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How to Write a Cover Letter When You’re Changing Careers (or a New Grad)

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Across the world, people as young as 15 are put in the position of choosing the line of work they'd like to pursue. At this early age, we're barely beyond aspiring to be astronauts or superheroes. Forced to choose, be it during the early teen years outside of the US or the late teens and early twenties in the US, many of us find ourselves in one of two positions. Either we decide changing careers is the right move, or we're entering the workforce with zero experience and approaching a job application. We discussed how to craft a resume if you find yourself in this position but didn't cover the other half of the application equation. How is it possible to accomplish writing a cover letter with no experience? That's today's topic.

Stats on Career Changers

Career changes are more common than you might think.

Understanding the Career Change Cover Letter

When changing careers, or as a new entrant into the job search, it's common to have to submit a well-crafted cover letter and resume to hiring managers.

There are several approaches to this task. Some people choose to introduce themselves and turn their resume into a narrative. Most hiring managers find these resumes at best boring and, at worst, lazy.

Candidates can capture the reader's attention by drafting a personalized cover letter that illustrates how the candidate fits the position. This can be communicated through sharing quantified metrics, platform fluency and relevant skills.

But what about when you're a new grad or career changer? Here, the key is showing prospective employers what you bring to the table while not drawing attention to the fact that you're lacking experience.

An Effective Cover Letter Hooks the Reader

We're not suggesting you do anything too outside of the box for your cover letter, but if you're in the position we're discussing today, it's important to take a bold approach to your cover letter.

The most important thing, just like when crafting a resume, is to understand what the company's values are and what skills match you and the position. There are two ways to discover this information.

Research Your Prospective Employer

Before writing a cover letter with no experience, be sure to understand both the position and the company you're applying to.

The two best resources to help you on this first step to your new career path are the company website and the job description.

Peruse the company website. See if you can find the mission statement (where they are now) and vision statement (who they'd like to become). Words used in these that are repeated elsewhere on the site will give you a good sense of their values and what they're seeking.

For example, if the mission and vision include words like "community-minded," "independent" and "fresh perspective" and you see these elsewhere on the site, you know these are important.

Does the job description include these? Chances are it does. Jot down the most common words and phrases and use those to plan your cover letter.

Organizing a Strong Cover Letter

If you're writing a career change cover letter or one where you don't have experience, do not lead with this information. Instead, structure your introductory letter to show how you embody the keywords you noticed.

Using our existing example of "community-minded," "independent," and "fresh perspective," the first thing you'll want to do is make three columns. Under each, list examples of how you've exhibited these traits. The lists don't have to be equal in length or quality, it's even okay if you can't think of anything under a list.

Review your lists and highlight places where you have direct experience. Including this will make a strong impression.

take time to plan your cover letter

Drafting The Meat of Your Letter

Pick two things from your list that exemplify both that you align with the values of the company and that you have relevant skills.

You'll craft two strong paragraphs illustrating this. For example, if you did an independent study project that you won an award for, this shows independence. It may not be directly related to the position or career, but it shows the ability to work both doggedly and independently.

Your paragraphs should feature two different aspects of their values, the job description and your lists. Follow the sage writing advice "show, don't tell," and approach it as storytelling.

Craft a Strong Opening Paragraph for your Cover Letter

Imagine you're meeting someone for the first time and when they hold out their hand to shake yours they say, "I've never shaken someone's hand before." Whether or not their handshake is a good one, you'll go into it expecting a mediocre one at best.

Do not start a cover letter with a self-deprecating statement like, "I know you can tell from my resume that I don't have any transferable skills or relevant experience."

Instead, start stronger.

If you're feeling particularly brave, you can dive right into one of your middle paragraphs. But, it's fine to start with a more traditional opening.

Many people choose to start with an introduction and why they are applying. The hiring manager is also going to see your resume, so don't be redundant. We recommend showing that you're excited by the job. Here you can weave in some of those words and values you've found.

Starting with, "When I saw that [COMPANY] was hiring a [POSITION APPLYING FOR], I knew I had to apply," is an example of a strong opening statement. It shows interest and knowledge and that the cover letter is not just a boilerplate. Remember, hiring managers want personalized resumes and cover letters.

Keep your opening brief and punchy. Balance your language. Don't use overly casual language, but don't try to sound too formal. This can give the impression that a candidate is lacking communication skills.

Ending Your Letter

Near the end of your cover letter, it is okay to acknowledge that you are a career changer or new to the workforce. Your letter, thus far, has been engaging and showed off how you're a good fit. You've told a story of who you are and how you'll fit in.

Never Complain, Never Explain

Don't apologize or put yourself down over a lack of experience. A cover letter should convey confidence. Try language like, "My experience may not be exactly what you'd expect from an applicant but my proven ability to work independently and innovative approach to budgeting align with your values and needs."

Downplay what you don't have. Highlight what you do.

Cover Letter Tips for Everyone

No matter the job opening you're applying for, your level of experience or transferable skills, here are the most important tips for your cover letter.

Do not go Over one Page

The hiring manager in charge of reading cover letters and resumes is not going to spend much time, so make sure your letter is tight and doesn't require going onto a second page.

Use the Active Voice

Consider the following two sentences:

  • I have been managing lower-ranking employees at my place of work and was responsible for creating a system to get people to show up on time.
  • I increased timeliness by 90% as a manager. (Also acceptable: As a manager, I increased timeliness by 90%.

The first sentence uses more words to say less.

The second sentence better communicates information and adds quantification. You've not only saved room; you've gotten your point across!

Don't be Fancy

Do not use unusual or paid fonts, colored text or extensive formatting. And please, do not ever include a picture on your resume. Hiring managers will not take these seriously.

Use a serif font (one with feet like Times New Roman) if you are submitting a print copy. For digital and online resumes, use a sans serif font (like Arial).

An 11- or 12- point font is the right choice. Be sure the font color is set to black.

Proofread Carefully

Proofreading is very different from using spell check. Yes, you should use spelling and grammar checkers (Google now includes a decent proofreading functionality in its workspace) but take time to actually read it yourself, too.

If possible, ask someone you trust to proofread for you. We recommend asking for specific feedback. For example, "Can you proofread this and only focus on places where you think I could be more concise?" This will avoid everyone trying to rewrite your letter to suit their personal tastes.

Don't Give up

The job search is grueling. But if you take the time to craft personalized, job opening specific cover letters and resumes that follow these guidelines you're far more likely to get a response.

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