Career Change Cover Letters: Crucial Writing Tips From A Career Coach

Updated 07/25/19
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It's no secret that the job application process is a painful one. Between searching for open roles, updating your résumé, and sending your application into the virtual void, there are a lot of anxiety-inducing tasks to tackle. But writing a cover letter is perhaps one of the most difficult parts of the whole ordeal.

How exactly do you translate your interest in a role into a well-crafted, one-page document? This pressure is only compounded when you're writing a career change cover letter. Now, the more accurate question is, How do you demonstrate that you're qualified for a job when you don't necessarily have formal experience in the field?

How to Write A Career Change Cover Letter

To make the process as painless as possible, we asked Rose Keating, a career coach with years of experience helping people land their dream jobs, to weigh in on writing a cover letter when you're making a career move. But before you put pen to paper (so to speak), Keating urges you to aim to pen career change cover letters that focus on quality over quantity. Because yes, you do need to write a customized cover letter for every job you apply for.

Rose Keating

Previously a recruiter, Rose Keating currently works as a career advisor, coaching hundreds of MBAs and International Business and Marketing students from over 77 countries. She is a member of the Professional Association of Resume Writers and Career Coaches. 

"A common mistake people make is using a standard cover letter that speaks to general skillsets with the only customization being switching out the company name and title," says Keating. "Anyone who's been a recruiter can pick those out extremely easily and disqualify the candidate—because if you can't take the time to write a unique, role-specific cover letter, how interested can you be in the position?" she explains.

It's better to do two applications a week that are highly researched and well customized, rather than sending out 50 generic applications.

If this all sounds daunting, don't stress—here's everything you need to know about the career change cover letter, including two of the most common mistakes people make (and how to avoid them).

Colorful illustration of a piece of paper, coffee mug and yellow pencil
Original Graphic by Viviana Duron

Career Change Tips

Making a career move takes longer than you may think, so before you dive write into writing your cover letter, mentally prepare yourself for the career change process to take up to a year. "Most people assume a career change is just made quite quickly, but it's often a project that's six to nine months in the making," explains Keating.

Once you've calibrated your mindset, do your best to structure your job hunting approach to include exploring multiple options, and "vets those options through a process of talking to people who work in the field, understanding what the role is about (the actual job beyond the job description—what's it actually like day to day), and figuring out what skills and experience the market requires of candidates in that role," she says.

How can you start vetting prospective career paths? "You want to be asking, 'One, would I like this job? And two, can I get this job? Would they consider someone with a background like mine?'" offers Keating. Once you've identified a new path and a job you're interested in, you're ready to start typing up that cover letter.

Writing Tip: Focus On Your Transferable Skills

"When you are writing a cover letter for a career change, the most important thing you need to do is highlight the transferable skills that you have," explains Keating. "Then, you want to write about specifically what you've done or achieved in the past that demonstrates you can do the specific role you are applying for," explains Keating. You'll want to select a few core skills from the job description and demonstrate your mastery of those skills with very specific examples, she elaborates.

To narrow in on a prospective role's most desirable skills you'll want to address in your cover letter, Keating says to analyze the job description by imagining you are the hiring manager for the role and asking yourself, "What are the top three to five things that you would need the candidate to have to consider them?" These three to five things can be a combination of formal qualifications (including degrees or certificates), hard skills, soft skills, technical skills, and specific experiences.

"Once you've identified those three to five things, then you can build your cover letter around showing how you have those core skills or qualifications," explains Keating.

Writing Tip: Be Specific, and Give Examples

Animated graphic of a career change cover letter
Original Graphic by Viviana Duron

Writing Tip: The Introduction

A formal letter like a cover letter requires an introduction, two body paragraphs, and a conclusion. The cover letter should be concise and every sentence should illustrate your expertise, why you are a fit for the role, and why you are interested in the company. That said, how do you make the most of the limited space in your cover letter? Keating has you covered. While having a compelling opening is always attention-grabbing, the content of your second and third paragraphs can make all the difference too.

Example introduction:

Hi [hiring manager's first name],

My name is [insert name] and I am writing to express interest in [insert role] at [insert company]. I would love the opportunity to discuss how my unique background in [insert industry or role], as well as a passion for [insert passion here] may be a fit for [position you are applying for].

Writing Tip: The Second and Third Paragraphs

"The second paragraph should answer the question of Why you? So you want to talk specifically, not generally, but specifically, about things that you have done in the past that relate to the role you are applying for," explains Keating. For example, writing 'I am very detail-oriented and have strong written and communication skills' is ultimately meaningless because anyone can write that statement, Keating explains. In other words, why are you the right fit for the role?

"Tell them something you've done or achieved that you wouldn't have been able to do if you didn't have that critical skill," she explains. "If the ability to multitask and handle complex projects is one of the experiences, if you write about how you managed three concurrent projects all with budgets up to five million dollars, that clearly shows the hiring manager that you can handle complex projects and can multitask."

Example second paragraph:

In my current role as [insert position], I have [insert transferable skills: i.e. interfaced on a regular basis with executive staff, customers, and vendors; managed a team of five to grow new and existing accounts by X% in the last year; implemented X process that saved my company $X dollars in the last year].

According to Keating, the third paragraph of your cover letter should answer the question of Why them? Why this company? Give specific reasons for why you are interested in a company, and demonstrate that you understand what makes them different from their competitors.

Example third paragraph:

I see that your company champions sustainability and invests in your people, whether that's by dedicating days for staff to volunteer for a cause they're passionate about, or providing leadership development opportunities to continue learning and growing within the company, which aligns with what I value as well.

"The most common mistake is that people give a generic reason for wanting to work at a company," explains Keating. "They'll say, 'I want to work for Apple because it's a leading technology company changing the way people communicate.' If you could give that same exact reason for wanting to work at Microsoft, then your reason isn't specific enough." To make your cover letter stand out, find a way to articulate what makes this company unique and why that's of interest to you, Keating elaborates.

Also, demonstrate the value you bring to the company in this paragraph. Rather than explain everything you have to gain from working at the company, says Keating, "show how your skills and the company's goals are a fit or how their values or their culture is in alignment with your values—it should be like two puzzle pieces fitting together."

Finally, Keating stresses the importance of being patient with yourself, especially if you aren't accustomed to formal writing. "I'm usually coaching people who are in their 20s or early 30s, and given that our generation doesn't typically write formal letters, it can be a daunting task," says Keating. "So if it's uncomfortable and it feels really awkward as you get your first draft on paper, know that that feeling is totally normal. I don't know many people who can just sit down and write a cover letter in an hour that they love, so know that it often takes a couple drafts to get there."

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