Though your resume may look spot on and demonstrate that you have the right type of experience and education, upon closer inspection a potential employer may see that there are gaps between your positions.
A cover letter is an excellent tool for you to address these gaps in employment history so that your reader will come away with a positive understanding of your candidacy.
Short spaces of time (i.e. one to three months) are explainable; usually, it takes a while to find a new job or relocate for your new position. However, it is the larger gaps of time or the re-occurrence of large gaps that worry employers. They wonder if you are reliable or just a job hopper; if you have numerous jobs that you only spent a few months at, then they would classify you as a job hopper.
If you might be considered a “job hopper” it may be a good idea to leave some of your shorter terms out of your resume. If you held a full-time job and a short-term position, this does not convey the same message as job hopping; it is okay to leave that short-term job on the resume, provided it is relevant and you have space for it.
The cover letter provides a good opportunity to explain holes in your work history, particularly if you are returning to the workforce from several years of leave. There are many reasons that a person may need that much time off, including medical care for yourself or a family member, education, the birth of a child, not knowing which path to take, etc. Your reasons are your own, and to you, they were very important; however, some employers may not view these reasons in the same light.
Every one of us can relate to a serious illness or death of a loved one. Employers should be compassionate enough to understand that you needed to take a few years off to help a severely disabled parent or spend some time with a terminally ill loved one. Be honest in your cover letter, but keep the details short and concise, for example, “I left the workforce from 2005-2008 to assist my aging father. He has since been moved to an appropriate care facility, and I am now able to get back to my career and give it my full attention”.
Explaining that you were out of the workforce for two years to complete your Master’s Degree is quite easy, and since having a higher education is a very admiral trait, mentioning it again in your cover letter will not hurt. You probably have some internship, graduate assistant, or publishing experience that you can describe to help others understand the work you were doing while achieving your educational goals. On the other hand, here are some tricky topics that should seem pretty straightforward, but really do require a bit of finesse.
Staying at home to raise your child or children.
Unfortunately, not everyone knows how to truly appreciate a stay at home parent. You may be asked questions as to why you could not balance both a job and raising children. Or a hiring manager may be left wondering if you are going to take an extended leave if you have another child in the future. Use your cover letter to address this issue right away. You may note that you were limited in your opportunities to secure childcare or schooling for your children; you wanted to spend the first few years with your child, as they are the most precious years; etc.
After giving your reason, you want to assure the potential employer that you are 100% committed to returning to the workplace and are excited and eager to return to your dream career.
Not knowing which path to take.
Many people go through this phase in their life, and it can happen at any age. It may occur during your college or university years or once you are into your first or second career. There is nothing wrong with taking some time to find yourself and developing the traits needed to succeed in your chosen field. However, some employers may think that you have your head in the clouds, do not know what you really want, or are wondering if you will end up leaving this job after only a few months because it was not the right fit either.
In your cover letter you can explain that you had been working toward a given career, but realized on the way that it was not as rewarding as you thought it was; you did some soul searching (your soul searching might include concrete activities such as researching the field, job shadowing existing professionals, or additional training designed to better qualify you for your new role) and found what would truly make you happy for the rest of your life, and you are now very eager to begin on this new path.
A gap in experience can be the elephant in your room when a review reads your application. If you are proactive in addressing that gap, you’ll be able to move past it so that potential hiring managers and committees can instead focus their attention on the things that make you stand out as a candidate. This, in turn, will help you be more successful as you work toward your new position.