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. Knowing how to write a cover letter that effectively presents your skills and professional experience in this situation is critical.
More often than not, a traditional cover letter will suit your needs—even if you’re not a professional writer. Before we examine tips on how to explain gaps in employment, let’s go over the basics of how to make a cover letter.
Regardless of your current employment situation, there are a few general guidelines all cover letters should follow. These documents should be 3–4 paragraphs long and include a short introductory paragraph followed by 1–2 body paragraphs providing details on your skills, qualifications, experience, and achievements. Finally, you should conclude your cover letter with a short closing paragraph that includes your preferred phone number and an invitation to call you to discuss the opportunity further.
For a more detailed cover letter outline and additional guidance, check out our companion article, “A Cover Letter That Works,” which also includes a template you can use to create your own cover letter.
This may be one of the more complicated choices you make with regards to your cover letter. Opinions vary widely on whether you should include an employment gap explanation or if you need to clarify why you have been unemployed for an extended period of time, but in the end there are two major factors to consider:
1. Is it relevant? If you discovered a new passion for healthcare while attending to a sick relative, mentioning it will give your letter a personal touch that can set it apart from the rest. However, unless the reason for your gap in employment is directly related to the position you are applying for, consider leaving it out of your cover letter. 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 if or how to explain gaps in employment is the length of time you were out of work. A few months of unemployment 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’ll need to give details on your absence from the workforce within your resume and should at least mention it somewhere in the body of your cover letter (“After caring for my ailing parents over the past four years, I am eager to return to the workforce and utilize my newfound skills as a patient advocate”).
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 information doesn’t need to be the primary focus of your cover letter. You also should not feel the need to apologize for your employment gap. If you choose to talk about why you left the workforce, keep it brief (no more than a sentence). 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.
Instead of justifying why you should be offered an interview despite your jobless period, concentrate on the skills and/or background you have that will positively influence the organization.
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. Strategize how to write a cover letter that exemplifies these qualities while highlighting your talents and achievements. 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: It can be easy to dismiss professional achievements if they occurred far enough in the past, but passing these up for a more recent—but less relevant—activity 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 make the best case for why the prospective employer should interview/hire you.
Don’t ignore your past work experience. An achievement from earlier in your career can still have a place on your cover letter, especially if it’s directly relevant to the position you’re pursuing.
Employers are most concerned with what you can bring to their organization. When choosing what to highlight in your cover letter, consider any volunteering you have done recently (are you active in the PTA? Do you serve your community as a volunteer firefighter?) or extra training/workshops you have participated in while unemployed. Did you add new skills or expand your expertise 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 offer a specific employment gap explanation, the person reading your application will likely notice it. Don’t ignore that time in your life or try to sweep it under the rug; make sure you include at least one example of how you’ve kept 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.
No matter how you choose to approach your employment gap on your cover letter, the most important thing is to highlight the ways you can help a prospective employer. A big part of knowing how to write a cover letter is customizing the document for the specific position. Many employers are willing to look past a gap in employment for a candidate that has the right attitude and all the skills needed for the open position.