s kind of unusual
          ->other reason here<

      2. TootsNYC*

        (and I focused on the word “fit” so much that I missed your great list at the bottom of what abilities an admin should have.)

        1. Tammy*

          I don’t use “fit” so much to talk about how much I like a candidate, or even how well I think they’d mesh with the company culture. As a woman who’s spent most of her career in technical roles (and now manages a semi-technical team) I’ve too often seen white heterosexual cisgender males use “not a good fit” or “not a good culture fit” to justify not hiring people who are not also white heterosexual cisgender males. I *do* use “fit” to talk about the match between the candidate’s skills/knowledge/talents and the skills/knowledge/talents that experience tells me would be necessary to thrive in the job. At the end of the day, I don’t do either the candidate or the company a service by hiring someone into a role where they can’t succeed and thrive.

  10. Annalee*

    If you were explaining to a friend why you think you’d be great at this job, what would you say?

    One trick that really helped me when I was trying to figure out cover letters was to flip this around: if my best friends were explaining to the hiring manager why I’d be great at this job, what would they say about me? Talking yourself up can be really intimidating, especially if you’ve been socialized to deflect compliments and not brag. Getting out of your own head and trying to assess yourself through the eyes of someone who unapologetically thinks you’re awesome can help put you in a headspace to talk up your strengths without being cheesy or over-the-top.

    1. TootsNYC*

      It can be hard, right?

      Or, another way: “If my friend had said and done all the things I’ve said and done, and I were talking HER up, what would I say?”

      (I think people don’t have as much trouble with the Golden Rule as they do with its inverse: Treat yourself the way you would treat others.)

      1. Adam*

        Re: Golden Rule. That’s definitely true. When I’ve struggled with self-esteem issues and a lot of negative self-talk one of the bits of advice that really opened my eyes to that is asking myself “So all those really awful things you say to yourself. Would you ever say any of those things to anybody else? (i.e. call other people ‘losers’, ‘idiots’, etc. to their faces with the same vindictive tone).

        Me all wide eyed: “No way! Of course not! Why would I ever….What a second…”

  11. TootsNYC*

    Oh–this thought:

    “exceeding our targets by 20%, ”

    I find that hard when people include this as an example of what to put in a resume or cover letter. I have very, very seldom had a job in which I could quantify anything like that. We didn’t have targets. We didn’t measure anything.
    As a department head, I can now say things about budget, and I can talk about manhours. But none of the people who work for me can do that.

    So what do people like them (and sometimes me) do with that piece of advice? It just discourages me.

    Fortunately, as a boss, I’ve never hired anybody for a job where we’d be measuring, etc.
    So focus on the achievement, even if it’s not numerical.

    Streamlined the process. You don’t have to say how much time you trimmed off.

    Kept even with the data-entry deadlines–that’s an achievement, even if it is baseline.
    (remember that even realizing this is important is a big chunk of the battle, so being able to pinpoint “what is most important to do right in this job” in front of an audience makes you noticeable)

    “Created procedures,” “made my own checklist,” those are achievements.

    “Supervised an exhibition” is an achievement, even if you didn’t conceive and execute the exhibition.

    1. JM*

      Yes! This is one of the main issues I’ve had, and one of the reasons why I wrote to AMA. I’ve never been a manager or a supervisor, it was not my job to keep tab of percentages or budgets.

      I could only tell I was doing something right when I’d get compliments from customers or staff, or when managers would have me train new employees, when they could’ve picked another employee.

      1. TootsNYC*

        OK, so let’s work with those:

        “received multiple compliments from customers and staff”
        “manager said she really appreciated not having to worry about the paperwork”
        “artist thanked me for being proactive in safeguarding her original artwork with insurance and careful packing.”

        “managers relied on me to train new employees”
        “trained nearly all of our new hires during that period”
        “was able to coach newbies faster than other staffers, so became the de facto training officer”
        “developed training materials and coached new employees”

      2. K*

        Similarly, “I have great communication skills” is meaningless fluff, but “In my volunteer work, I’m regularly turned to as the person who can explain our not-easy-to-understand X process to new volunteers” has weight.

        This got my wheels turning. I can think of things people have complimented me on in my jobs, or things friends would say to describe me. Like, my manager often introduces me to new staff as ‘the person who knows everything’. I’m an admin, and if I was hiring someone I’d want them to be reliable/punctual, very organized and able to figure things out on their own/work independently. You can usually relate organized to aspects of your personal life, maybe punctual too. Something like, never being late for a shift, or if you manager complimented your reliability.

    2. Terra*

      I’ve struggled with this too. The best advice to deal with it I’ve found is 1) people like numbers so even if your achievement is just that you created procedures saying “I created 4 procedure to handle x” looks better to people and 2) sometimes you have to make the math up yourself for example if you talked to an average of 10 people a day and all but one of them walked away with what they wanted then you have a 90% success rate in dealing with customers.

  12. Terra*

    Things you did in class also count for this. If you’re the person that everyone asks to borrow notes from because you take very detailed ones and color code them with highlighters then use that in your cover letter. It not only shows your organized and responsible but that you’re approachable as well since no one asks to borrow notes from someone who’s rude to them.

  13. Clever Name*

    “have you been searching for a self-starting visionary with a penchant for data?”

    This line made me spit on my monitor. I really need to find a way to incorporate this into my professional life. Maybe a linkedin quote. Does linked in do quotes?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      People referring to themselves as “visionaries” is my pet peeve. It is very hard for me to get past that in someone’s application materials, and it is surprisingly common.

        1. fposte*

          And I think of William Blake and Joan of Arc, neither of whom would I hire as office staff.

      1. TootsNYC*

        It’s like the concept of having class.

        It’s something OTHER people say about you. If you say you have class, you don’t.

        Or, the use of courtesy titles, like “Mr.” or nobility titles like “Lord.”
        You never introduce yourself with your title. Other people use it when speaking to or about you.

  14. Lily Rowan*

    Like others have said, I’ve hired people with no full-time office experience for entry-level admin positions, and in addition to the great advice you’ve already gotten, I’d add that working at anything while in school is a plus (juggling priorities, meeting deadlines), and if you are excited about the possibility of working in the position or at the place, it’s a great thing to say!

    That said, I’ve used the same cover letter template for years, and I’m pretty sure it just starts with “I’m writing to apply for X position I saw posted on Y source.” That is really the least of your worries.

  15. JM*

    OP here—I don’t have time to reply to every comment, but this has made my week! Thank you Alison and thank you everyone for your advice. Cover letters were always a chore for me but this is making the process easier for me. And it’s good to know I can draw more than just from work experience to elaborate my skills.

  16. Anna*

    OP, just a thought…if you are applying for admin/production assistant jobs, those roles are seen as “support staff”. In your cover letter, you could emphasize how you’ve supported other employees within the companies with your work (attention to detail, meeting deadlines, providing excellent customer services, finding creative ways to improve processes and solve problems, etc.). How did your work contribute to their missions? And then talk about what you could contribute to the mission of the company you’re applying at.

    I wouldn’t lay it on too think, but I think it’s a good way to show that you see the big picture, you’re a team player, and that you’re service-oriented. In the few times that I was on the hiring board for support-staff positions, the applicants who related their experiences in terms of support rated much higher with us. People who didn’t gave the impression that they lacked understanding about what the job entailed, even though they had a similar skill set.

    I would also go through your work experiences with a fine-tooth comb–you’ve probably done more than you realize. Have you ever trained anyone? Have you worked on the company website or created graphics? Do you know how to use Excel? Have you made outstanding presentations for your boss? Have you ever coordinated an event? Have you ever made the best of a difficult situation? Maybe you will find a couple of highlights that you can emphasize in your cover letter. Good luck!

  17. Dan*

    I work “in tech” and the thing that I want to see is CAN YOU DO THE JOB. If you’re in a programming discipline, I want to know what projects you’ve worked on, what technologies you’ve done, blah blah blah. Bonus points if you’ve done something cool at an internship.

    If you’re more on the analytic side, what types of analyses have you done? The better programs encourage their kids to work with data sets they find in the real world. I want to know, can you do data pulls? Can you use that data to solve some analytic problem? What different analytic tools can you use?

    These are the kinds of things that I work with on a daily or near-daily basis, and these are the skills I need to see on your resume. If they aren’t there (or other wise in the cover letter) then I won’t bother reading about what you did as a cashier. For better or for worse, “entry level jobs” tell me that you know how to deal with authority and function in the work place.

    Big big enhancer: If your “entry level” job is somehow actually relevant to work you’re applying for SAY SO. For example, after grad school, I did some analytic work for a HUGE grocery store chain. Granted, I understand grocery stores a little bit because I shop in one, but WORKING in one 5 days a week gives you a better feel for the operation. If you’re applying for analytic roles of a certain function in a grocery store, talk about what you know about those issues.

    Are you applying somewhere that was a major customer of yours and you know their business? Talk about that too.

    I’ve switched fields (don’t do groceries anymore) but stuff I did as minimum wage jobs in college is still very relevant to my very well paying job that I have now, doing transportation research for the government. From time to time, people comment, “damn you’re good at…” and I’m good at it because of my $10/hr experience back in the day. In my early career, I got interviews by talking about the different types of problems I knew about in the industry.

    1. JM*

      Good point. One of the companies I’m applying to was started by a woman, and their market is mainly women and all about empowering female creatives, which attracted me to them in the first place. The application asked for event production experience, and I had thought about adding in my work for a women’s career convention I did for a few days in December. I figure that 1) It counted as event production experience, even as support staff and 2) it would appeal to the mission of the company because the convention was also about female power.

      Would this be a good idea?

  18. OwnedByTheCat*

    I’m hiring for a part-time, entry-level(ish) job right now and am getting a lot of recent graduates applying.

    Here’s what I’m NOT getting in their cover letters:
    -Why they want THIS job (a part time job in this field)
    -Why they want to work in THIS type of work (I get a lot of “I want to work in a nonprofit” not “I want to be a teapot specialist working in the area of teapot history and revitalization”)
    -What experience they have had, even if it wasn’t in the same type of work, makes them qualified.

    What I do get:
    -I want a job
    -I want to work with teapots, in general
    -Here is a lot of really general stuff I’ve done that doesn’t really address this job posting at all.

    The people who tell me why they want THIS job and in THIS profession nearly all get calls back. There are not very many of them.

    1. Dan*

      Do you think people even understand what non profit work is? I get the feeling that many people stereotype the work, without understanding much about what they’re doing.

      I mean, the NFL is a non profit. I work for a very large non profit, doing research for the federal government. (Disclosure: My day-to-day work is the same as what I did at a for profit.)

      How many people actually wan to “work for a cause” as opposed to working on a particular cause? Because you’re right, you want to know that they’re motivated to come to work, and do the work parts that aren’t sexy.

      1. OwnedByTheCat*

        I think you’re right, and I think I’m experiencing even one step beyond.

        People want to work for a cause. Awesome! They’ve identified our cause resonates with them. Cool!

        But in our org we have program staff, administrative staff, financial staff, fundraising staff, marketing staff, PR staff, and so on. And we’re pretty small. Saying “I want to work for a nonprofit” doesn’t tell me why you want to be our accountant, development associate, events manager, administrative assistant, you name it.

        This is particularly important if you don’t have a long work history. I’ve been in the same nonprofit work for 5+ years so when I’m applying to Director of Development jobs and saying “I want to work in school fundraising” It’s clear that’s because I’ve been doing that for the last several years. If you’re just out of school or transitioning to a new career, I need you to help me understand why this position and this type of work .

        1. Anonsie*

          I feel like this is belaboring the point once you get this far, though. For me and the grand majority of people, the answers to those questions is “because I want a job and I am potentially qualified for this one.” I try at least, and it sounds like these folks are, by pointing out I like X org because of their work in Y thing that I care about and I’m suited to Z work because I’ve done Z related things and have Z related interests or something.

          I can’t wrap my head around why that’s insufficient. Being an analyst doesn’t get me off, I’m not on a life long quest to be the best analyst on earth like my father and his father before me, I didn’t stay up all night playing with numbers in college because I found them to be the most fascinating facet of human existence. I have the aptitudes for it, I’m good at it, I enjoy it as much as one can enjoy a job that actually pays, and it allows me to work on projects that have an impact that is significant and meaningful to me. If a letter detailing those points doesn’t fully say what a hiring manager want to hear for the why of all this, then I don’t really know what anyone is supposed to say.

          1. Dan*

            Belaboring the point once who gets how far? Keep in mind that so far this discussion is about college grads who may not have much experience. The question is, is the statement from an applicant “I like X org because of their work in Y thing” actually true? What do you have to back that up? Is it just words on paper? Then, employers also have to separate the “fanboys” from the people who are willing to *work*.

            I mean, you’re right, at a certain point your career speaks for itself. I once had an interview where I was asked, “Have you been to our website?” (Very briefly, took one look and thought, yup, work I want to do.) Out loud, I simply say “Yes” because I didn’t study it in detail. Follow up question: “Which area of our work interests you the most?” (The reality was that distinct areas weren’t obvious to me.) What I said was, “Dude, look at my resume. It’s kinda obvious that pretty much anything you do interests me.” (True statement BTW, and my resume does back it up.) Interviewer looks at me and says, “This is an interview. You have to pick something.”

            But that’s not the conversation I think Cat and I were having. That conversation was about college kids who don’t have a whole lot to show in terms of professional interests.

            All that said, damned if any of us aren’t coming to work for the money. Me? My work pays well and it’s work I want to do. If it didn’t pay well, I’d need to find something else. I wouldn’t do this job for peanuts and put up with guilt trips about the “cause”. Org pays well, we show up, we do our jobs, we don’t hassle each other, and we collect our paychecks every other Friday. But I want coworkers who “want to be here” as opposed to “just a job.” When I’m doing my 40 (I don’t do extra), I want to show someone some cool new thing and hear, “Wow, that is cool.” Not, “get a life, we’re here for the paycheck.” I’ve worked with people who try to do as little as possible and not get fired, and they suck.

            1. Anonsie*

              Keep in mind that so far this discussion is about college grads who may not have much experience. The question is, is the statement from an applicant “I like X org because of their work in Y thing” actually true? What do you have to back that up? Is it just words on paper? Then, employers also have to separate the “fanboys” from the people who are willing to *work*.

              Those are contradictory points, though. These are people who inherently don’t have enough work experience for their history to “back that up” in terms of showing a big story of dealing with Y thing, so I don’t know what you’d be expecting in this case. So what do you think new grads could have that would tell you that they’re willing to work and care about the cause if writing about how they work and care about the case is meaningless words to you? A job history that a new grad couldn’t have, or a heavy community service background that excludes people who had to work paying jobs as students, or what?

    2. T3k*

      Not saying this is the case of every grad that applied, but when I was unemployed for almost a year between graduating and my first job, at one point I ended up just applying to pretty much everything that fell within say, teapot design, out of desperation. I know, I know, not the best thing, but when you’re trying to find a job to pay the bills and student loans at one point “I really want this type of job because I love this and this” becomes “I just want this job so I don’t starve.” But I can see why non-profits really want someone who cares about the cause, especially if they can’t afford the average market salary for a position.

  19. Stephanie (HR)*

    I would encourage you to avoid anything that you think would make you “rise above the crowd.” Gimmicks and flash are not only unhelpful, but for those who have seen the “special” employees and have had to deal with them, seeing “normal” is a great boon. One of the most basic things I want to see in a cover letter is that you understand how to communicate professionally. You have a basic understanding of professional norms. Even if you have never read AAM, and you make a few mistakes, I can tolerate some ignorance. It’s much more difficult to deal with employees who think they are special and the center of the world.

    For example, your cover letter should not list how this job can help promote your future career moves outside this facility, it should tell me what you can bring to the table. Your cover letter should not say that you are certain you would be the best fit for this position, it should say why you think you would be a good fit.

    That being said, there’s a lot of great advice on what TO DO to make a great impression, and you should definitely run with it!

  20. CQ*

    I’ve been starting all my cover letters with “Stop your job search, because here. I. am.”

    I didn’t realize that was off-putting. Gosh, have I got a lot to learn.

  21. Anon9999*

    I’m thankful to the OP for submitting this. Honestly, I’ve been job searching for a while and while I’ve had jobs (similar to how it seems the OP feels) I’m just now attempting to embark on a career. So much career advice seems to be geared towards numerical based statements in cover letters which in my case A) I wasn’t privy to information to in my sales job and B) wasn’t something we compiled while I worked at a small business in order to make an argument for the jobs I’ve been applying for. It’s been a long year of job searching in a tough market, but to read Allison’s response is uplifting and I hope the OP will find it so as well; at least I know now that I’ve been doing what I should be doing all along.

  22. Almond Milk Latte*

    This thread is SO full of great info.

    One thing I haven’t seen — KEEP YOUR COVER LETTERS. My intro is always the same, “Consider me for X position, my experience in YZ positions me for success here” but after that, I insert two anecdotes that demonstrate my skills. I have 4 or 5 main stories that describe how I work saved in a Word doc, and I can just grab the ones that fit and tweak them a bit, or write #6, to be used again next time I apply for a similar role.

    1. JM*

      I agree with this. I’ve applied to many different types of companies, so I use a lot of different examples. Also in that same doc on the second page I copy in the job description for reference.

  23. Kelley*

    “Or maybe you’re like the person I once hired for an assistant job who talked in her cover letter about how her friends teased her about her obsessive organization because she color-coded her closet and used a spreadsheet to organize her music.”
    Color coding your closet is obsessively organized? Then this is going in my next cover letter. (Although I have a spreadsheet for my shoes, not my music.)

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