Career Matters

By Lily Whiteman

Win that fellowship

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Fellowships for experienced professionals are short-term assignments in various specialties that feature training, lectures and networking events. Fellows gain eye-opening experiences, expand their talents, and collect grist for their résumés and Rolodexes — all of which may enhance their effectiveness or help them land promotions.

Some federal organizations run fellowships that exclusively recruit current feds, and some private organizations run fellowships that recruit from all sectors.

Some tips from hiring managers on how to craft winning fellowship applications:

*Make deadlines. Fellowship applicants are often rejected because they miss deadlines or submit applications that were “obviously dashed off on a last-minute lark,” observes one hiring manager. Start your applications early enough to avoid last-minute manic-panics and to give yourself time to craft thoughtful applications.

*Research programs. After reviewing your target program’s marketing materials, impress the program manager with your enthusiasm and seriousness by calling him or her to discuss the program. Ask the manager to help connect you with fellowship alumni. Then, interview those alumni and incorporate your resulting program knowledge in your application.

*Customize applications. Don’t answer essay questions with excerpts from your résumé or submit the same generic application to multiple programs. Many applications are rejected because the name of the wrong fellowship program is mindlessly incorrectly copied from one application to another.

When reviewing your application, hiring managers will seek evidence of your desire to contribute and benefit from the fellowship. Begin your application with a purposeful, energetic statement, explaining why you are eager to receive the fellowship. Explain how your academic and professional credentials, people skills, multitasking abilities and other strengths would support the program and enhance other fellows’ experiences. State your commitment to giving your all so that you will maximize your benefits from the fellowship. Review how your long-term interests jibe with the fellowship. For example, if you apply for a fellowship on Capitol Hill, emphasize your history of reading about politics, describe campaigns you worked on, and explain your attraction to the rough-and-tumble of politics. Describe what types of fellowship projects you would like to pursue, if appropriate. But also convey your flexibility and expectation of surprises.

*State explicitly how you would accommodate the fellowship’s structure and goals. For example, if you would be expected to return to your home agency after completing the fellowship, confirm in your application and interviews that you would indeed do so, provide reassurances that you would not use the fellowship as a stepping stone to a new career, and explain how the fellowship would enhance your post-fellowship contributions to your home agency. If your target fellowship is half time, explain how the demands of your current job would be reduced to accommodate your absences for the fellowship.

*Treat your application as a writing sample. Good communication skills are a requirement for most fellowships, and your communication skills will largely be evaluated by your written application. Proofread your application for logic, typos, grammar and conciseness. As one fellowship manager warns, “Don’t make me read three pages that could be condensed into three sentences.” Also, eliminate potentially confusing verbiage, such as acronyms; your application should be an easy, clear and fast read.

*Don’t lie. Sell yourself with gusto but without exaggeration.

*Prepare your references. Review with your references, including your current boss, the nature of your target program, its appeal to you and your credentials. This information helps your references propel your application with a compelling, hearty endorsement. Poor or unenthusiastic references can, by themselves, be deal-breakers.

*Practice for interviews. Prepare answers to common and anticipated interview questions, and role-play interviewing.

*Be persistent. Rejected from your target program? Call the hiring manager and ask how you could improve your chances next time. Then, apply again.

Lily Whiteman is a public affairs officer at the National Science Foundation and author of “How to Land a Top-Paying Federal Job.’’ Her Web site is The views expressed in this column do not necessarily represent the views of the National Science Foundation.

Write a winning cover letter

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Most online job application systems don’t accept cover letters. But if Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry gets his way, agencies will eliminate knowledge, skills and abilities essays (KSAs) and base their applications solely on cover letters and résumés.

So if your next job application requires a cover letter, design it to quickly introduce yourself, convey your enthusiasm for your target opening and agency, concisely review your best educational and professional qualifications, and showcase your communication skills.

As one hiring manager advises, “You will probably beat 95 percent of your competition just by submitting an error-free cover letter that concisely describes how you meet the opening’s requirements.”

To craft winning cover letters:

*Treat your cover letter like the potentially make-or-break document it is. Your letter will probably be the first part of your application that hiring managers read, and first impressions usually are lasting impressions. What’s more, your letter may be the only part of your application that hiring managers read. Even managers who only skim applications will read a one-page cover letter from top to bottom.

Even though cover letters are key to making good first impressions, many job-seekers thoughtlessly dash them off at the last minute. Instead, you should take time to create a dynamic, first-rate letter, whether you write it as the first or last step in your application preparation.

*Design your cover letter as a fast read. No matter how experienced you are, your cover letters should not exceed one page. Save space by identifying your target job in a “Re” line.

*Don’t open your cover letter with boring, generic clichés, such as “Enclosed please find my application” or “I am contacting you in order to …” Instead, research your target organization by surfing its Web site, and recent articles posted online by newspapers and magazines. Then, craft an energetic opener that demonstrates your knowledge of your target organization and explains how you would contribute to its success. For example: “As a contract manager with an MBA and five years of experience in innovative contract management, I would be eager to contribute to EPA’s efforts to streamline procurement procedures, which were recently covered in Fast Company.”

Another example: “I am eager to contribute to the mission of [name of target agency] because [your reason goes here]. I have previously demonstrated my dedication to this field by earning the following credentials: [List your credentials in bullets or in a “Your Needs/My Credentials” table].” Convey your credentials in achievement-oriented terms. Describe how they improved your employer’s operations; don’t repeat your job descriptions or your entire résumé.

*Purge your cover letter of presumptuous statements, such as: “I know you will find that I am a perfect match for the position.” Instead, describe how your credentials match your target job’s requirements, and let hiring managers decide for themselves that you’re the ideal applicant.

*Remember: Hiring managers only care about what you would do for them — not about what you want from them. So use terms such as “offer” and “contribute” rather than citing the opportunities for yourself.

*Prominently position your security clearances or veterans preference, and any noncompetitive appointments for which you are applying. Also explain any special circumstances, such as your willingness to relocate.

*Eliminate acronyms and any other terms that may stump hiring managers.

*Repeatedly proofread a hard-copy version of your cover letter, and then solicit feedback on it from trusted advisers.

If the application for your target job does not accept cover letters, write the opening of your application’s first KSA with a concise overview of your credentials, even if such information is not specifically requested. You will thereby start your KSAs with an impressive bang, hit hiring managers with your best shot and ensure that they will learn about your most important selling points even if they don’t read your entire application.

Lily Whiteman is a public affairs officer at the National Science Foundation and author of “How to Land a Top-Paying Federal Job.’’ Her Web site is The views expressed in this column do not necessarily represent the views of the National Science Foundation.