Friday, November 28, 2014

Cover Letter as Final Exam: Some Patterns I Have Seen in Students' Letter

How to write a cover letter for a nonprofit job in latin america
by Ann Abbott

The final exam for my SSPAN 332 "Spanish and Entrepreneurship: Languages, Cultures & Communities" course consists of finding a nonprofit job or volunteer opportunity that interests you in Latin America or in a US-based organization that serves Spanish-speakers. I don't mind putting this on my blog because it's a take-home exam, and students really can't cheat anyway. Their letter has to be specific to them, their community service learning work and their community-based team project.

Each year, there are patterns in the problems I find with the cover letters, and so here is a list of suggestions based on those patterns. They're important to do well on the test. But they're equally important for any job you apply for.

Map the job ad to your cover letter. 

Use the same words that are in the job ad. Consider even organizing your cover letter by providing the information in the same order as it is listed in the job ad.

Use specific examples and explicitly link them to the job. 

Talk about you, but also about the company. You have to explicitly state why your story is pertinent to the company's needs. Make strong, explicit connections between your work experience and the job.

Example: For my community service learning work, I made informational videos for a Facebook group. I see that you also have videos on your website, and I can contribute to making those. Or, I see you don't have videos, but I could make videos with your information.

The organization isn't looking to fulfill you; they need you to fill their needs. 

Don't talk about what the job can do for you. Talk about what you can do in the job, for the organization.

Example: Don't say that you want this job because your passion is to make the world a better place. Tell them that you have demonstrated your passion for social justice through [X experience] and [Y experience], and you can bring your energy to their mission of equal access to high-quality education to children.

Don't assume the reader will make connections
Make sure you emphasize what you might be taking for granted but that is essential for the job.

Example: When you describe your CSL work, be sure to say you did it in Spanish. How else will they know that you can be competent in a job in Mexico, for example. State the obvious, however briefly.

Anticipate employers' concerns. 

Why would we bring a gringo to Mexico? Will he/she actually come? Will they stay or get homesice and run home? Would they be able to adjust to life in a rural setting, for example?

Example: Last year I did an Alternative Spring Break trip in rural Mississippi. Although the precise circumstances in X, Mexico will be different, I want to assure you that I adjusted quickly to [X condidtion] by doing [Y], and I will use similar strategies to adjust to the circumstances of this job.
Add these specific phrases, too:
My Spanish is ___ .
I am willing to move ___ .
I am available by phone or Skype to discuss any concerns you might have and show you my commitment to making this move to Mexico.

Polish your Spanish until it's perfect. 

Go the extra mile in your editing. Use all the resources you possibly can: Word editing Spanish; Google translate for specific words or phrases; someone who can edit (not write!) your letter, etc.
Here are some common problems:

Vocabulary. Use "puesto" (not posicion) unless the job ad uses a different word. Same for solicitar versus aplicar, solicitud versus forma.
Grammar. Be particularly mindful of these common mistakes: use of the a personal; use of the subjunctive to talk about the job: Quiero un trabajo que me permita.... en que pueda...

Talk about the results of your work. 

Instead of just describing the work that you did in your CSL work (or other work), tell what you actually accomplished.

Example: I started a jump rope program and X number of students participated. The teacher/parent feedback included statements like, "Quote them."

Make it easy for them to see your work online.

Include links to work that you have done on-line. For a real job application, consider creating an on-line portfolio of some type.

Don't start out too brash.

Each semester I notice that students' first paragraph tends to be too American in style. Too strong. Too pushy. I think that this is probably a model that is taught as the right way to do things, and it might even be the right way to do things in the US. Or in certain sectors (finance!) in the US. Otherwise, I'd say to tone it down. You don't have to say that you are the "perfect" candidate for the position.

Use the book.

Even though the instructions say to use information from the book, no one ever does. Can you tell them that you have studied risk assessment models? Can you tell them that you studied how to evaluate potential cause marketing opportunities? If it is pertinent to the job, include information from the readings, classroom activities and projects.

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