How To Explain a Career Gap and Other Red Flags on a Cover Letter

Apr 22, 2021 | Cover Letters

How to Explain Red Flags in Your Cover Letter

Worried that a gap or other “red flag” in your resume is going to give a hiring manager pause? Here’s how to use your cover letter to explain it —  and even turn the situation to your advantage. 

By: Ryan Thornton | Contributor for Let’s Eat, Grandma

So you’ve got yourself a career gap or another kind of resume red flag that won’t disappear. You’ve done all you can to define and downplay it but it’s still painfully obvious, like that bright red pimple on your forehead the day of the 8th grade school dance! (That wasn’t just me, right?)

It may feel like the end of the world, but try not to sweat it. Just like you probably weren’t going to find true love at your Junior High School dance, you’re also unlikely to find the solution to all of your job-seeking woes in your resume alone. And that’s okay!

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At the end of the day, a resume can only say so much. In order to transform your resume blemishes into blessings you must also embrace the unique power of the cover letter. Here are the essential principles of a cover letter that defuses red flags and gets you into the virtual interview room.

Career Gaps: Don’t Apologize … Contextualize!

Photo by Jerry Wang on Unsplash

It’s common for parents to have to step back from the workforce for childcare or homeschooling. Photo by Jerry Wang on Unsplash

A career gap is a very common red flag and job hunters are wise to take this seriously. However, as we recently discovered, a resume gap is probably not as detrimental to your career prospects as you’ve been made to believe. It all depends on the circumstances, the individual attitudes of hiring professionals, and how you plan to address it in your job search.

If you recall the “3 D’s” of managing a career gap, you’ll remember that more significant gaps demand more thorough explanations. Your cover letter is the perfect place for that level of detail, but the wrong kinds of details can hurt more than help.

When we say you should “describe” your career gap, we certainly don’t mean you need to discuss any regrets over the event or decision that led to the gap. Nor is this the place to bemoan how it may have left you behind the curve or afraid for the future of your career. No matter why the gap happened, the purpose of your description is to show that you’re a great hire because of your life experiences and choices, not despite them.

This may require some creative thinking on your part. Writing in your own authentic voice, you want to briefly address your time out of work in a way that highlights your impressive attributes and any skills you learned or sharpened during this time.

For example, say you’re returning to the workplace after some time spent homeschooling your children and taking online graduate coursework yourself. An adequate explanation might be:

“When my child’s school closed down due to the pandemic last year, I embraced the opportunity to expand my professional skill set with online courses while ensuring my child continued to receive a quality education. Teaching while parenting and studying left me little room for reflection, but I quickly realized that lessons from these graduate courses in business management were improving my homeschooling methods. I’m excited to put them into practice in my career.”

Presenting a Career Change

Man at fork in road. Photo by Caleb Jones on Unsplash

Hiring managers understand that life can take you in different directions — but you have to give them a little context. Photo by Caleb Jones on Unsplash

If you’re leaving one industry or professional role to try something new, your cover letter is an especially important piece of your application. Some hiring professionals will naturally wonder why you’ve taken a sharp turn in your career path. They may also be quick to dismiss your previous experience if it doesn’t appear to line up with the new work you’re after.

As with your career change resume, your cover letter strategy in this case is all about transferable skills. This is true regardless of why you’re making the move into a new career path.

The most valuable skills in a typical career change are transferable “soft skills” like communication, collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, multitasking, leadership, and flexibility. These are, after all, skills that are valued in just about every industry and position. Emphasize these along with any other overlapping skills in order to dispel any doubts about the relevance of your previous experience.

Let’s consider someone who spent the first decade of their career in sales and wants to transition into a human resources role. Their cover letter may include a paragraph that reads something like this:

“My background as a salesperson will directly contribute to my success in this role. In this position, I cultivated strong communication skills such as empathy and active listening, as well as other skills valuable to human resources, such as time management and flexibility. I believe this combination of qualities presents me as a natural fit for this position.”

When writing your own cover letter to fit your circumstances, remember to make a conscious effort to reframe your experience in the context of your target industry. This will help further soothe concerns over your experience.

Other Common Red Flags

As with career gaps and career changes, it’s important to remain strategic and positive when addressing other types of resume red flags.

Some of the more common red flags include:

  • Job hopping
  • Age discrimination
  • An incomplete education or lack of a degree
  • A layoff
  • Leaving a toxic work environment

Depending on the situation, you may not need to address these red flags in a cover letter. For instance, many career strategists consider it unhelpful and potentially detrimental to include your reasons for leaving a previous work environment on your resume, even if your boss was a total jerk.

Other red flags, like a pattern of job hopping or an incomplete college degree, are usually best to address up front. Here are some tips to deal with these common red flags.

Job hopping

If you haven’t stuck with previous employers for very long, it’s a good idea to briefly explain your job transitions and frame them in a positive light.

Here’s a possible outline:

“After a short time at X company, where I developed my skills in bookkeeping and accounting fundamentals, I decided to transition to Y company in order to learn more about marketing. When I saw this postition, I realized it would be the perfect opportunity for me to apply everything I’ve learned in the past few years at a company that aligns perfectly with my values.”

Age discrimination

Age discrimination is a sad reality that many older job seekers face. Your cover letter can help circumvent this unfair practice by downplaying years of experience and highlighting unique skills and established professional connections.

If you have been in the workforce longer than most, consider noting your enthusiasm for “leveraging your connections and depth of knowledge” in your cover letter rather than your “decades of experience.”

Incomplete college education or lack of a degree

Graduation cap. Photo by  Tai's Captures on Unsplash

If you don’t have a degree, be upfront about it, and focus on the skills and certifications you have instead. Photo by Tai’s Captures on Unsplash

Depending on your particular field, a college degree may or may not be expected by potential employers. In the tech industry, for example, there’s some evidence that skills are becoming more important than diplomas. However, that said, a degree can definitely be a helpful way to convey a number of positive attributes to potential employers. For candidates who do not have that advantage, it may be important to demonstrate that you are entirely qualified for the position despite the lack of certain paper credentials.

Write about your skills and experience with confidence in your abilities. Consider turning the focus away from your lack of education from the outset with something like this:

“Rather than following the traditional route into college, I secured an apprenticeship/position in the industry straight out of high school while continuing my education through reading and building relationships with mentors.”

Accounting for a layoff

As long as you were not actually terminated for cause from a previous employer, it’s okay to be brief and positive when addressing a layoff in a cover letter. Remember that layoffs are relatively common, especially in the past year, and you do not need to take the blame for it or justify your employer’s decision.

Here’s an example of a paragraph that provides enough detail for a cover letter:

“My previous position with Bank of America was terminated due to a large-scale corporate restructuring. During my four years in that role, I exceeded performance metrics with ease and I look forward to doing the same in this position.”

Your Cover Letter, Your Story

While these examples are meant to help you write an excellent cover letter, the most important piece of advice is to tell your story in your own voice. None of these red flags needs to signal the end of your dreams for your career. Your cover letter can help you cover your perceived mistakes and realize those dreams. Just remember to keep it positive, brief, and relevant.

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