Internships can be a useful way to gain experience in a professional environment or explore an industry, and determine if it’s the right fit for you. But if you’ve completed a prior internship only to realize you’re interested in a different career field, or if you’re applying to your first internship without past experience, it might be tricky to break into the professional world.
If your resume entries don’t exactly align with the position you’re applying for, your cover letter can actually come in handy, rather than serve as another obstacle in the job application process. You can use your cover letter as an opportunity to communicate your career shift and reframe your prior experiences to better tie into the role you are applying for.
- Take advantage of the introductory paragraph
In the first paragraph of a cover letter, you should introduce yourself, as well as explain why you are interested in the position. If your resume highlights past experience that doesn’t directly translate to the position or industry you are applying for, use your cover letter to explain what draws you to the position.
Beyond reading the job description, scour the company’s website, so you can add detail in your cover letter to demonstrate that you are diligent and committed to the company. For instance, you can explain why the company’s mission resonates with you, or mention specific accomplishments that you were especially impressed with, and why.
If there is someone in your network who works at the company you are applying for, set up a conversation with them before you submit your job application. They may be able to provide more details about the company culture and the experiences you could gain. You can reference their insights in your cover letter, so you can go beyond just regurgitating the buzzwords straight from the company’s site.
Companies might look to your prior experience as an indicator of your interest in a given field, but if that’s not applicable to you, you need to spell out why you are interested.
- Remember: Depth over breadth
Your cover letter should not simply regurgitate your resume entries. It should consist of an introductory paragraph and two or three body paragraphs, totaling roughly one page in length. Rather than just rattling off all of your experiences, only highlight a select few in your cover letter. Use your experiences to tell a story about the impact you made on the organization or what you learned in your role. So, if you don’t have a *ton* of experience, that’s OK; focus on conveying your skills in an in-depth, compelling way through a few handpicked experiences.
For instance, say you write for your school’s newspaper, but you are applying for marketing roles. You could explain how that experience has fostered your attention to detail, ability to submit work within a strict deadline, and your understanding of how to tailor your writing style to fit a specific brand or voice.
- Demonstrate how you have made an impact
Employers want to know about your work ethic because they’re looking for candidates who have made an impact on the organizations that they are involved with, regardless of what those organizations actually are. If you are involved in any clubs or hold leadership roles on campus, being able to demonstrate your contributions and impact is still important, even if that organization has nothing to do with the position you are applying for.
Maybe you’re on the executive board of a community service organization, but you’re not interested in advocacy or non-profit roles. You can use the fact that, for example, you were able to raise more money for your club than a previous year through a new fundraising initiative that you came up with to demonstrate that you get things done. If you can demonstrate to employers that you are a productive employee, they will feel more confident in training you and teaching you the relevant skills on the job.
- Highlight transferable skills
I spoke with Deb Brunetti, associate director of the Hale Center for Career Development at Connecticut College, who tells Her Campus that sometimes “experiences that students have on the surface seems not relevant to something they want to apply to, but if they dig deeply enough they can make those skills relevant.” Instead of just highlighting the tasks you completed, she advises to talk about the skills you used in carrying out those tasks.
Brunetti gives the example of working at an ice cream shop over the summer: If you talk about the fact that you collaborated as a team to ensure efficient operations or cleanliness, and that you contributed to a certain percentage of return customers through your service, or that you problem-solved when things didn’t go to plan, then that ice cream scooper job can become relevant. Were you a nanny during school vacations? Use that experience to highlight your excellent communication skills, ability to assume a high level of responsibility in a high-pressure situation, time management, and organizational skills.
- Don’t forget your academic experiences
Your academic experiences are just as important as your extracurricular activities, especially if you are an underclassman who may have not completed an internship before. If your major aligns with the position you are applying for (for example, if you are an accounting major interested in an accounting internship), explaining the types of work you’ve completed in your classes is a straightforward way to demonstrate your interest in and knowledge of the field.
Even if your major might not seem directly relevant to your career aspirations (say, if you are an English major interested in law), you can focus more on the types of work you have completed rather than the content of your classes.
If your classes involve a lot of group work or presentations, for example, Brunetti suggests using this experience to demonstrate your communication and public speaking skills. If you take writing-intensive courses, Brunetti recommends highlighting this experience as a career competency by discussing skills such as editing, reading through a critical lens, or synthesizing a lot of research material into a written paper.
While you can finesse your cover letter to a certain extent, you should still be somewhat realistic and apply to a mix of dream roles as well as positions that may be more within your reach due to prior experiences or alumni connections. Remember that each job or internship is not the end-all-be-all of your professional trajectory, but rather, only one step along your career journey.