“How do I write a good application?” That’s a question I get asked a lot. A big reason for this I think is that it is very hard to get feedback for applications a lot of the time – be it for a volunteer position, scholarship or job people just tend to be told that they were not successful and are left wondering why that is. In my experience, a key part can be the essay or cover letter. These are the best opportunities for you to make yourself stand out from the crowd and can be the key to success. Today, I am gonna share my top four tips on how to make the most impact from your cover letter or essay.
1. Make Them Want You
In a lot of applications I tend to see a focus on how much the writer wants the opportunity. People put a lot of word count towards how much they want to attend a conference, or they want to spend time with volunteers they met previously or want to work for a company. Wanting the opportunity is of course important, but sometimes I’ve seen applications focus on what the applicant wants. Here’s the thing though – everyone else wants it, too, so that alone is not enough.
There is usually a lot of competition for these sorts of opportunities and a volunteer or scholarship essay needs to be approached with the same mindset as you’d approach a cover letter for a dream job application – if you want to be successful you need to make the reader want you as much as you want the opportunity.
In short, you need to pitch yourself. How to do this can be a subject of a blog post on its own, but to get you started: talk about why you’d be good at the tasks expected of you, including whether you’d enjoy that sort of work. In the case of a scholarship opportunity, talk about your interest in the goals the scholarship is trying to achieve and how that is relevant to your career goals. Don’t worry if you don’t have relevant experience or skills to draw upon, sometimes stating your ambitions and how this opportunity will give you the chance to develop the specific skills you need to meet them will be enough to make you stand out. Your main goal should be to make sure that anyone reading your essay or cover letter will say “Wow, this person is awesome! I want them here”.
2. Make It Relevant
Often, I see applications that appear to be a one size fits all résumé or cover letter. There’ll be a lot about the achievements a person has and their career up to now. While in many cases those achievements can be impressive, they may not actually relevant to the opportunity, position or scholarship.
Personally, when I am judging an essay or cover letter the first thing I do is scan the text for keywords or phrases relevant to the opportunity – for example if I was judging an essay for a coaching or mentor training program I would look for mentions of teaching/coaching experience or a general desire to help people be their best selves. If I don’t find anything relevant that alone could be enough to sink an application.
For scholarships and volunteering opportunities, before starting your application essay make sure to read the objectives of the program to see what sort of work you’ll be doing or the sort of social issues they are focused on. Make this info the foundation on which you build your essay – loop everything you say back to those key areas. It is not enough to say that you are awesome in general, you need to focus on how your awesomeness is relevant to the program.
For job applications, I would recommend writing a new cover letter from scratch for each position you apply for and use a similar approach as I described for the essays. This will help ensure that it can be targeted to the specific position and company. In addition, fiddle around with your résumé to suit the position or company you are applying for – give additional space to previous roles that are relevant and cut down those that have no real bearing other than filling a gap.
3. Know Your Audience
When you are writing an application you aren’t just sending text to a selection machine – your application is going to be read by judges connected to the organisation, be that a hiring manager or a selection committee. You may not know who specifically will be reading it, but with research you can make some good guesses on what they will stylistically like or dislike. This ties a lot into the previous points, but it is more targeted at showing how you are in sync with the culture and goals of the organisation.
The best way to do this is to take some time looking up the organisation running the program, anyone who may be sponsoring it and previous successful candidates. Try to figure out what the organisation values and genuinely apply that knowledge in your application. Finally, if you know people involved in the organisation feel free to ask for advice – find out what they want directly! Which leads me to the next point:
4. Utilise Your Network Effectively
Networking is a huge part of the gaming industry and common, unspoken benefit offered in many scholarship and volunteering opportunities. However, time and again I see people who aren’t using the connections they are building to their benefit.
Typically, the most common way I’ll see networking misused is through name dropping in an application without adding relevance or context. The applicant may list people who they know or worked with before but leave it at that. Maybe sometimes they’ll offer generic praise towards someone they view as a key decision maker for the organisation they are applying for. Generally, this is something you should avoid – if references are needed they’ll ask you to submit contact info and those people will sell you in their own words. In the worst case, you might be seen as trying to butter up that key decision maker, which depending on the person or the filtering process could be detrimental!
The best way to utilise your network is in preparation for your application – seek out connections who might offer guidance or additional info to help in writing your essay or cover letter. Also make sure to ask them for further details about the opportunity or role itself. In this case, not only will you be armed with information that can help make your application stand out, but this sort of preparation tends to be looked on favourably and could lead to a valuable reference.