How to Use a Cover Letter When Your Resume Doesn’t Fit the Job Description

by Sharon Elber

Cover Letter Job Description

There are a few common reasons why a resume may not fit a job that you are applying for. One very common example is if you are making a career shift from one industry to another. This is more common than you might think, and it is not necessarily a barrier to landing an interview or a job.

Another common reason some people have a hard time writing a resume to fit a job description is when they are returning to their career after a long break. Perhaps you took off ten years to raise children or did not need to work when married but are now going through a divorce.

Finally, you may find yourself in the unenviable position of having exhausted local employment possibilities in your sector and are now looking outside of your sector for a job that will at least make use of your transferable skills.

Regardless of your reasons, a cover letter can go a long way to help explain why you may not have some of the expected sector related experience for the job you are applying for, but none the less should be considered as a strong candidate for the job.

Strategies to Showcase Fit on Your Resume

Before we get into cover letter techniques to help in your situation, it is important to be sure you have done everything you can to customize your resume to best showcase the qualifications, experiences, and skills that a recruiter is looking for when making hiring decisions. Where you can, showcase fit by tailoring your resume to each position you apply for.

A full treatment of this is outside the scope of this article, but here are a few quick tips:

Use the right resume format: If you have transferable skills that you have picked up during your career, you want to be sure they are front and center. A functional format can help because it places the emphasis on skills and de-emphasizes work history.

Research the sector and the job: If you are reaching outside of your comfort zone into new job territory, then it is important to do your homework and learn what you can about the particular industry and/or type of work to help make sure your resume points to your most relevant qualifications. In addition, this will be a critical aspect of crafting the right cover letter, explained in more detail below.

Use the right language: Scour the job advertisement for terminology that may be sector specific and try to mirror that language in your resume. This can help with both automated resume scanning programs as well as those all important human reviews of your resume. Don’t make it hard for them to find what they are looking for or expect them to accommodate language used in your previous field of work.

Focus on transferable skills: Just because you worked in one sector does not mean you have not gained a valuable skillset for jobs outside of your field. For example, leadership skills are in high demand and can translate across a wide variety of jobs. If the sector you are applying in has a high rate of growth, they are likely going to be more open to hiring from outside the field to fill leadership gaps, providing a great opportunity to leverage your management skillset in a new sector.

Focusing on transferable skills is also important in the work history section of your resume. How can you reframe the responsibilities you held to emphasize the kinds of skills your new potential employer will value?

Keep yourself honest: When people are under pressure to try to “fit” themselves to less than ideal jobs, they can make the mistake of overreaching into deception territory. This is a surefire way to get a bad reputation and potentially land a job you are not qualified for which is a nightmare scenario no one wants to be in. While careful framing of your past work history is fine, adding in falsehoods isn’t.

How to Write a Cover Letter to Compliment a Resume During a Career Shift

The cover letter is a powerful tool for job seekers who are, for whatever reason, applying for jobs that don’t seem at first glance to be a tight fit with their work history and/or education. Here is where you can make your case that despite your slightly unconventional path to this particular job opportunity, you are still a strong candidate to consider.

Here are some tips to making the most of your cover letter in this situation:

Lead with Relevancy

It may be tempting to lead your cover letter off with an explanation for why your work history doesn’t exactly make you look like the most traditional candidate for the job. However, this can work against you by coming off as apologetic and drawing attention to deficit rather than strength. Instead, lead off with a focus on the most relevant qualifications that you do have.

For example, if you are applying for a job in retail management but only have experience working in the healthcare field, you can hone in on your five years of experience leading a team of diverse employees to achieve high productivity without compromising on quality standards.

Include a Positively Framed Explanation (Only if Necessary)

If the mismatch between your work history and the job you are applying for is a minor one, then it may be a good idea to ignore the discrepancy rather than draw attention to it in your cover letter. For example, if you worked as a chef for a catering business and now want to apply for job as a chef in a restaurant, then focusing on the common ground is probably a better strategy than bringing attention to the differences.

However, if the gap is larger, then an explanation in your cover letter can go a long way towards helping the hiring manager know that you are still a strong candidate. There are a lot of positively framed narratives you can use to put your resume into context in a constructive way. Here are a few of them:

This is my dream job.

When using this narrative, your goal is to tell the story of why shifting your career in this direction is moving you towards your higher passions and career objectives. This kind of narrative can be a powerful one, particularly if you are careful to emphasize why it matters to you so much to earn an opportunity to put your significant transferable skills into the service of your deepest passion.

Example:

  • I have over a decade of experience teaching children ages 5-10 in the classroom. Over the years I have found that my true passion and talents lie in connecting with the most disadvantaged students in my classroom and helping them find a path to success. I am ready to take my career in a direction that will make that aspect of my previous work more central to my day to day responsibilities. I am confident that the Director of Outreach position for XYZ Nonprofit will allow me to do just that.

I can offer a fresh perspective.

One way to leverage your slightly unconventional career ambitions is to frame your considerable expertise in one field as an advantage in terms of bringing fresh eyes to the table. This can be a particularly strong narrative to use if you are changing from one entire employment sector to another.

Example:

  • Helping customers to solve problems is key to building brand loyalty and cultivating long term relationships. In my ten years working in real estate, I learned to carefully listen to my clients’ needs and hone in on what mattered most to them during their search for a new home. I know that I have a strong foundation of tacit listening skills that will serve me in the Coordinator for Client Services position at the Community Center.

I know what I am getting into and I am ready for the challenge.

Sometimes employers can be hesitant to hire employees that don’t have a strong sense for their industry. If this is the case in your situation, it is imperative to do your research and demonstrate that you are aware of industry trends relevant to the job you are applying for. This can be an especially helpful narrative to emphasize if you are applying for jobs in a high demand field where the odds that they are willing to consider candidates from other industries go up.

Example:

  • I am aware that employee retention is a critical issue in the IT sector. I faced similar challenges of keeping top talent in my previous position as Human Resource Director in the hotel industry. I know how to keep employees at all levels of the operation motivated, find pathways for success within the company, and develop benefits packages that are both cost effective and highly successful at recruiting and retaining the best talent.

Avoid Negativity in Your Cover Letter

Finally, although you may be facing special challenges finding a job that is a better fit for your qualifications, it is important not to let that create a negative tone in your cover letter. For example, here are a few narratives to make sure to avoid in your cover letter:

  • I have exhausted all of the opportunities in my sector, so now I am resorting to applying for this job.
  • I would rather be doing XYZ, but that job is not available.
  • I am desperate for a job now, so I am willing to take just about anything.
  • I don’t really like what I am doing now.
  • I am not sure what I want, but my current career just isn’t doing it for me.
  • I am not qualified at all for this job, but you should hire me anyway.
  • I don’t really understand what this job position entails, but I am pretty sure I can do it.

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