Gaps in Your Resume

Many applicants regard gaps in resumes as shameful, and it is true that employers look at them with some caution about what they may indicate. Yet, gaps don’t have to keep you from getting a job you love. There are legitimate reasons for gaps in work history, and many employers understand that. The trick to neutralizing the potential negative effect a gap in employment can have on an application is in presenting the information the right way. Here are some easy tricks for how to keep a gap from holding you back in your career.

Overcome Gaps

What Kind of Gaps Worry Employers?

First, let’s talk about what a gap is. Obviously, it is time in which a person is not working or in school, but not all gaps worry employers. Usually the rule is that a gap is not a problem if it is only a few weeks, or if it is a month or two after graduating from school. These types of gaps can both be easily explained, do not make you seem unreliable, and often will not even draw an employer’s attention. Additionally, gaps in which you were studying for a major certification exam, such as the bar exam for lawyers, will not be concerning, since it is common for people to take time away from school or work to prepare, and you are often not able to be hired in your industry without passing these exams. Also, gaps that occurred many years prior to the current application will often not matter, since more recent experience will show a consistent work history.

A longer gap in employment that span months or years can be worrisome, especially if the applicant was fired from the previous job, spent time in jail, or has been out of the workforce for many years. Additionally, a trend of gaps, such as periods of several months of not working after each position the applicant held is also worrisome.

Why do They Matter?

Employers worry about gaps in employment for a few reasons. First, gaps in employment may indicate a lack of motivation to find a job, or may show that the applicant gets easily frustrated with jobs and leaves frequently without having another job, especially if there are multiple gaps. It may also indicate that the employee was fired from previous jobs, which usually makes the employer try to figure out what the employee may have done wrong and how it would impact work at this new company. Another issue is that some applicants use gaps in place of more harmful history, such as prison sentences, which the applicant may be attempting to hide and really negatively impact employer opinions.

Gaps in employment are perceived to be a sign that something is wrong with the applicant, whether or not this is true. It can be frustrating for applicants to explain gaps to employers, since it can be difficult for the employer to see beyond the gap.

Many times, applicants have gaps because of mistakes when they were younger, travel, or in the case of childcare or the care of a sick family member, which are all legitimate reasons. It is up to the applicant to present this information in the correct way, so that the employer is able to see the applicant’s great qualities, rather than focusing on her past and how it might affect the current work situation.

Presenting Gaps on Your Resume

Your first step in figuring out how to present a gap on your resume is to think like an employer and determine whether or not the gap would seem bad with the given facts or not, and if so, how bad. Understand the reason why you were unemployed, be prepared to talk about it, and don’t be ashamed. Confidence is key in neutralizing weak aspects of a resume. Most importantly, don’t lie. If an employer asks about a gap, be honest, but work on how you will talk about the gap to make it seem less negative in the employer’s eyes.

Keep in mind that the reason matters. If the gap in employment was only a few months long, and you were recovering from surgery, that can easily be explained and is a valid reason for not working. Other often used, legitimate reasons can be childcare, caring for sick relatives, and in some situations, travel. Most employers will understand these reasons as long as the information is presented in the right way.

Gaps that are only a few months long can easily be neutralized on your resume by simply eliminating the months from your dates of employment and only using years for each job. This way, many employers won’t even notice a gap. You will probably need to disclose the gap on applications, since these are legal documents, but many employers won’t pay as much attention to the application as they will the resume and may not even ask about the gap.

Longer gaps will be noticed, but again, the reason plays a vital role in demonstrating that the gap is not a negative reflection on your character. For longer gaps, you should consider placing valuable skills and qualifications near the top of the resume in order to draw more attention to your assets than your previous employment dates.

If the gap was particularly long, for example close to a year or longer, you should include activities done during that time that demonstrate your continued drive and pursuit of experience, such as volunteer work or membership in a professional organization. Some volunteer work can even be listed like a job and be used as relevant employment experience. Other great options can include taking a class that increases your knowledge of your industry, or gaining a certification that adds value to you in your industry. If you have not done any of these activities or taken any classes, you should consider it, since it really can make a difference in the way an employer perceives the gap.

By including this information along with dates that correspond to your gap, you demonstrate that although you were not employed, you stayed up-to-date on industry information and are still a reliable, productive, and motivated employee with solid career goals. This can be especially useful for long-term care situations, such as with children. Most employers understand the decision to leave work for children, but their worry is that the applicant has been out of the industry too long to understand current trends and practices. By making an effort to stay in tune with current industry trends, you have already eliminated many employer concerns.

If you have traveled during your gap, or are considering doing so, it can be used as experience, especially if the job you want involves global communication or commerce. Extensive travel can be used as a means of expanding one’s knowledge of international relations, and many employers will see it as an asset.

With some long-term gaps, you can even list them in experience like you would a job, with dates and a list of valuable skills you learned during that time, such as organization, communication, or foreign language proficiency.

A great way to draw attention to your skills and experience, rather than the dates you worked is to include a summary section at the top of your resume. It might say something like, “An RN with five years experience in patient care,” or “Six years of management experience leading teams of more than twenty employees.” This way, you’ve already summarized the experience you got from previous jobs, highlighted the value you bring to a company, and minimized attention paid to how long you have been away from work.

The Cover Letter

While the gap may show on your resume, and you want to show that you used that time wisely, you should not go out of your way to make a statement on your resume regarding the gap. You should include a cover letter with your resume that serves that purpose.

If the gap was a three months or shorter and probably won’t be noticed, don’t even bother mentioning it. You can talk about it if you are asked in an interview. Otherwise, you should address the gap in your cover letter in a way that answers the question of why you had a gap, what you used the time to do, and why you are looking for a job.

For example, if you left work to care for children, you may write a statement like this: “I left work to care for my children and have spent the last six years learning about organization, time management, and how to handle competing priorities. During this time, I took several night classes in business management to stay up-to-date on trends, since I always intended to resume my career. Now that my children are in school, I am excited to rejoin the workforce in management, since it is my passion.” You don’t have to go into too much detail about how you spent that time, since information like the courses you took will be listed on your resume, but by letting the employer know up front that there was a gap, what you learned during that time, and what you did for self-improvement, you have already let the employer know that your gap is not the result of lack of motivation or any other negative factor.

If your gap is due to some other less-accepted reason, such as a prison sentence, it is important that you are honest with your employer, and that you explain what you learned from the experience. Often, gaps can be attributed to youthful mistakes, which employers will not accept as an excuse, unless you prove that you have grown as a person by learning from the mistake and finding new ways to better yourself. In this case, you absolutely should pursue further education and activities that show you are truly dedicated to advancing your career. You should also consider discussing your resume and how to present your gap with a professional, such as a career resource center staff member or hiring professional.

Tips:

  • No matter what the reason for you gap is, be confident.
  • Don’t lie about the reason for the gap, and don’t lie about what you did during that time away from work.
  • If you lack any form of experience during your gap, try to find some to be a better applicant. Temporary jobs can be a great way to earn work experience while you look for permanent jobs.
  • If you gap is due to a failed business venture, include it on your resume, since that is work experience.
  • Be professional when talking about reasons why you left your last job. Even if you left because of a negative relationship with your boss, don’t vent to the employer. Practice phrasing this information tactfully.
  • If your gap was due to being fired, you should be prepared to discuss the situation and talk about what you learned, and how you improved.
  • If you find that you are being turned down from many jobs, it may be because the gap has not been presented in a positive way. Consider professional help to better present the information.
  • Do not use the term sabbatical in an attempt to draw attention away from the gap, unless it actually constitutes a sabbatical. Many times employers will ask questions about sabbaticals, and they will be frustrated with applicants who have used this as a reason to hide other information.
Peggy Carouthers

Author: Peggy Carouthers

In a previous life Peggy worked as a human resources and hiring manager for a major national retail chain. Her expertise is in job hunting, hiring, and HR. These days Peggy works as a writer, crafting content for a range of publications.
Peggy Carouthers