Career change cover letter: how and when to write one

While your resume tells the broad story of your career, your cover letter is what tells a hiring manager the narrative of where you are right now, perhaps how you ended up there, and where you want to be. Painting a detailed description of your career narrative is even more important when writing a career change cover letter, or a cover letter you submit when you’re ready to take that leap and finally switch up your career path.

You may ask, do I even need a cover letter when making my career change? That answer varies on where you are in your career, your job search approach, and how many connections you have within your new industry.

Ladders spoke to three career change experts to find out if you need a career change cover letter, how to write yours, and the best times to use this tool.

The truth about career change cover letters

When making an extreme career change, it’s likely that you won’t have success finding a job by only submitting applications through online job postings.

“The likelihood of sending your resume through an applicant tracking system dramatically goes down,” said Marc Miller, founder of Career Pivot.

Miller suggests starting by transforming the language and vocabulary of your resume from your “old world” to your “new world.”

For example, a police officer that wants to make a change to corporate security could say that he worked with the “chief executive” instead of the “chief of police.”

At the end of the day, you are more likely going to get in front of somebody to speak about a new path through existing relationships.

“Resumes and cover letters are oftentimes a sorting device that enables hiring managers to compare apples to apples and you, by this point in your life, are an orange,” said Dorie Clark, a communication coach, consultant, author, and keynote speaker.

“If you are coming in with 20 years of experience doing something radically different, you will look radically under-qualified along certain matrices and you will be radically overqualified on others,” Clark said. “A person who is not a creative thinker is probably only going to look at the under-qualified part and say ‘Well, she hasn’t been doing this…she doesn’t know this world.”

According to Clark, what you need to do is be able to build relationships through networking and connections with someone who is a little bit more visionary and who is able to say, “You know what, she doesn’t come from this world, but she knows a lot of other valuable things that might be extremely useful. Let’s bring her in and talk to her and see what she can do.”

“A piece of paper is not going to convey that fully,” Clark said. “What is far more likely to convey it is your personal relationship with that individual or a good friend vouching for you and saying ‘Look, this person is a superstar, even if she doesn’t know this industry, she’s going to be great. Give her a chance.'”

When you should write a career change cover letter

While relationships are paramount to making a career change, a cover letter can be the place to tell that story and is certainly more useful than a resume in doing so. A resume doesn’t connect the dots as a cover letter can. That being said, in today’s market it’s unlikely that a cover letter, even a stunning one, will help you land an interview.

“There are so many robots and automated systems screening resumes and cover letters that if that’s how you’re breaking in initially…it’s a little bit of a losing proposition,” Clark said.

Instead, a career change cover letter can be useful for when you actually do land that first meeting with someone who is already in the industry that you’re looking to break into at the moment.

“Cover letters can be helpful as a sort of positioning statement or tool to shape your story in advance before you’re having a meeting with someone…it’s something you can send over to them,” Clark said. “So I certainly think it’s valuable in that regard. But if it’s your only move, or you’re just sending stuff out…that’s not very helpful.”

The best job search is one that is hyper-targeted, not one that consists of you sending your application to a hundred different job applications online, according to Clark.

“You can’t just blow the dandelion and see where it lands,” Clark said. “You need to think much more precisely about how to network your way into where you want to go.”

How you should write a career change cover letter

“Cover letters are one of those things that a lot of people question these days especially if you’re sending these online applications. It is critical, they should be short, to the point, and snappy,” said Kerry Hannon, career expert, and author. “If you’re making this career transition, you need to be very upfront about your ‘why.‘”

Hannon recommends making the reason for your transition very clear within the first paragraph of your career change cover letter.

Here are some questions to answer within your cover letter:

  • Why are you making this transition?
  • What is it about this job/field do you enjoy?
  • Why this particular employer?
  • How can help this employer succeed with your current skill set?
  • What are you selling?
  • What can you bring to their party to make them successful? Why?

“Don’t apply willy nilly,” Hannon said. “When you’re career transitioning, you’re not reinventing yourself, you’re redeploying the skills that you already have built up.”

In your pitch, whatever form it takes, you need to highlight why your current skill set is as applicable to this new field as it was to your old field. Most importantly, you need to excitedly convey why bringing your skills to that team will allow it to succeed because, in the end, it’s always about the employer’s goals, not your own.