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Making the Leap From Student Organizer to Progressive Professional

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March 27, 2014

Searching for your first (or second, or third) job out of college is not easy. You want to do something challenging and rewarding, but you don’t have the years of experience many employers require. Translating the skills you’ve developed as a student leader to the “getting paid to do what you love” world isn’t easy, but it’s possible. To help you out, I’ve compiled some how-tos for applying for your dream job – it’s a combination of common mistakes, advice, and things I wish I’d known during my last job search.

To give credit where it’s due, this post was inspired by this tip from Katie Parrish at the New Organizing Institute. I highly recommend signing up for their daily tip emails.

Step 1: References

Even though they won’t be contacted till much later in the interview process, getting in touch with your references should be the first step in your job search process.

– First, you want to make sure your contact information for them (email AND phone number) is current.

– Second, if you haven’t seen them in a while, you should let them know what you’ve been up to since they last supervised/taught/inspired you.

– Third, let them know you’d like to list them as a reference and make sure that’s okay. (It probably is, but if Professor Awesome is about to go on sabbatical in another country and be unreachable for six months, it’s better to find out now).

It helps employers if your references know they’re being listed and are expecting calls. Bonus: when you start moving forward in the interview process – usually after a second interview – send your references an email and attach the description of the job you’re applying for. That way they can tailor their remarks about your experience and skills to what they know your employer is looking for, and let them know you’re the perfect candidate for your dream job.

Step 2: Your resume

I’m going to skip the obvious stuff (keep it to a page, avoid flashy formats, etc.) and focus on tips for nonprofit resumes.

  1. Lead with the experience that’s relevant to the job, even if it’s unpaid. If you want to do social media and communications, employers need to know that you were the social media manager for a campus organization, so lead with that. If you paid your rent working in a bakery, that’s awesome – it’s just irrelevant. Give details about your activities and just a list of your work experience.

  2. Use real numbers whenever you can. If you “Increased organizational social media presence” include “from 27 to 213 Facebook ‘Likes’ and from 5 to 140 Tumblr followers.” If you directed the Vagina Monologues, how many people attended, and how much did you raise for what charity? It doesn’t matter if the numbers aren’t huge; what counts is measurable impact.

Step 3: Cover letters

PROOFREAD. If your cover letter includes the wrong organization’s name, the chances of you getting an interview plummet.

Beyond that, keep it to 1 page and use the following 3-paragraph format:

Paragraph 1: What appeals to me (the candidate) about this position and your organization.

Paragraph 2: Why I (the candidate) am perfect for this job. Ideally this is a brief story that expands on something listed in your resume.

Paragraph 3: Another great thing about your organization and how and why I am excited to be a part of it. (Include relevant info like, when you can start and how you can be contacted, here.)

Step 4: Interview prep

This is the part where I was inspired by Katie’s NOI tip to start your story library: “a collection of organizing stories that you can use to inspire and motivate different audiences for different purposes.”

In addition to Katie’s list, a good interview story library might include

  • A story that demonstrates how your campus organizing skills will be useful in the professional world and especially to this organization’s work.
  • A victory or success story – what you specifically contributed and what you’d do differently next time to make it even better.
  • A story of a failure, challenge or setback. What went wrong, how did you respond, and what did you learn?
  • A story about how you work well in or with a team.
  • A story  about a challenging interpersonal relationship or conflict and how you dealt with it.

Prepping these ahead of time helps you in two ways: you’ll be able to think of the best example to answer a question instead of scrambling to come up with something and you’ll be able to tell a concise story that illustrates your point, without getting lost in the details.

Resources for the progressive job seeker:

New Organizing Institute


Feminist Majority Foundation Job Board

Women’s information Network

 Mari Schimmer is the Program Director at Choice USA.


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