by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
The college student who has been wise enough (or broke enough) to garner some work experience while in school may hold a competitive edge over the classmate who’s done little more than hit the books for four years. If the work was at the lowest level and outside your field, however, the experience can seem difficult to relate to the first post-college job. How can someone who has been a server in a restaurant every summer portray himself or herself as God’s gift to marketing, for example? How can the retail associate at the mall near the university appear to be a fabulous teacher? How can the low-level office clerk position himself or herself as exactly the person an accounting firm needs?
It’s all a question of breaking down your previous jobs, no matter how lowly they seem, into the skills they provided you with that you can transfer to your ideal post-college job.
Let’s look first at the most global and overarching skills and qualities. If we look at the lists of skills mentioned by hiring managers, recruiters, and career experts alike, we find certain characteristics common to all three:
- Communication skills (oral and written)
- Teamwork/group/interpersonal skills
- Leadership skills
- Work-ethic traits, such as drive, stamina, effort, self-motivation, diligence, ambition, initiative, reliability, positive attitude toward work
- Logic, intelligence, proficiency in field of study
Thus, these five skill clusters can be considered the most important in your first post-college job, and some or all of them will be required in just about any job in your career. You can hardly go wrong if you describe in your cover letter how your previous experience has provided you with one or more of these skills. Talking about the in-demand skills you possess in your cover letter can work even if your past work seems totally unrelated to the job you seek.
Career counselor Patrick O’Brien sums up his list of winning characteristics into just two “career commonalties,” noting that, “whatever a person does, his or her job is to do two things: solve problems and satisfy customers. The problems and customers can be tremendously different depending on the field,” O’Brien says, “but at the end of the day, that is what a person is paid to do. On a global level, employers are looking for the same characteristics.” Beyond these commonalties and the five skill clusters, experts mention additional sought-after skills and characteristics, including:
- Organizational skills
- Entrepreneurial skills, a popular contemporary buzzword that encompasses the skills that people use when they start their own businesses. These skills include the capacity to be a self-starter, the ability to manage projects, and a talent for marketing oneself.
- Critical thinking and problem-solving skills
- Ability to acquire new technical, analytical, computer or foreign-language skills quickly
- The ability to sell ideas and persuade others
- Creative problem-solving talents
- Ability to follow orders
Now, let’s look at some lower-level jobs that college students typically hold while in school and examine how — in a single paragraph — these students can describe these jobs in their cover letters in terms of transferable and applicable skills that relate to post-college jobs they’re applying for:
- Server in restaurant seeking entry-level marketing position
- Retail associate seeking teaching position
- Office clerk seeking entry-level accounting position
- Babysitter/nanny seeking position as management trainee
- Bank teller seeking entry-level position in a stock brokerage
- Fitness instructor seeking entry-level position in health care
- Campus computer-lab assistant seeking position in consulting
- Resident advisor/Resident assistant seeking sales position
- Telemarketer/phone survey taker seeking position in hotel management
Here are two more excerpts from cover letters that effectively exploit transferable and applicable skills:
- I have held a number of marketing internships, and I am quite experienced with computer technology. As an information technology minor, I have designed systems, configured databases, and created my own Web page. You can visit my site at http://www.mcnet.edu/~jjasperson. The Internet marketing course I’m taking next semester will give me even more Web experience. I really enjoy working with computers and am convinced I could be a solid asset to the growing environment at Palmetto Technologies.
Through my marketing internship experience, I have learned a great deal about what it takes to succeed in the business world — good communications skills, flexibility, creativity, and an open mind. I am confident I have all the qualities and more to contribute to Palmetto.
The writer of the next example, who seeks a position with a scenic design firm, does a good job of acknowledging that the job she wants requires the ability to be a self-starter, as well as teamwork skills, and she tells how she acquired both those characteristics:
- Some art work is solo, while some projects require the collaborative efforts of many hands, I work well independently as well as in teams; my first job was as a self-employed jewelry maker and seller. As a two-sport varsity athlete, I also know what it takes to achieve team goals.
Go back to Quintessential Careers: Transferable Skills
Adapted from Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates, by Katharine Hansen.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker’s Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.
Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., creative director and associate publisher of Quintessential Careers, is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for Quintessential Careers, edits QuintZine, an electronic newsletter for jobseekers, and blogs about storytelling in the job search at A Storied Career. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Study Skills (Alpha). Visit her personal Website or reach her by e-mail at kathy(at)quintcareers.com. Check out Dr. Hansen on GooglePlus.
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