Cover Letter Tips: Skills vs. Transferable Skills

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By: Ryan Standil

Many of us have made meaningful contributions to our local and global communities.Fundraising, volunteering, and helping individuals with special needs are just three examples of how we give back. Since these activities are so gratifying, we often want to emphasize them in our cover letters. But does writing about community involvement actually increase our chances of being hired?

The answer is: it depends.

It depends on how we frame the discussion – which is why the title of this blog post is “Skills vs. Transferable Skills”. Employers are looking to hire candidates with not just any skills, but with the exact skills needed for the position being filled. This latter type is known as transferable skills.

To use an example of community involvement, a person who works in a soup kitchen will develop some skills that are critical for thriving in a new job, along with other skills that are not as relevant. In a one-page cover letter, candidates who waste space by describing the irrelevant skills will lessen their chances of being hired.

An excellent transferable skill is time management, and candidates develop it through all types of community involvement. Anyone who serves as a volunteer should proudly announce, in a cover letter, that he or she was a busy student or professional and still found time to include community involvement in his or her routine. Effective time management demonstrates the ability to juggle multiple assignments, which is an attribute that all employers covet.

In addition to finding people who can manage their time, employers are looking for: hard workers, good communicators, team players, leaders, and most of all, people who are smart!

Yet even with that list in mind, job candidates should be selective in deciding which skills to emphasize. Instead of asking yourself what you’ve done in the past, ask yourself what will be required of you in the future. If you’re applying to retrieve shopping carts for a grocery store, being a hard worker is much more important than being a good communicator. On the flip side, for the cashiers, communication is key.

In my own experience, I volunteered as a basketball coach for players with autism, after which I applied to law school and then eventually to work at a law firm. One of the skills I sharpened as a basketball coach was teamwork, since we had a team of coaches who had strictly defined roles and varying leadership styles. When I applied to law school, teamwork was not the most important item to highlight, as law students receive very few group assignments. In my application, it was more important to focus on other attributes, such as work habits and book smarts. But at the end of law school, when I applied for a job, it was critical to emphasize teamwork in my cover letter, because I would constantly be working on files with the other lawyers at my firm.

Finally, as this blog suggests, an even worse trap than focusing on irrelevant skills can be going into great detail about the gratification we receive from community involvement. In my case, mentioning that my volunteer position “put a smile on the faces of the players and coaches” would not have been relevant in applying to work as a corporate lawyer. It would have made more sense to write about this if I had been applying to a field such as education or social work.

So tailor your cover letter accordingly. By focusing on the skills that will transfer to your new job, you will set yourself apart from other candidates. This advice applies equally to describing community involvement as it does to previous employment experience.

About the Author:

Ryan Standil is the founder of Write To Excite. Through his company, he teaches a workshop at Canadian businesses on the topic of great writing. Ryan's interactive program leaves audience members with a guide for drafting e-mails and documents that are easy to read.

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