After a layoff, many people rethink their career paths and decide to make a career change. While a resume revamp will definitely be in order, a few well-composed paragraphs in a cover letter could be all that stand between you and your dream job.
After all, even in the age of instant communication, the power of a well-written cover letter remains undiminished, especially when you're aiming for a job slightly outside your realm of professional experience. A cover letter gives the time and space to make a case for your candidacy.
"I think companies know that people want to have purposeful work," Stephanie Licata, owner of Sound Change Career Coaching, says. "So if someone is making a career shift, I think it's completely fine to explain what inspired it in a cover letter."
While a major career change may feel challenging, it is by no means impossible, or even unusual. In fact, research shows that employees are unlikely to stay with a single employer, or even on the same career path, for their entire careers. In fact, across industries, the average worker changes 2.3 times in a five year period, according to a LiveCareer study.
Over the course of an entire career, the number of job changes a person makes over their working lives is even more stark, with a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics longitudinal study finding that workers they studied have held an average of 11.9 jobs from age 18 to age 50.
Now that you know this change is indeed possible, we’ve put together a list of tips for tailoring your cover letter to the job you want, even if you don’t have direct experience in the role.
1. Re-Examine your skills
When changing careers, you'll have to look at your skills and professional experience in a new way. The stories that helped land you previous jobs may no longer be relevant when entering a new industry. You'll need to reexamine your skill set to find those that are most relevant and transferable from one career to another.
Licata has reduced the process to a handy formula. She suggests choosing one or two bullet points from the job ad, and use your cover letter to illustrate how you have utilized your skills to accomplish similar tasks in past roles. The idea is to show off the impact your comparable skills have had on the success of your past employers.
In a job description you'll find a list of qualities the company is seeking in a new employee. Consider the soft skills, such as "must be a go-getter" and "must possess good communication skills," and develop a narrative for each one. Make sure the story leads to a specific result that directly connects with the prospective employer's needs.
For example. you could write, "At ABC company, I worked on XYZ project, during which my exceptional communication abilities allowed me to coordinate efforts between departments, resulting in the project that hit all the marks while coming under budget."
2. Show that you can solve a problem for the company
Every hire is made to solve a problem or fill a gap. Study the job ad and give some thought to what problem the role you are applying for solves, and how your skill set can be part of the solution.
"The main thing any hiring manager wants to know and feel is that you are a terrific fit for their open position” says John Taylor, manager of practice development at RiseSmart. "Do your homework to understand what the job entails and how your unique abilities and experience will help the hiring manager meet his goals."
Think through your skills and background and do your best to articulate how you can not only make the hiring manager’s life easier, but make him or her look great in the eyes of their bosses. Remember, it's not about what the company can do for you, it's about what you can do for the company.
3. Incorporate critical keywords
Part of making a successful career change is showing that you understand this new industry and role. Using industry-specific language in your cover letter can help make your case.
To start, study the job ad and pull out the critical keywords the hiring manager has used to describe the role. Then, make sure the language used in your cover letter precisely matches the language used in the job description.
"Using these both strategically not only gets your document successfully through the Applicant Tracking Software (ATS) system, which weeds out resumes that don’t cleanly align with the job description, it also lets the recruiter know that you have the expertise and relevant skills at first glance when they review it."
Career counselors have a variety of tools for helping you identify the skills you've demonstrated throughout your career. You should also check out LiveCareer's free Cover Letter Builder, which has sample phrases that highlight your skills and set you apart from the competition.
Tiffany J. Franklin, the founder of TJF Career Coaching, says, "One of the biggest mistakes I see people make on cover letters is not tailoring them enough but also talking too much about what the job can do for them and not talking about how they can help the company"
While it's important to signal that you feel the job is a good fit, it's even more important to inspire confidence in the person reading your letter that you can deliver what they need.
4. Articulate that you are a culture fit
"There are certain things that can probably only be accomplished in a cover letter, like showing you understand a company's culture," Licata says.
In today's environment, explaining how you align with a company's culture will help you stand out from applicants submitting less burnished letters.
"Organizations are becoming very purpose-driven and very culture-driven," Licata says. "Cultural fit is a big deal for companies now because the job market is completely different than it was 25 or 30 years ago."
Go to the company's website, Licata recommends, and read their mission statement, which may also be called vision statement or values statement. "Find an alignment that aligns with you and your values, or the way you view work, or the way you engage with people, and comment on that," Licata says.
Licata says the following example is a helpful template: "I noticed that one of things that's most important at [company name] is being okay with ambiguity. I've worked in a startup environment for several years and ambiguity is what I eat for breakfast."
There are other ways of expressing a culture fit. Licata suggests checking out a company review site like Glassdoor. Find a positive write up to work into your cover letter, writing something like, "I was reading on Glassdoor about the experience of working at [company name] and someone said, 'It feels like a family.' It's very important to me to have a work environment that feels very supportive, and that's something I'd like to explore working at your company."
Finding a job requires telling a story about yourself and your abilities. Cover letters are a great forum for sharing that narrative and landing the job you desire.