How to Write a Cover Letter after a Gap in Employment

By Erin Coursey, iHire, LLC

For many, an extended leave from the workforce can make the job application process especially daunting. Without recent experience, it can be difficult to build a convincing argument for why you are a better fit for your position of choice than other candidates. However, with just a little bit of tweaking, a traditional cover letter can still suit your needs. Here are some tips for developing a cover letter that will open doors for your return to the workplace.

Decide whether to address the reason for the gap in your history. This may be one of the more complicated choices you make with regards to your cover letter. Opinions vary widely on whether you should explain why you have been unemployed for an extended period of time, but in the end the verdict depends on a couple of major factors:

  1. Is it relevant to your return or choice of future occupation? Occasionally, saying why you took a leave of absence from the professional arena can be beneficial. If you discovered a new passion for healthcare while attending to a sick relative, for example, mentioning it will give your letter a small personal touch and set it apart from the rest. Unless your reason for leaving is relevant to the position you are applying for, however, strongly consider leaving it out. If employers are interested in knowing your reasons, they can ask during an interview, when you will have the opportunity to explain the situation more fully.
  2. How extensive is the gap? Another point to consider when deciding whether to address an employment gap is the length of time you were unemployed. Even if it might seem like a long time to you, a few months of unemployment does not need to be addressed in a cover letter— this can be discussed in an interview without taking up precious real estate in your letter. By contrast, if you have been out of work for several years, you should at least mention as such somewhere in the body of your cover letter (“As a highly-motivated legal secretary of 8 years returning to the field after a 4-year gap, I am eager to bring my skills in organization and planning to [Company Name].”)

What to avoid: Take care not to focus on the unemployment itself. Even if it led to a time of self-discovery and/or you were raising a family, this is not information your potential employer will be primarily interested in. Neither should the purpose of your letter be apologizing for or defending your employment gap. If you choose to talk about why you left the workforce, keep it brief (no more than a sentence). Instead of justifying why you should be offered an interview despite your jobless period, concentrate on what skills and/or background you have that will positively influence the organization. The person reading your cover letter cares about your qualifications and future value to the company more than anything about your time spent between jobs.

Do your research. Even though this is important for every cover letter, research is especially crucial when you will be addressing skills you learned or improved upon while outside the workforce. Examine the company’s website, social media presence, and job ad, and reach out to any contacts you might have within the organization to find out more about its culture and values. Tailor your cover letter to highlight talents and achievements which demonstrate these qualities. If possible, specify how your experience will be helpful for particular processes or efforts within the organization; it will prove just how motivated and invested you are in this opportunity!

What to avoid: Don’t ignore your past work experience when choosing what to discuss here. It can be easy to dismiss these achievements if they occurred far enough in the past, but passing these up for a more recent activity with less relevance to the position you are applying for would be a mistake. Likewise, you shouldn’t feel like you must only highlight examples from your experience in the field. A mix of both can give your cover letter balance and offer broader insight into your capabilities. The key is to reference your most relevant experiences, regardless of whether they occurred in the workplace or outside of it.

Concentrate on what you have done to gain/hone relevant competencies. Employers are most concerned about what you can bring to their organization. When choosing what to highlight in the middle section of your cover letter, consider any volunteering you have done recently (PTA? Volunteer firefighter?) or extra training/workshops you have participated in while unemployed. Did you become proficient in new areas or expand your expertise through these activities in ways that would benefit your future employer? For example, “As room parent, I organized events for classes of 18–24 children and their parents, coordinating with the PTA Treasurer and teacher for scheduling and budget planning.”

What to avoid: Even if you don’t outright talk about your employment gap, the person reading your application will likely notice it. Don’t simply ignore that time in your life; make sure you include at least one extracurricular activity that has helped to keep your skills sharp. Make it clear that you are prepared to rejoin the working world and contribute to the company. And if you haven’t been engaged in any volunteer efforts or continuing education, start now! It will prove that you are motivated and proactive.

 

Sources:

Freddie Rohner— How to Write an Effective Cover Letter

Natalie Winzer— A Cover Letter That Works

Christina Hamlett— How to Write a Cover Letter When Reentering the Workforce

Ruth Mayhew— Cover Letter for Reentering the Workforce

Suzanne Lucas— Helpful Hints for Moms Returning to the Workplace


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