How to Use Your Cover Letter to Explain a Career Change
If you’re embarking on a major career shift -- perhaps you’re trying to break into a new field or industry or pivot to a new career path in your current field -- the cover letter is likely the very first touchpoint you’ll have with a potential employer where you’ll be able to explain your career change and make your case about why this makes you the best candidate for the job.
Of course, you’ll speak to your career shift in more detail in the job interview, but you’ve got to get there first, right? Your resume can only do so much (very little, actually) to provide context around your professional motivations and decision-making, as the focus here is more on your past experiences and qualifications. The cover letter, therefore, is a valuable space where you connect the dots between your resume (what you’ve already done) and the job you’re applying for (your professional future).
If you’re in the midst of any kind of a career shift, here are the most important things to include in your cover letter to tell the “story” of your candidacy and professional life and to boost your chances of making it to the interview stage:
Don’t avoid the subject
First and foremost, if you’re embarking on a major career shift, don’t simply think that you can ignore this in your cover letter or other job application materials and you’re interviewer simply won’t notice the incongruence between where you’ve been and where you’re trying to go. Tackle the issue early on in your cover letter, and be straightforward and unapologetic.
One of the worst things you can do in a cover letter is to avoid the subject altogether simply because you don’t know how to frame it or you feel insecure about making a strong connection between your past experiences and the skills required for the new job. But, don’t be intimidated. This is probably the most important issue you’ll need to work on when you’re putting your cover letter together (and preparing for job interviews, for that matter), so be prepared to spend a fair amount of time thinking through these connections.
Don’t apologize for your career change or point out the disadvantages this may present. Instead, lay out your past experiences as real, meaningful differentiators that set you apart from other more traditional candidates and actually make you more qualified for the position. Adopt a confident tone as you clearly lay out why or how your unique background qualifies you for a job that may otherwise fall outside the normal trajectory of your career path thus far. To do this well, you also need to be self-aware and have a clear understanding of your own strengths and your most valuable skills so you can effectively communicate this in the document.
Be clear and specific about your skills
Don’t leave any of this to guesswork or to the employer’s imagination. Don’t assume that the connection between your past experiences and your new career path are self-evident. In your cover letter, you need to draw a very strong, clear connection between the skills and competencies you learned from your past experiences and the job to which you’re applying, as you speak directly to the most important functions of the new role. This is one of the most important elements of a “career shift” cover letter, so it’s probably where you’ll spend the most time and effort.
Think about your reader
What matters to them? What kind of information can you give them about your past experiences or your career shift that will help them to see you as a highly competitive candidate that they want to learn more about in the job interview? If you have the time, putting your cover letter aside for a few days before you apply for the job -- not working on it or looking at it -- can give you a fresh perspective and help you to see some gaps or missing pieces that might stand out to an employer.
Don’t write a novel (or a Tweet either)
Strike a balance between writing too much and not enough. This may sound stressful as there’s no “magic” number of words or paragraphs for a cover letter (and expectations around length can vary widely among different fields, and certainly from academic to corporate), but be mindful of using the space on the page judiciously. You want to write enough so that you provide a compelling, accurate, and persuasive “story” around your candidacy and why you’re the most qualified applicant, but just be sure to remove any “fluff” or unnecessary information that just clutters up the page and overwhelms your reader. Having someone proofread your cover letter before you submit it can help to catch this kind of superfluousness.
Save any negativity for the interview
Perhaps you’re leaving an industry or career path, not necessarily by choice, but because of negative conditions, such as stagnant wages or poor job market conditions. While these reasons shouldn’t be a secret, don’t spend much time in the cover letter emphasizing the negative aspects of your old field or industry. Instead, save this more nuanced conversation for the interview where you can briefly touch on it -- you want to be honest, after all -- but then steer the conversation back to all of the reasons you’re excited about the new change.
Show it to someone
When you’re writing a complex or atypical cover letter (and, a career change cover letter is certainly not a standard document but something a bit more high-stakes), it’s always a best practice to reach out to someone with knowledge of your industry or field who can give you honest, valuable, unbiased and, most of all, informed feedback.