Unemployed? Put your cover letter to work
Don't let a period of unemployment prevent you from writing a strong cover letter. Here’s what to say to boost your chances of landing an interview.
For many of us, writing a cover letter is about as fun as having a root canal or being audited by the IRS. Add a period of unemployment to the mix, and the task can seem downright daunting. Don’t let time away from the workforce prevent you from writing a good cover letter. Try these expert tips.
Keep it positive
The purpose of a cover letter is to pique employers’ interest so they want to interview you. “Talking about unemployment is a downer, and job candidates should only provide information that enhances their value to an employer and makes a compelling case for an interview,” says Linsey Levine, a licensed counselor and president of CareerCounsel, based in Ossining, New York.
Sue Campbell, president of resume-writing firm 1st-Writer.com, agrees that the cover letter should emphasize the job seeker’s strongest qualifications. “Focus on what you can contribute and how this contribution will benefit the employer,” Campbell says. Address relevant skills, abilities, education and experience that will enable you to provide exemplary work, she adds, not extraneous information about your unemployment. (See our sample cover letter for an unemployed job seeker.)
Fill the gap
If you’ve been sitting idle at home when you could have been engaged in career-related activities, it’s time to spring into action. “Job hunters with big gaps of unemployment should demonstrate what they did to be productive while they were not working,” says Nancy Friedberg, a career coach with Career Leverage in New York City.
Friedberg coaches her clients to remain active and keep their skills fresh during periods of unemployment. “If you have done nothing career-related during your unemployment, start today,” she says. Friedberg suggests volunteering, going back to school, securing freelance or part-time work, assuming leadership roles in charitable organizations or becoming active in your professional organization. “Every activity you undertake requires a skill whether you are paid or not,” she adds.
Be honest, but don’t overshare
Millions of people have lost their jobs recently, and employment gaps no longer carry the stigma they once did. It’s not necessary to explain a few months of unemployment due to circumstances beyond your control, such as a layoff.
However, it is a good idea to account for longer-term unemployment. Trisha Scudder, president of New York City-based Executive Coaching Group, coaches her clients to deal with the gap and avoid making excuses. “The bottom line is that there’s a gap,” she says. “You can’t hide it. Tell it straight, and don’t make apologies. Show the interviewer how this makes you a more attractive candidate.” For example, she suggests adding a line to your cover letter saying something like, “Returning to full-time employment after caring for an ill family member, I am eager to contribute my 15 years’ experience in (career field) to benefit your company.”
Campbell also offers verbiage to help explain unemployment: “Since leaving my last employer, I have been completing intensive training in ____” or “I have been contributing my time and talents to the successful advancement of Charitable Organization, while actively seeking a full-time position with a leading company such as yours.”
Scudder advises job seekers not to provide too much information about the unemployment. “Don’t let this gap distract you from the primary purpose of the cover letter -- demonstrating what you could do for the organization if hired,” she says.
Use your judgment
However, sometimes special circumstances can work to your advantage. Scudder suggests thinking about how the unemployment could make you a better employee. “For example, did it inspire you to move to a new industry or career? If you took on freelance work, did it teach you the value of retaining clients?” she says.
Friedberg had a client who was diagnosed with cancer and missed an entire year of employment following graduation. “In his cover letters, he confidently and honestly wrote about his cancer,” she says. “He explained that he doubled up on classes in between chemotherapy treatments in order to graduate and sat for the first part of the CPA exam. An accounting firm was so impressed that they called him in for a series of interviews and hired him based on his character, his can-do attitude and his perseverance.”
Focus on your strengths
Whether your time off has been because of a layoff, job termination, illness, care of sick relatives, child care, a sabbatical or any other reason, the purpose of a cover letter -- to generate a call for an interview -- remains the same. “If job seekers can draw a correlation between what they offer and how they will benefit the employer, then the cover letter should achieve some real success,” Campbell says.
Are you a mom or dad returning to the job market after having taken time off to raise your kids? Here are some tips about how your cover letter can make that transition a little smoother.
Many moms and dads who find themselves re-entering the workforce after one or many years of child rearing are unsure about their place in the current job market. If you're a re-entry job hunter, you may be scratching your head and asking questions like these:
- How do I explain so many years of "not working"?
- Do I have the skills to compete in the current world of employment?
- How do I market myself to an industry that has been zooming ahead while I’ve been busy changing diapers, shuttling kids, and doing volunteer work?
Before you put any energy into your job search, it’s important to know that your role as a parent, family manager, community volunteer, student, or freelance worker (to mention just a few of the things you might have been doing while your kids learned how to walk) is valuable and marketable to an employer. In these roles, you maintained and developed skills, many of which are relevant to your new job objective.
Although you weren't paid for work you did as a parent, your experience can be mentioned in your cover letter (and resume) with dignity and relevance. By the way, this applies to full-time dads as well as moms.
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Marketable Skills for Moms and Dads Returning to Work
Raising a family is hard work, requiring many skills. I don't need to tell you that — you of all people know! To prepare for your job search, make a list of the skills it took (or takes) to be the good parent you are. Your skills list might include the following:
Once you create your skills list, check off the ones that are relevant to your new job. Now you know what your marketable skills are from your family management experience.
Volunteerism Pays Off
Many employers feel that what a job seeker does for no pay speaks louder about her character and commitment than what she does for money. State your volunteer experience proudly in your cover letter (and resume) to demonstrate that you have the skills, experience, personality, and, yes, passion (perhaps for a relevant social cause or humanitarian effort) for the job you seek. To help you realize what skills you've developed through your community service, take a look at the following talents used by many volunteers:
Fundraising (aka "development" in the nonprofit world)
Now make a list of skills you used (or use) in your community service. Again, check off the skills that will be useful in your new job.
See how much you have to offer an employer? You just have to talk confidently about your skills and experience in your cover letter.
Susan Hamilton, a woman re-entering the job market after raising a family of 4 over the last 17 years. By speaking with dignity about her full-time parenting, Susan portrays it as an asset. Take a look: