How to Explain a Gap in Your Resume
April 09, 2020
Don't let hiring managers draw their own conclusions about gaps in your employment history. They may conclude you were running from the law or simply doing nothing, and that can't help your job prospects. At the same time, addressing these gaps without fumbling your response is often easier said than done.
Maybe you tended to a sick family member, cared for your kids, pursued a degree, or spent a five-month sabbatical birdwatching in the Amazon. Or maybe you were one of the 21.9 million workers U.S. businesses laid off in 2018. Whatever the reason for the gap in your employment history, you're not alone.
According to Monster's 2019 State of the Candidate Survey, roughly 60 percent of Americans have been unemployed or had a gap in their career. Of the 1,000 current full-time U.S. employees who participated in the study, 43 percent reported that they had either been fired or laid off more than once.
If you're anxious while applying for jobs after a stint of unemployment, that's natural. While a gap in your resume isn't a guaranteed disadvantage, studies show that it can hinder your chances of getting the next job you seek.
Research by the resume-writing company ResumeGo indicates that employers are less than half as likely to reach out about a position if you leave a long gap between jobs in your resume. While a one or two-year gap only slightly decreases your chance of landing an interview, a three-year gap cuts your chances virtually in half.
What's more, letting hiring managers come to their own conclusions about gaps in your employment history—like you took a career hiatus to run from the law or simply do nothing—will almost certainly harm your prospects.
According to ResumeGo, on average, applicants who provide a reason for a gap on their resume have a callback rate 60 percent higher than that of applicants who chose not to disclose the reason for a stretch of unemployment in their career.
Given the findings, explaining a gap in your employment history is a smart move. But can you clearly explain your decision and how it worked to your advantage? Instead of succumbing to jitters and fumbling your response, here's how to talk about your work history—gaps and all—and come off as the stellar candidate that you are.
1. Expect the inevitable
Recruiters are curious, and when it comes to your employment, they're interested in learning about when, why, and how you left previous positions, including any periods on your resume not covered by paid employment.
One of the first things they'll think when seeing a gap in your employment history is "What the heck were they doing?" according to Stu Coleman, partner and senior managing director at WinterWyman, a talent acquisition firm. "Some candidates, for whatever reason, have trouble keeping employment," he says. "But for the majority, there's generally a really good reason, like a medical issue. When you speak with them, you find that out."
Even if you feel awkward or ashamed about a gap in your career, being prepared to provide clarification—whether in your cover letter or during an interview—when asked is far better than just crossing your fingers and hoping the situation is overlooked.
2. Know that honesty is (always) the best policy
Gaps in employment happen—and recruiters and hiring managers realize this. They're also good at verifying candidates' career history, which makes lying about any gaps in your employment history a genuinely terrible idea.
In a 2018 TopResume study, 97 percent of surveyed recruiters, hiring managers, and HR professionals admitted that discovering a resume lie would cause them to reconsider—if not immediately dismiss—a job candidate.
Speaking the truth isn't only beneficial for keeping your resume out of the trash, either. By speaking candidly about your employment history, you control the narrative—and better still, avoid any chance of coming off as someone who's hiding something.
So, when questions about the gap in your resume come up, explain that you left the workforce after having children, hit pause on your career after several intense years in a field, or that you took time off to head back to school. If you're reduced to lying and pretending to be something you're not, your integrity will immediately be called into question.
3. Emphasize the positive
No matter the reason for the gap in your resume—whether it's getting fired, caring for a loved one, or even the birdwatching sabbatical mentioned above—you can almost always find value in the experience. And while you should avoid divulging too much information about what caused your lack of employment, you need to give specifics on how you productively spent that time.
You would do well to prepare a brief anecdote or two that emphasizes how you grew personally and professionally and became more self-actualized during your time away from the workforce. This can include anything you've done to keep up on your industry or prepare for your re-entry into it. You might also bring up any freelance work, volunteer positions you held, classes or events you attended, or any other way you advanced your skills.
Here are some examples of how you might describe a gap in unemployment:
If you were laid off
"My previous employer had to make a series of budget cuts. As a result, my role was eliminated. I'm proud of what I achieved in my previous position, and I've used my time out of the workplace to think seriously about what I want from my next role. It also allowed me to keep up-to-date with the latest developments in the industry. I'm confident that this opportunity is right for me."
If you were fired
"The company and I had different expectations. Looking back, I'm certain there were some things I could have done differently. Since leaving, I've clarified my professional goals and worked to improve my communication skills, which I believe will be an asset in my next role."
If you took time off to raise children
"I chose to be a stay-at-home parent until my children were in their teens. I made sure to keep my skills and industry knowledge up-to-date during that time through professional development courses and networking events. Now that my kids are grown, I'm ready to re-enter the workforce and looking forward to utilizing the skills I learned along the way."
If you went back to school
"I wanted to expand my career options through additional training in my field. I'm looking forward to using the skills I gained from my degree to benefit an organization. This role is the perfect way for me to do that because…"
If you put your career on hold for health reasons
"After ongoing health problems, I left the workforce to focus on getting better. I'm grateful to have overcome them and know they've made me a stronger person. Now I'm fully recovered and ready to focus on the next stage of my career."
If you went on sabbatical or traveled
"After spending several years working for a company in a very demanding job, I realized I was ready for a change. I decided to take some time off before starting a new position to fulfill my goal to backpack through India. The experience allowed me to readjust and refocus, and hit the ground running on the next chapter of my career—and I feel this role is the ideal place to do that."
If you unsuccessfully attempted a career change
"Before changing occupations, I didn't think critically enough about what was missing in my career. After pausing a bit to reflect on the setback, I'm confident in my professional goals and ready to take the next step. I've also pursued certification in my field to deepen my skill set and qualifications that I'm certain will benefit this position."
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