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7 Resume Tips for Career Changers

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Career Switch

Most of us will go through at least one career change. Sometimes career change is by choice — prompted by the discovery of a new dream or the need for bigger challenges. Often, especially during  times of economic upheaval, career changes are made for practical reasons, in response to industry changes that result in lack of jobs, too much competition, or less attractive future prospects.

Whatever your reasons for switching career paths, it’s important to realize that your old methods, which may have been sufficient for landing you a job in your established field, may need some retooling. That means creating a resume that will help you market your best transferable skills (read more of our advice on career change).

Hiring managers have short attention spans. If you want your resume to get past the initial screening phase, you’ll need to put your best foot forward and avoid appearing over-qualified or under-qualified. Here are some tips to help you navigate the career change process successfully and land a job in your new field.

Tip 1. Make a strong first impression.

Put some effort into writing a compelling cover letter. The cover letter is your first impression with many hiring managers (it’s true that some don’t read cover letters, but many do and it’s worth the effort to improve your chances) and an opportunity to convey the meaningful connections between your professional past and the skills you can bring to the job going forward.

These connections are not always obvious. Don’t assume that the reader can make the leap between your experience as an attorney and your fit for a marketing position. Spell it out. You’ll be up against candidates with job experience that seems a more obvious fit, so do your best to convey WHY your nontraditional background makes you a fantastic fit for this new role/company/industry.

Tip 2. Prepare for resume rewrites.

A common mistake career changers make is to use the same resumes that worked in their previous careers. It’s always smart to customize your resume for each new position to which you apply, reworking to highlight the skills and past experience most relevant for each job.

However, it’s even more important for career changers to present a customized resume that clearly demonstrates your fit for this new career. Re-phrase and re-organize your skills to properly highlight your qualifications for this new path. Pay careful attention to job descriptions and use the key words and lingo in your resume.

Tip 3. Pick the right resume format.

There are several different types of resume formats that can work well for career changers:

— A ‘Mixed’ Chronological Resume is a chronological-style resume (meaning it lists your past work experience in reverse chronological order) that leads with a qualifications summary. This one is best for career changers with transferable skills from their professional past. The summary highlights your most relevant qualifications to easily point them out to the hiring manager.

In this qualifications summary, it is also important for you to mention your new career objective, so employers don’t assume you’re staying in your old field. Remember those short attention spans. If a glance at your last few positions doesn’t make it obvious that you’re a great fit for the job at hand, make sure you spell it out in the summary.

Within your chronological work history, you should focus on the skills, tasks and accomplishments most relevant to your new career.

 — A Functional Resume  allows you to emphasize your related skills and downplay your work history. This format works well if you’re pursuing a career that is very different than your former career.

Lead your resume with a career goal and qualifications summary, and then create categories that highlight your related skills and experience. Your work chronology is listed at the end of the resume, with no job description for unrelated positions.

— A Letter-Style Resume is really a cover letter that substitutes for a resume, emphasizes your passion for the industry and any related experience/training. The narrative format allows you to control the information you provide. Keep your letter focused on how your passion for your new career, combined with your transferable skills and experience, would benefit your potential employer.

This format works well for networking scenarios in which you are referred by a mutual contact who vouches for you. You will still need to have a more traditional resume format on hand in case it’s requested, but the letter will serve as a good introduction and pique the hiring manager’s interest in interviewing you. Keep in mind that this format does not work as well for blind job applications (via a job board) that specifically ask for a resume as some recruiters/managers may not know what to do with a letter with no resume — or may see it as inability to follow directions.

Tip 4. Be Specific.

Whatever format you choose, your new resume (or resumes) should be comprehensive, but not overwhelming. Zero in on those skills that would be most interesting to the person looking to fill the position.

Your time at a PR firm may be impressive, but not so much to a hiring manager looking for a tech assistant. This is where transferable skills come in. Each job teaches us something, and those things can be widely used elsewhere. For instance, your time management skills or knowledge of certain computer programs would be useful in most any position.

Tip 5. Pare it down.

Though large, unexplained gaps in the resume should be avoided, you don’t need to list every position you’ve had if they are not relevant. Your job here is to demonstrate the ease with which you will move into this new career. Stay focused on relevance as opposed to volume.

This is particularly important if you are a relatively experienced candidate who is willing to take on a more junior role in exchange for the opportunity to switch fields. Some employers have a bias against the “overqualified” — worrying that you may turn up your nose at more junior work or that you can’t possibly be truly interested in the job. Play down your overall years of experience and emphasize your commitment to the career change and your willingness (and ability) to roll up your sleeves and do the work needed.

Tip 6. Highlight valuable experiences.

Think about projects in your past that allowed you to develop transferable skills — including related education, training, and volunteer work. If your past professional experience has little application this career switch, you may be able to make up for it by emphasizing work done outside of office hours.

For example, if you’re an accounting assistant looking to move into graphic design, include the web site you designed for the local soup kitchen and the brochure you designed for your friend’s bed-and breakfast. List design classes and training in design software. Show that you have a passion for the new field and have been taking every opportunity to develop your skills.

Tip 7. Don’t fear the qualification gaps.

For candidates from unrelated professional backgrounds, there will be qualification gaps. However, keep in mind that few job candidates meet 100% of every single desired qualification. Many employers would rather hire someone who’s a 80-90% fit, but has great enthusiasm and willingness to learn.

So don’t be intimidated at the thought of being less than 100% qualified. Focus on showing your strengths and abilities in the most compelling way possible. Your enthusiasm and bravery in switching fields will come through in your cover and resume, and lead you straight to the interview.

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Written by

Pamela Skillings

Pamela Skillings is co-founder of Big Interview. As an interview coach, she has helped her clients land dream jobs at companies including Google, Microsoft, Goldman Sachs, and JP Morgan Chase. She also has more than 15 years of experience training and advising managers at organizations from American Express to the City of New York. She is an adjunct professor at New York University and an instructor at the American Management Association.

19 Comment to 7 Resume Tips for Career Changers

  • Trey

    Do you think this would apply to a recent grad who is changing focus? Meaning, I studied English and did non-profit work coming right out of school – do you think I can switch to a career in finance?

  • Hi Trey,
    Yes, the same advice would apply. You are early in your career, so it should be easier to make the switch. If you haven’t already, do some research into finance career paths to help you understand your options. For some paths, you may need to do an internship to get your foot in the door. For others, it may just be a matter of highlighting your transferable skills and networking effectively.

  • I think a lot of people under-estimate the value of a good cover letter. I’d be much more likely to consider a candidate who was well-spoken and provided a compelling, engaging cover letter.

  • Pradeep Sharma

    Thanks a lot Pamela for useful information. Can you share some examples of resumes who like to transition from a IT / Program management world to Digital Marketing?

  • Praneeth Podduturi Reddy

    hi, I had been working as a staff (manager)in fast food industry for past four years. now i would like to begin my career as software programmer/developer. I got a degree and diploma in IT. What things i need to focus in my resume to make it special for job applications. i don’t have any experience on IT side.(this mean I am graduate looking for the job)

  • Praneeth Podduturi Reddy

    Hi, I had been working as a staff(manager) in a fast food restaurant for past four years. Now I am looking forward for a career as a software programmer/developer. I had a graduate degree in IT. Now what points should I focus in my CV to make it special for job application.

  • Thank you Palema for the advice in making a professional summary resume. I still have to work on to reshape with my resume. btw, if you have some example for professional public health resume please do share so that I can see and imagine how to write it. Thanks a lot.

  • Thank you Palema for the advice in making a professional summary resume. I still have to work on to reshape with my resume. btw, if you have some example for professional public health resume please do share so that I can see and imagine how to write it. Thanks a lot.

  • Thank you Palema for the advice in making a professional summary resume. I still have to work on to reshape with my resume. btw, if you have some example for professional public health resume please do share so that I can see and imagine how to write it. Thanks a lot.

  • Thank you Palema for the advice in making a professional summary resume. I still have to work on to reshape with my resume. btw, if you have some example for professional public health resume please do share so that I can see and imagine how to write it. Thanks a lot.

  • Thank you Palema for the advice in making a professional summary resume. I still have to work on to reshape with my resume. btw, if you have some example for professional public health resume please do share so that I can see and imagine how to write it. Thanks a lot.

  • Thank you Palema for the advice in making a professional summary resume. I still have to work on to reshape with my resume. btw, if you have some example for professional public health resume please do share so that I can see and imagine how to write it. Thanks a lot.

  • joe swindle

    I am a retired police officer with 27 years on the job. I do have vocational training as a welder and a ASE Auto Service Tech. I do have experience in these two fields even though my career has been in law enforcement. I now want to pursue these fields. Suggestions? Joe

  • joe swindle

    I am a retired police officer with 27 years on the job. I do have vocational training as a welder and a ASE Auto Service Tech. I do have experience in these two fields even though my career has been in law enforcement. I now want to pursue these fields. Suggestions? Joe

  • joe swindle

    I am a retired police officer with 27 years on the job. I do have vocational training as a welder and a ASE Auto Service Tech. I do have experience in these two fields even though my career has been in law enforcement. I now want to pursue these fields. Suggestions? Joe

  • joe swindle

    I am a retired police officer with 27 years on the job. I do have vocational training as a welder and a ASE Auto Service Tech. I do have experience in these two fields even though my career has been in law enforcement. I now want to pursue these fields. Suggestions? Joe

  • joe swindle

    I am a retired police officer with 27 years on the job. I do have vocational training as a welder and a ASE Auto Service Tech. I do have experience in these two fields even though my career has been in law enforcement. I now want to pursue these fields. Suggestions? Joe

  • joe swindle

    I am a retired police officer with 27 years on the job. I do have vocational training as a welder and a ASE Auto Service Tech. I do have experience in these two fields even though my career has been in law enforcement. I now want to pursue these fields. Suggestions? Joe

  • Hasib Reza

    Dear Pamela, I’ve been working as development economics researcher for nearly 5 years. Now, I’m planning to change my career as Economics Lecturer. Could you please suggest me how I should organize my CV and what should be the necessary content? Thanks in advance for your kind help.