Even after you’ve educated yourself about development, built some useful skills, and possibly done an unpaid internship, you still need to document these abilities and experiences so that potential employers can easily understand them. When I was hiring for entry-level positions at IPA last year, I read every CV and cover letter I received – but the volume was so high that in practice I was skimming quickly for A) relevant skills, B) time spent in low income countries, and C) an understanding of what IPA did. If an applicant had these, I would typically interview them, even if they addressed me as Mr. Strohm in the cover letter. (Always Google the recruiter’s name if you’re not 100% certain about their gender.) The goal of your CV is to document items A and B in detail. Your cover letter should discuss item C, and tell a coherent story about how you’re building skills (items A & B) to pursue a career in development.
As many items as possible on your CV should be development related. If you’ve taken courses in the social sciences, public health, engineering, area studies, or any other field that’s even vaguely germane to development, list them in your Education section. If you can’t think of any related courses, consider taking a development-focused class online (like these at MRU University and EdX), through your community college (like this course on the geography of the developing world at my local college), or through a university’s non-degree program (like this course on humanitarian aid to Africa at Northwestern University School of Continuing Studies). You’ll get a lot out of it, and it will be a useful signal to potential employers that you’re serious about switching career directions.
The other things that should be listed in your Education section are foreign study experience; any independent research experience, like a thesis or capstone project; your GPA; and any academic honors. Foreign study and academic honors are self-explanatory. Independent research experience shows that you can think critically about a subject and work well on your own, which is a different skill set than that required to do well in classes, and probably closer to the set of skills needed to work in an office. If you don’t list your GPA, a reader might assume that you’ve left it off because it’s very low.
Your Professional Experience section should also focus on positions which allowed you to build relevant skills or spend time in the developing world. If you spent three months or more in a position which didn’t even build up relevant skills, it’s good to leave it on your CV to account for that time, but keep your description of it brief. Write more detailed descriptions of any jobs related to the position you’re currently seeking. The more concrete you can be, the better. Saying that you “analyzed data in Stata” provides less information than saying that you “cleaned the data by adjusting for seasonality and dropping outliers, and ran regressions to determine the impact of X on Y.” Similarly, avoid very general descriptions like “provided excellent customer service.” Anyone can say this, so it doesn’t actually tell an employer anything about whether you’ll be a capable employee.
If you don’t already have this on your CV, include a Skills & Affiliations section as well. The Skills component should focus on languages and software. List all the languages you know, and all the software except Microsoft Office, which is so common that it’s not useful to include. (The only exception is if you’re truly skilled at Excel.) Include your level of proficiency in each language and software package, in the format “basic/intermediate/advanced” (or “fluent” for languages). The Affiliations section should list any development-related clubs or associations of which you’re a member. It’s not especially useful for an employer to see that you were on the water polo team, but membership in something like the Society for International Development or your university’s chapter of Net Impact shows that you’re working to educate yourself about development. Finally, be very careful about including hobbies or travel in this section. A list of hobbies generally makes a candidate look unprofessional, unless you can show that you’re an exceptionally hard worker by winning a major award for something. Similarly, listing all the places you’ve been on holiday doesn’t say much about whether you’ll be a knowledgeable employee. The exception is if you’ve traveled to a place for a month or more with the express purpose of learning the language or studying local history/politics/etc. If this was a foreign study program it should go in your Education section, but if it was independent, it’s all right to include it under Skills & Affiliations.
If your CV tells an employer what you can do, the cover letter should tell them why they should care. One of the most important components of this is showing that you understand the type of work that they do. Think about where the firm you’re applying to falls in the typology of development organizations from the first post in this series. You should be able to say something as detailed as, “I’d like to get hands-on managerial experience on HIV-prevention projects,” or “I’d like to work for a major donor and learn to manage grants,” or “I’m interested in doing impact evaluations in microfinance.” Making a very general statement like “I’d like to work in development” suggests that you haven’t taken the time to learn about what the organization does.
You should ideally be able to integrate your statement about the employer’s work with a clear expression of your career trajectory. Phrase this as, “I have been [building skills], but after [learning about development] I’m interested in [achieving some goal] by working for [organization which works towards that goal].” For example, “I have been working in business finance in Nairobi, but after reading More than Good Intentions by Dean Karlan and Due Diligence by David Roodman, I’ve grown very interested in bringing banking services to ordinary people through the microfinance industry. I would like to bring my managerial experience and familiarity with the banking sector to the Client Outreach position at ABC Microfinance.” If you don’t have much formal development experience but have read up on it extensively, it’s quite all right to list the books you’ve read, and perhaps what you found compelling about them.
The rest of your cover letter should briefly recap your relevant educational and work experience, leaving the detailed descriptions to your CV. If a work permit for any country is required, note whether you have that authorization and when it expires. (Alternatively, you could put this on your CV.) Finally, don’t include personal stories in the letter. Pretty much everyone in the development field is there because they care about the welfare of others. A concrete focus on skills and familiarity with the development sector will be a better way to make your application stand out.