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.
When I started getting career training in junior high, and as it carried on into high school, I was taught the value of the immortal resume. Formats and essentials and even what kind of paper to use were drilled into my head. I was even taught, though less through practice and more through lecture, the deep value of the professional interview: how to look, what to say or not say, how to present oneself, when to follow up, and so on.
No one told me about the thing called a “cover letter.”
By virtue of working alongside my mother in my teenage years in her offices, I learned that cover letters were often useful pieces of paper attached at the beginning of faxes, to note who the fax was intended for and add a small memo as to the fax’s purpose. Simple things, like “Attn: John Doe; Re: Acct. #1894; This is the bill from the doctor that we received.”
When I first encountered cover letters in job searches as an independent adult, I had a two-part reaction. The first part was stupor; I’d no idea what they required. Not knowing what they required led me to a mild form of terror and renouncement: if a job required a cover letter with a resume, I wouldn’t apply because it was probably more professional of a job than I was ready for with my experience. That’s what I assumed, at least: cover letters must be for people wearing suits, not some kid in college trying to get a part time job. Thankfully, the resourcefulness of the Internet, and my own confidence that grew as I gained more experience in the working world, finally taught me what a cover letter is, or well, at least what it’s supposed to be.
The problem is, cover letters still puzzle me a little from the perspective of a job seeker. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard “Your resume should speak for itself.” Cover letters, however, are the little heralds of resumes, the “memo” that introduces the resume and the applicant. Modern cover letters generally advise the following:
- First, introduce yourself and state briefly what you are applying for and a brief qualifying statement. Well, alright, any applicant who doesn’t let the hiring department know what job their resume is to be applied to is in a sinking ship. Qualifying statements are usually placed at the top of a resume, however, and also restated during an interview.
- Second, offer a few specific examples of accomplishments and/or skills that are applicable to the job you’re applying to. Resume advice states the same: list specific accomplishments rather than duties. Design your resumes around each job you apply for. And let’s not forget, this is also something covered specifically in the interview process.
- Wrap up with thank yous and contact information. Request an interview. Again, contact information is on the resume and interview requests are implied when applying for a job.
To me, cover letters seem like a step of redundancy between application and interview; somewhat like a written pre-interview in which the applicant provides answers to unspoken questions. This, of course, benefits applicant and employer: applicants get a chance to provide some information not directly accessible on their resume and offer a personal introduction; employers get the answers to more important questions than “Where have you worked in the past 10 years?” Regardless of whether cover letters feel redundant, they remain useful and are often required.
Creating cover letters requires its own art. Cover letters are often suggestive of template style work, but offering a template cover letter is about as useful as sending your resume without a cover letter. They must be succinct, informative, specific, and most importantly, personal. These aren’t easy traits to get right in a short letter, especially the first few times.
While I think I’m finally getting the hang of cover letters – enough to call them “good” – I’m still grasping for what makes a truly great cover letter. What do you think makes cover letters stand out? Can great cover letters avoid redundancy?
Image by Auntie P via Flickr
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