Writing a cover letter is already tricky business. But writing a cover letter for a government job can be a whole other story. Let's get down to the nitty gritty on how we tailor a cover letter to the key words of a government job.
Don’t apply at the last minute and make sure you give yourself plenty of time to take these steps:
- Carefully read the entire announcement before applying. It seems obvious, but each announcement, even in USAJobs, is different and will have different skills needed for the job. Print a hard copy of the announcement and highlight a checklist to ensure you can address at least 3 out of 5 of the skills they’re asking for. Once you highlight their requirements, it will be easier to go back to your own cover letter to address those points.
- Research the agency to which you are applying. Your cover letter is your fist opportunity to express how your mindset and talent matches with that of the organization. Catch the hiring manager’s eye by demonstrating you’ve done your homework and are familiar with the agency’s mission and some of its current programs.
- Get specific. Explain exactly what experiences you have had that make you a great candidate for the position. Don’t just say “I did x,y,and z.” For government jobs, use numbers, dollar amounts, and specify how many years for as much as you can.
Tailor Your Cover Letter
So what does it mean to tailor your cover letter to the job? It’s not just highlighting your experiences and hoping the hiring manager will see a good fit. You have to connect the dots for them and that means making your skills match the required skills almost word-for-word.
First, compare your resume and the job announcement side by side. Highlight the requirements they’re asking for the job and highlight corresponding skills and experiences you have from your resume. Try doing this process in about 15 to 20 minutes. This will also help you practice for interviews since you will eventually be required to quickly recall your job experiences.
And of course, go over your applications materials in depth to make sure you don’t submit any formatting, grammatical, or punctuation errors.
Here is an example of a post from USAJobs with key words in bold:
The Student Trainee (Contract Specialist) – PATHWAYS Intern is a member of a team responsible for the negotiation, award, and monitoring/administration of Federal assistance agreements (grants and cooperative agreements) and contracts for a wide array of research, non-personnel support services, specialized studies and other activities necessary to support the FHWA Headquarter, FHWA Turner-Fairbanks Highway Research Center, State Division Office, and Resource Center program offices. Under close supervision of the Team Leader, the intern will perform the following functions:
- Assists in pre-award and post-award functions involving a full range of procurement actions, typically involving technical services or programs of research and development, specialized equipment or systems.
- Assists with developing requests for applications (RFA), requests for proposals (RFP), and requests for quotations (RFQ). The intern will help to analyze, evaluate, and negotiate proposals and applications for agency contracting and Federal assistance opportunities.
- Assists with acquisition planning, scheduling procurement from time of acceptance through award.
Here’s an example from my undergraduate resume to match with some of the above points:
- Nonprofit Volunteer Coordinator: Oversaw research and development as well as technical production of building Tunnel on campus and acquirement of specialized equipment systems needed for sound and visual media. Cost of production was over $20,000 and took a total of 9 months to plan.
- University Program Board Director: Developed and negotiated over 50 proposals and contracts with speakers and agencies, scheduled and planned 100 events by coordinating facilities, catering, as well as budget of over $30,000.
You’re not going to have the exact same positions as specified in the job announcement. But chances are you’ve had some academic, volunteer, and/or professional experiences that are applicable. Be sure you’re also not making up your skills just to fit the job requirements. Just adjust words in your resume and cover letter to better fit the job vacancy.
Draft the Cover Letter
Now that you have gone through your resume and highlighted matching examples to the job requirements, it’s time to start writing your cover letter. Choose the three most relevant examples from your resume that you can tailor to the position. This is because a cover letter should be no more than 3-4 paragraphs, so you want to be succinct. Use numbers, years, and any dollar amounts to be as specific as possible.
Here’s an example to start off with relevant points highlighted from the above USAJobs vacancy:
Dear Ms. Smith,
As a recent graduate of (xyx program), I am seeking to apply my 4 years of research, administrative, and event planning to a career in public service. I am interested in the Student Trainee Contract Specialist Position because I want to specialize in negotiation, award, and monitoring of Federal assistance agreements. More importantly, I believe my negotiating, evaluative, and analytical skills all would be highly suitable to the position.
The next two to three paragraphs should each draw on a bulleted example you use from your resume elaborating on how your experiences in the position applies to the job vacancy and how it would help you to grow in the role.
Remember, your cover letter is your opportunity to make a good first impression with the hiring manager. It can determine whether or not the hiring manager will even read your resume. While it is a long and tedious process for a seemingly short letter, it’s important to allot the necessary time and research to make sure that your cover letter keeps the potential employer reading.
For more resources on cover letter writing, be sure to check out these posts:
For more reading about millennials in public service, check out this weekly GovLoop series, First 5: Advice from millennial to millennial