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 arguably the hardest part 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. How do you demonstrate that you're qualified for a job when you don't necessarily have formal experience in the field?
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 would urge you to go for quality over quantity. Because yes, you do need to write a customized cover letter for every job you apply for.
"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," Keating advises.
If this all sounds daunting, don't stress—here's everything you need to know about career change cover letter, including two of the most common mistakes people make (and how to avoid them).
Original Graphic by Viviana Duron
Go Into It With Clear Intentions
Making a move takes longer than you may think. "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.
"The most successful career changes happen when someone takes a structured approach to exploring multiple options and then 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.
Put Yourself in the Role of the Hiring Manager
"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.
So how do you narrow in on a prospective role's most desirable skills to get started? "What I recommend that people do when they go to write a cover letter is to start by analyzing the job description. Get out of the mindset of a candidate or job seeker and actually look at the job description and imagine that you are the hiring manager for that role—and you've got to get this hire right. Your whole company's success depends on it."
Identify the Core Skills Required for the Job
As you analyze the job description from a hiring manager's perspective, Keating recommends 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.
Think About Your Layout (But Focus on Your Content)
Original Graphic by Viviana Duron
We don't have to tell you that a cover letter has an introduction, two body paragraphs, and a conclusion. What you really want to know is how to make the most of your limited space—and 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.
"The second paragraph should answer the question of Why you? Why are you the right fit for the role? 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. To break it down, we asked Keating for an example. "What a lot of people will write is, 'I am very detail oriented and have strong written and communication skills.' That's ultimately meaningless in a cover letter because anyone can write that statement," Keating says.
"So instead, you want to 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. "So if the ability to multitask and handle complex projects is one of the experiences, they are looking for, 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."
Avoid Making These Crucial Mistakes
According to Keating, the third paragraph of your cover letter should answer the question of Why them? Why this company? This is your chance to give specific reasons about why you are interested in a company, and you want to show that you understand what makes them different from their competitors.
"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, "make sure you understand what makes this company unique and then articulate why that's of interest to you," she elaborates.
You also want to ensure you're demonstrating the value you bring to the company in this paragraph. "The other mistake people make is they'll explain everything they have to gain from working at the company," explains Keating. "Instead, you want to 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."
Remember, It Takes Time and Practice to Write a Good One
"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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