1. Expand on your CV, don’t just repeat it.
Your cover letter is the chance to “colour in” the sketched profile that you have conveyed in your resume or application form. Use this opportunity to convince the employer of the added value that you bring. Through your application, the prospective employer will be aware of your most recent positions, and perhaps even your main responsibilities. Go further and tell them how these have shaped you professionally, and most importantly link this back to the position you are applying for; how has this experience prepared you for the role in a way that sets you apart from other candidates? Try to do this succinctly and clearly, bearing in mind that your cover letter will be read in a matter of minutes, maybe less.
2. Tailor your ‘selling points’
Talking in generalities about how much human rights-related experience you possess, and how well you know the relevant institutional structures, discourses and landscapes is good. Taking the time to research your target audience and to explain just why this experience makes you such a good fit for them, is better. Use this as a chance to briefly show off any specific knowledge or expertise, perhaps linking a recent development in the field back to your passion or enthusiasm for that type of human rights work. This can have the effect of displaying both your sector-specific knowledge and motivation. You can also use this platform to show that your philosophy and ethos align well with the employer, making them more likely to consider you a good fit.
3. Cover the bases
It may sound simple, but if the employer lists a set of essential criteria, make sure you explain briefly how you meet them. If you can, show how you exceed them. Similarly, if the employer lists additional criteria that are merely desirable, look for opportunities to show off. Here, you may well be able to set yourself apart from other candidates.
4. Don’t be generic, be unique
Try to lose unnecessary openings and generic information such as, “I am writing to you to apply for the position of…” This is information that the employer will already know and does not use your limited word count efficiently. Already you will have failed to set yourself apart. Instead, begin with a strong opening link between specific human rights experience, knowledge or a motivation you possess on the one hand, and the position you are applying for on the other. This gives you an excuse to link the two at the outset whilst painting an initial picture of yourself, rather than mentioning the job for the sake of it.
5. Highlight responsibility
If you’re pursuing a career in human rights, the chances are that you have or will gain experience as an intern along the way. It is important that you reflect on this experience and think about how you can highlight to the employer, not just the experience that you gained, but the responsibility you took. One of the dilemmas of the human rights world is the dreaded, endless cycle of internships. You can try to break out of this by convincing a potential employer that you were more than just an intern. Have confidence in how valuable you were and how reliant your team were upon you. Show how flexible you were, or how you coped in a fast-paced environment. If you managed or coordinated a particular piece of work for the team, or if you coordinated other interns, don’t leave this out.
6. Mention volunteering
In the human rights world, volunteering work can set you apart from the competition. Not only can it be a great way to get a more practical perspective to round off your profile, it can have the effect of showing an employer that the values of human rights motivate you, and that you are serious about a career in the field. If you volunteered abroad, this can be even better, as you will be able to use your work as evidence of adaptability, success outside your comfort zone, open-mindedness, or your understanding of cultural sensitivity – all extremely important in human rights-related arenas. If this is something your profile lacks, perhaps have a think about whether and when this might be a useful pursuit (look out for future articles on this subject!).
7. Develop an eye for detail
Sign your letter correctly and cordially. Check the call for applications and address the letter to the indicated person, making doubly certain to spell their name correctly. Often a recipient will not be specified, in which case “Dear Sir or Madam” or “To whom it may concern” will suffice. Formal (British) language rules dictate that “Yours Faithfully” is to be used when the recipient’s name is unknown and “Yours sincerely” in cases where you address a specific named person. This would be advisable if the position you are applying for is based in the UK. However, such rules have generally become more relaxed, and in the international human rights arena, “Yours truly” or “Sincerely yours” are also perfectly acceptable. If you feel it is appropriate, thank the recipient for their consideration before closing.
8. Proof read!
Do it yourself, get a colleague to do it, get your mum to do it, but don’t skip it! It’s predictable advice, but there’s little worse than spending hours on an application, sending it at 23:59, and noticing a host of typos and spelling errors when it’s already too late. Many jobs receive hundreds of applications, and employers will be actively looking for reasons to exclude you – don’t give them one on the first line!
9. Be concise
Incredibly importantly, you should aim to do all of the above in less than one page! This means with at least a small amount of visible white space and sensible margins. It may seem a tricky task, but great blocks of text stretching over two pages will be an instant turn off for any recruiter and you will be behind before you’ve even had a chance to impress them.
10. Don’t admit defeat!
Remember that in this field, you will more than likely be turned down more times than you dare to count. You shouldn’t lose heart! Don’t instantly assume that you are under qualified or that your cover letter must need work. The competition is fierce, and recruiters will always look for as much experience as they can get for their money. The vast majority of employers will never get back to you, so turn any reply you do get, even a rejection email, into a small victory. If you’re feeling particularly brave, call the relevant person for feedback, particularly if you made it to a latter stage of the process. This is more than likely the only way you’ll find out what you can improve upon. In this way, use rejections as a learning process. Reflect on what you might have changed, and go again.