We find that returners often struggle with cover letters, which can raise a lot of questions:

  • How do I introduce myself when I’ve been out of the workforce for so long?
  • Do I mention my time away from my career and how do I explain it?
  • Is my previous work experience relevant when it was so long ago?
  • How do I avoid just repeating my CV?

We’ll give you our top tips and help to answer these specific questions below.

General Principles

  • It’s essential to create a new cover letter for every application. Employers sometimes receive hundreds of applications for each job role, and will be quick to disregard generic applications. It’s your job to make it as easy as possible for the hiring manager to understand how you would fit into their organisation.
  • Length: No longer than a single A4 page. Your cover letter shouldn’t rehash your CV, but is the opportunity for you to pick out the most salient points for the role and put them across to the hiring manager in the most succinct way possible.
  • Address your cover letter to the hiring manager if you can find his/her name.
  • Your email address: As you’re likely to be emailing your cover letter, make sure that you have a professional email address that ties in with your CV. Don’t use your husband’s or family’s email address, or an email based on your married name if you’re applying using your maiden name. We would recommend creating your own personal email address for job applications, based clearly on the name in which you are applying.
  • Check for grammar and spelling mistakes – it’s easy to miss these, so try to get someone else to proof your letter too.

Suggested Structure

Start with a clear introduction

  • Start with your background and your target role, not your career break (e.g. “I am a marketing professional with 10 years of international experience and am writing to apply for the position of Senior Marketing Manager advertised on your website”).
  • Then mention your career break. Keep mention of your career break short, simple and factual (e.g. “Following a 5-year parental career break…” is sufficient) and emphasise that you are now motivated and enthusiastic to return to work in the relevant field.
  • Briefly mention anything you’ve done during your career break that is relevant to the role (such as further study, refresher courses, volunteer or paid activities and projects), stating how it has kept your knowledge/skills up-to-date and/or allowed you to develop new skills.

Explain your suitability for the role

  • Show how you fit the top 4-6 requirements of the role (in the job advert), using evidence from your previous work experience and relevant activities from your break. Resist the temptation to list other skills that are not specifically mentioned in the job ad.
  • Avoid stuffing your cover letter with meaningless buzzwords, such as ‘team player’ or ‘good eye for detail’ and instead, give concrete examples of your accomplishments that match the role requirements.
  • Remember that, however long ago it was, you did lead a department, manage projects, produce reports, negotiate contracts or whatever your former role required. You still have these skills, even if you haven’t used them for a while.
  • Your former experience includes both what you did and how you got it done, i.e. both your technical abilities and your soft skills. Even if your technical knowledge feels a bit rusty, you have the same capacity to learn as you always did and you will get back up-to-speed. Your soft skills don’t go away, and many will have grown during your break. For example, although we don’t recommend using parenting as a direct example in your cover letter, if your break was to bring up your children, you will have enhanced skills such as time management, empathy and negotiation!
  • You might be having trouble remembering some of the details of your earlier career. If so, dig out your old performance reviews and any other reports you might have kept. Re-reading these can also remind you of what others valued about your contribution in the past: these will be the qualities that you offer a new employer too. You could also contact old colleagues, who will have a more objective view of your achievements and could provide you with a much-needed reminder of what you did.
  • If you are applying for a role where you are overqualified, address this in your cover letter. Put yourself in the shoes of the hiring manager, consider the possible concerns from the company’s side, e.g. that you may be too expensive, that you might get bored, etc. and explain why you are applying for a less senior role than you previously held.
  • For returnship programme applications:
    • Make sure you mention that you have been on a career break, including the length of your break at the time the programme starts. This is a key criterion for candidates and you risk being excluded from these opportunities if you try to cover up your break!
    • There may not be specific role requirements, beyond ‘significant experience in one or more relevant areas’. If this is the case, use this space to list out 3-6 bullet points explaining the experience you have in the relevant area(s).

Finish with your motivation

  • Explain why you are interested in the role and why you would like to work for the organisation. Make this specific to show your interest and understanding. Base your comments on your research into the company and the job/department, using social media such as the company LinkedIn page, Twitter account and Facebook page alongside the website.
  • For returnships and/or flexible/remote working roles, it’s very important to show that you’re motivated by the organisation (and the specific job role if relevant), and not just the opportunity to get back into the workforce and/or work flexibly/remotely. Show how you can benefit the company, not the other way around!

Good luck!

 
For further advice and support in your return-to-work journey, you can sign up to our free network here.

Note: This is one of our most popular posts from 2015; updated in April 2018.

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