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What makes a stellar cover letter?

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What makes a stellar cover letter?

December 4, 2020

by Meredith Warren from The London School of Economics

As a young professional, it is vital to know what experiences and skillsets to highlight when writing a cover letter; even more so for a United Nations internship application. In this ever-changing and increasingly-virtual job market, applying for an internship can be daunting and permeated by uncertainty. While an excellent résumé is always essential, a top-notch cover letter can be the difference between your application being discarded or shortlisted for an interview. Therefore, it is important to keep three factors in mind when crafting a cover letter.

First, never submit a generic letter. A letter that is not tailored to the position is not only less likely to be considered but is wasted potential. A cover letter is your opportunity to impress recruiters. While it may seem obvious, make sure to closely read the position details to incorporate the relevant skills into your personal narrative. What makes you a good fit for the position? What initially attracted you to the organization? If you tailor a cover letter to the organization or specific position you are applying for, it illustrates to recruiters that you have initiative and did your homework.

Take for instance my experience at the Supreme Court of Texas. I worked for the Texas Access to Justice Foundation where I helped the judicial system of Texas become more accessible and equitable. In order to increase my chances of getting an interview and the position, I made sure to conduct in-depth research about the Texas judicial system and the Court itself. In my cover letter, I displayed clear knowledge of the kind of work the Foundation carried out and the duties of the position I was applying for. In the end, I was contacted for an interview and eventually was offered the job. Showcasing your knowledge of the organization is paramount.

Second, make sure to highlight previous experience that is the most closely related to the position. If a past position that is perhaps less reputable than another but developed a skillset that more closely matches the one in the posting, talk about it. While it is of course advisable to underscore past experiences that reflect well on you, it is equally important to demonstrate that you have the required skills. For example, say you are applying to an internship at the UN in the ombudsman’s office. If you were previously an intern at a high-profile human rights non-governmental organization but, also had work in a small law office completing tasks similar to ones you would perform at the ombudsman, discuss and draw out more insights from that experience. Relevant previous experience, no matter where it took place, is your friend when writing a cover letter.

Third, always be confident! Writing about yourself can be an enormous challenge. Cover letters are a fantastic way to illustrate that you are sure of yourself and your abilities. It is important that the person reading your cover letter knows of your accomplishments and what you would bring to the table as a potential team member. Some people will emphasize the importance of having a ‘personal brand’ and, while that may be a helpful way to frame the exercise of writing about yourself, do not overthink it. Write multiple drafts of your letter and try to communicate your excitement for the opportunity and your authenticity. It may even be helpful to consult colleagues or friends who know you well.

At the end of the day, you know yourself better than the internship recruiter does so it is imperative to develop a compelling narrative about why you deserve the position. After many years of writing cover letters and applying, often unsuccessfully, for internships and positions at many organizations, I finally feel as though I have a solid grasp on my ‘professional story’ and what makes me a valuable team member. For example, I often reference my past academic research on human rights and international institutions and why I care so deeply about my subject. I have developed the ability to relate my research interests to the relevant job. Indeed, critical thinking, analysis, writing, and research skills are often widely transferable and can be molded to fit positions across an array of disciplines.

This realization led me to apply to internships that perhaps I would not have considered before– I applied for an internship with the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development and was offered an interview. Though the topic of trade and development was out of my academic comfort zone, I was able to use my previous relevant experience to craft a narrative about myself that was compelling and illustrated that I was a competent researcher and analyst. Writing about yourself is a terrific exercise and can perhaps even broaden professional horizons.

As a postgraduate student in my 20s, I have had some really interesting volunteer experiences, internships, and jobs that have shaped and informed my professional career thus far. Even more so, my academic interests and worldview have been transformed by the skills I picked up along the way. While it is daunting to throw your hat in the ring and apply for sought-after positions, particularly those at the UN, by putting your best foot forward in your resume and cover letter, you are increasing your chances of success. As such, once you practice and hone these three cover letter skills, writing one will become much easier. Overall, make sure to use your cover letter as an opportunity to confidently communicate your unique skills and experience. The UN internship search is famously lengthy and detailed. With a wonderfully written cover letter that is perfectly tailored to fit the position description, your chances of being contacted for an interview are much higher. Best of luck!

In pursuit of its mission, OpenIGO has prepared support and guidance services, with the aim of highly increasing your chances of success in these competitive selection processes. These services include revising your application documents (curriculum vitae/resume and cover letter) and a mock interview. We also offer a range of packages that combine our eBooks with different services.

OpenIGO – Application Review Services

OpenIGO – Mock Interviews


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