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Careers Café

Treating your cover letter as a work plan

When applying for jobs where you have zero experience, use your cover letter to discuss what you would do in the role, rather than just what you have done in the past.


If you’re lucky, when you’re writing cover letters, you’ll have an abundance of relevant material to draw on from your work history. “Lucky” is a matter of context, of course, since roles for which you have lots of experience may offer you little opportunity for growth.

If you find yourself applying for roles that are a bit of a stretch, you won’t have a glut of experience to describe in your letter. It still makes sense to include your most relevant experience, and to lead with your best material. But you may need to take a slightly unconventional approach to showcase your abilities.

To do this, expand your letter to discuss what you would do in the role, rather than just what you have done in the past. In order to use this approach effectively, you can’t offer vague reassurances about your potential. Instead, treat your cover letter as a very brief work plan. If you haven’t had experience evaluating programming, for example, you can still say that you would evaluate new programming within X days of launching it, using criteria you would develop in collaboration with the programming’s funding partner. You aren’t laying claim to skills you don’t have, but are giving a window into your thoughts on how you’d manage key tasks of the role.

This approach is easier with research to support it. Find out what you can about the organization and the challenges you’d be facing, whether through news coverage, reports and SWOT analyses that a company has published, or through networking. For example, it might be through networking that you find out that there is a need for more thorough evaluation of programming, or a more collaborative approach with funding bodies.

Whatever the information you uncover, the same basic approach applies: consider the problems that you would be responsible for solving, and summarize how you would solve them.

As with any application, it’s up to the selection committee to decide whether what you have to offer is enough. But the problem-solving approach gives you a way to showcase potential, while still offering the employer material they can use to compare you to other candidates, and better understand how they would benefit from hiring you. Just as you want an employer to give you a chance, organizations want to find people who can do what needs to be done.

Liz Koblyk
Liz Koblyk is the associate director of the Wilson Leadership Scholar Award at McMaster University.
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