You took some time off. Finished your degree. Went on sabbatical. Stayed home and raised young kids. Took care of an elderly parent who needed you. Whatever it was, the net result is an employment gap—and it’s making you squirm. Do people even hire professionals with the dreaded G-word on their resumes?
Of course they do. But you will need to strategize.
That recruiters and hiring managers raise an eyebrow over gaps is not a myth; but it’s also not a death sentence. You’re not the first person on this Earth with a gap, and you most certainly won’t be the last. It’s more common than you think. You’re just going to need to take some care with how you explain it, in both your paperwork and in person at an interview.
Let’s break it down:
How Do I Explain a Gap on My Resume?
Simply put? Proactively. Your best defense when you have an employment gap is almost always a good offense. Recruiters will likely wonder what the deal is if, say, you don’t list employment past 2011. Rather than empower them to draw their own conclusions (which might not be accurate, or beneficial to you), make it instantly clear what you’ve been up to.
In Your Summary
First, this is when you need to use a career summary. Keep your target role and target audience in the forefront of your mind as you construct it. If this is your first time writing one, it should be three to five bullet points that introduce you as a professional and announce your strengths across the key things you know (or suspect) that this audience will be looking for.
Your summary section also affords you an opportunity to construct a statement that quickly and succinctly explains what’s up. For instance:
Present a valuable skill set that combines IT consulting experience with a recent graduate degree in healthcare management; interested in meshing the two to serve as an IT consultant in a healthcare-related corporation or hospital system.
Do you see what we did there? We proactively spelled out that this person recently finished grad school (thus, explaining the gap), and at the same time, married her prior experience with the recent degree. Assuming the reviewer of this resume is someone looking for an IT consultant in healthcare, you’ve not only just made his or her job easier, you’ve done some damage control.
In Your Career Chronology
OK, so maybe you stopped working in 2010, and you feel like that end date is just glaring on your reverse chronology resume. Should you shift to a functional resume instead, so you can bury this date further down in the resume? No, you shouldn’t. Most recruiters hate functional resumes. They want to know what you did, when, and where.
Instead, consider adding any volunteer work, freelance projects, or part-time gigs that you’ve done across this time right in your career chronology. Maybe you’ve been a volunteer project coordinator for a local nonprofit for the past two years. If so, don’t relegate this information to a separate “Volunteer Work” section; instead, roll it right into your experience section so that your gap is diminished or eliminated. Certainly, mention that you’re serving in a volunteer capacity, but if the work you’ve been doing is stuff you’re proud of, and potentially relevant to your next assignment, build it right into your career chronology.
In Your Education Section
If the reason for your employment gap is because you’ve been in school and just graduated, pull the education section of your resume right up near the top, listing your graduation date. This, at the very least, will imply that the gap is directly tied to your decision to return to school.
In Your Cover Letter
Your cover letter is also a wonderful place to proactively manage the “I have a gap” message, because you can be a bit more personable here than you can be in the resume. I recommend that you come right out of the gates with it, be clear and succinct, and then move immediately into the “What specific value can I bring to your organization?” part of the cover letter.
Consider something like this:
Completing my degree while caring for both small children and an ill parent wasn’t an easy assignment, but it’s one I took on with honor and pride. I also discovered something very interesting as I juggled a full-time Master of Public Health program while making sure lunches were packed, buses weren’t missed, and doctor’s orders were followed: My 10 years of experience as an event planner and project coordinator came right in handy.”
Next: Head right into a paragraph about why you’ll be a great event planner for this company.
Use this real estate to your advantage if you’ve got a gap that needs explaining, but don’t belabor the point or over-explain things. Recruiters cares a lot more about what you can walk through their doors and deliver than your six-paragraph explanation about your time off.
You can (and will be asked to) explain further in the interview. On that note:
At the Interview
You’ve made it past the screening process, and you’ve got an invitation to the ball game. Don’t squander this opportunity by being unprepared to cover obvious holes in your career experience. Once again, your best strategy is to walk in prepared to confidently, succinctly, and in a positive manner, explain the reason for the gap. The more confident and matter-of-fact you can be about the time off—even if you feel insecure about the reason at your core—the better.
Try to weave the information proactively into the conversation, before you’re asked (if possible). Just like in the cover letter example above, try and spin that time off into something that was beneficial or professionally valuable (even if in a roundabout way).
For instance, say your last employer laid you off and you’ve been unemployed for several months now. You could bring it up in a way that goes something like this:
“While getting laid off from a job and company I loved was both unexpected and challenging, I learned some valuable things about myself through the experience—things that I believe will make me an even better customer service manager going forward. And that could benefit XYZ Company by...”
Next: Pick out a couple of lessons that tie in to the requirements for this job, such as managing tense situations, calming unhappy clients, or whatever you feel best applies.
If you can make your interviewer not only feel OK about your gap, but see how it may actually make you a stronger, better employee? You’re golden.
Any which way, brevity and openness is the way to go most often. And in every instance, work to shift the topic right from the gap to the great things you can do for that company.
The more you consider your employment gap to be a liability (or, if you’re really despairing over this, a deal breaker), the more the interviewer or recruiter is going to feel the same.
Strategize. Come out with a good offense. And then bust out the goods on what you can bring to the party. Because, without a doubt, it’s a lot.
About The Author
Jenny Foss is a career strategist, recruiter, and the voice of the popular career blog JobJenny.com. Based in Portland, OR, Jenny is the author of the Ridiculously Awesome Resume Kit and the Ridiculously Awesome Career Pivot Kit. Check out the soon-to-launch Weekend Resume Makeover Course, find Jenny on Twitter @JobJenny, and book one-on-one coaching sessions with her on The Muse's Coach Connect.