Whether you’ve been out of the workforce taking care of kids, relatives, or dealing with a personal illness or challenge, you can minimize and address employment gaps in your cover letter by following this simple four-step process.
Unlike the resume, which is used as a marketing document to showcase your skills and achievements, the cover letter is much more personal, allowing job seekers to showcase their character and tell a compelling story.
The story that you share in your cover letter depends entirely upon the type of position for which you are applying. Even though this takes time and effort, I recommend tailoring a different cover letter to every single position you apply for.
Okay, I know it’s a lot to take in. Deep breaths.
Here’s why I recommend targeting a different letter to each company or employer. Over the past 20 years that I’ve been a career counselor and coach, I’ve talked with hundreds of hiring managers and HR personnel and there has been one common complaint about cover letters: most letters are generic and are not targeted to the position.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk about execution. I’ve put together a simple four-step process of crafting your letter to make addressing your employment gaps as pain-free as possible.
Step One: Do some digging
Before you even sit down to start typing or writing your cover letter, I suggest first spending some time browsing and familiarizing yourself with the organization’s website. Specific items you want to look for: major projects currently underway, anticipated problems, or upcoming changes or transitions the company is facing.
Also try to see if you can get a sense of the company’s culture. For example, does it seem like an organization that values its employees? And even more important, does it seem like the type of company that you want to work for?
Step Two: Gather the necessary materials
Gather the necessary materials including your resume, the description of the job for which you are applying, and any research you’ve dug up and printed out about the organization (i.e. recent press releases, product information, mission statement, goals, values, etc.), and a beverage of your choice (happy hour is a great time to sit down and craft a cover letter. Just sayin)!
Step Three: Make a Connection
Make a connection between your background and accomplishments and the key qualifications the employer is seeking. If you need to address a gap in your cover letter, try to brainstorm some transferable skills you’ve acquired while out of the workforce.
For example, maybe you’ve volunteered for the PTA or another organization and you helped plan and execute events. You can highlight skills like event coordination, teamwork, collaboration, public speaking, fundraising, mentoring, teaching, etc. These are all skills that keep your job skills current and are applicable in many types of jobs and industries.
Another area to pull relevant skills and accomplishments from is education, training, and certification. Did you take any continuing education courses while you were out of the workforce? Or maybe you got special training or certification? For example, maybe you got CPR / First Aid certified and you want to open your own day care or become a preschool teacher. This training is directly applicable and can be highlighted in your cover letter.
To make this easy, I suggest either writing out by hand or typing up a list so you can make the connection between your background and the employer’s “wish list.” Create two columns on a sheet of paper. Title the first column something like “Skills/ Qualifications.” This is where you will list out the major skills, attributes, and work responsibilities from the job description. In the second column, for each qualification or job function you have listed in column one, you will include a skill set or accomplishment from your background.
Step Four: Putting it all together
Your cover letter should be no more than one page, and should include an introduction paragraph, two to three body paragraphs, and a concluding paragraph:
Your introduction should be powerful and well-written. If possible, try not to begin with the standard “I am writing this letter to apply for XYZ position.” If you are applying to a more conservative, corporate type of company or position, highlighting your biggest accomplishments is probably a good route to take.
For example, “My six years of recent experience overseeing budgets, planning events, and raising money to support educational endeavors would allow me to make valuable contributions to your company as an event planner.”
If you are applying to a smaller company, start-up, or in a creative industry, you can use some more personality and even a little humor (just keep it tasteful).
The introduction can often be one of more challenging, if not the most challenging paragraphs to write on your cover letter, especially if you have employment gaps. Therefore, I recommend waiting until you’ve written the body paragraphs before tackling your intro.
Underneath your introduction, you will write two to three body paragraphs, which can be drawn from the brainstorming sheet you created (or that you will create) from Step Three. Remember to follow the SOAR method and tell a short story about a problem you helped solve, or a major contribution you made. Whenever possible, quantify the results!
Be careful not to just repeat information from your resume, and make sure to go into enough detail. You can use the SOAR method (Situation, Obstacle, Action, Result) to highlight past work accomplishments. Read below for an example of a sentence on a cover letter using the SOAR method:
“The position with XYZ Organization calls for extensive sales and marketing expertise. During my experience over the last three years as an independent sales representative for XYZ cosmetics, I generated a consistent average of $3000 in monthly sales and achieved a 70% customer-base return per year.”
At this point the worst is behind you. The conclusion paragraph is pretty cut and dry. You can write something along the lines of “Thank you for taking the opportunity to read my application materials. I look forward to discussing my qualifications and skills in more detail in an interview.”
You’re well on your way to crafting a stellar cover letter. By following these easy step, you can address gaps in your cover letter and move forward with your career!