6 Tips on How to Explain Resume Gaps
Nothing seems to terrify a person who is updating a resume quite like a gap in their work history. Most career experts agree that a gap of three months or fewer is not something likely to alarm most employers. Yet nothing keeps a job hunter up at night quite like the worry that the holes in their work experience will doom them to a hiring manager’s rejection pile.
First, here are a few things you should know about gaps in your experience:
Any experience gap on your resume that is less than three months is generally acceptable and can be explained as “Seeking employment in ___ field.”
Employers will see the oldest trick in the book for hiding gaps – only listing years instead of months. Other articles and career coaches will recommend this, but I don’t. Only do this if you use years to describe all of your time spans and you have spent at least three years at every job on your resume.
You should explain gaps but can do so with a simple one- or two-sentence statement. (i.e., Took a break from the workforce to care for two small children for three years.)
Employers will not necessarily dismiss you out of hand based on a work gap, especially if you were taking care of children or other loved ones. Employers are people, too, and realize that responsibilities to our families emerge from time to time and cannot be ignored. If an employer would judge you negatively for responding to the needs of a loved one, you want to think deeply about whether or not you would like to work for them.
You can list skills that you built and insights you developed during a gap. It’s unlikely that you did nothing of significance during that time. You likely volunteered, took care of someone, wrote a book, finished some kind of major household project, etc. More about this below.
Most employers like to hear that a candidate has taken the time to be introspective and strategic about their career, especially when navigating a career pivot. If you’ve taken time to decide or find clarity about your career path, this is something to be proud of and list on your resume. Prospective employers will appreciate that you took the time to be certain about your next steps.
As you strategize about how to explain gaps in your work history on your resume, keep these six tips in mind:
1. Be honest about any lapses in your work experience.
It will be easier to explain if you are telling the truth. Same holds true for the interview. Take the time to prepare for interview when explaining the gaps so any nerves you have on the subject are dispelled.
2. Take credit for the personal growth you gained during an experience gap.
If your gap spanned well beyond three months, focus on what you learned and what skills and strengths you acquired. If you traveled, take credit for building skills in travel coordination, cross-cultural communication, or adaptability in unpredictable situations. If you took care of kids or cared for an elderly parent, you likely strengthened your ability to mediate conflict, organize multiple calendars, demonstrate empathy and patience, and build rapport with medical providers.
Take time to write down what you did learn during this time and give yourself credit for it. This will sound to some like I’m asking you to ‘fudge’ your resume and fill it with meaningless achievements, but I’m suggesting nothing of the sort. Most people err on the side of modesty when describing their skills and experience. My mission in life is to coax competent yet humble people with lived experience to confidently communicate their qualifications to create a career that is meaningful, challenging, and financially sustaining.
3. Keep a positive attitude.
Don't let a gap plague you. Studies indicate that most people have taken a break from the workforce at one time or another. It is only as big a deal as you make it. I've counseled many individuals with significant lapses in employment, and they all have found a job eventually if they didn't succumb to despair and give in too easily. The keys to their success was their ability to stay optimistic, remain focused, and believe that there was an employer out there that was a right fit.
4. Explain the resume gap — don’t just leave it unspecified.
You can also list volunteer experiences or time spent taking classes to fill the gap. If any volunteer experiences included leadership roles or the acquisition of new skills — software, database management, hardware networking, etc. — or metrics (i.e., Raised $10,000 to start a farmers market), or accolades (i.e., Praised by Executive Director of Southeast Uplift for creation of a Neighborhood Cleanup Project I organized in Woodstock in 2015), mention these with bullet points.
5. Use your cover letter to explain the gap if it is significant—9 months or more.
You will still need to explain it on your resume, but if you stayed home to take care of children or care for a sick parent, mention it in the cover letter and emphasize the skills that you gained (i.e., project management, organization, conflict resolution, etc.). Don’t apologize or minimize anything, especially when it is in service to your family and other loved ones.
6. Explain if you wanted to take your time between jobs to make a meaningful pivot or shift in your career.
Employers can appreciate that we sometimes need to take a step back to reconsider the next steps in our career so that we can better choices as we move forward. You might even mention that you sought out training and certifications in certain skills or met with a career counselor to deliberately consider your strengths, skills, and professional motivations, especially if you are pursuing any kind of pivot. This type of career guidance signals to employers that you are thoughtful and serious about your choices and are not pursuing a new path on an impulse.
More than anything, try not to fixate on your resume gap. I firmly believe that lapses in employment haunt us more in our own minds than they do in those of prospective employers. People with lengthy resume gaps get jobs every day, and with the Great Resignation still in effect, there has never been a time to re-launch after an absence. You are not defined by a few months or even years outside of the workforce. If you are clear about the positions you are seeking, able to speak confidently about your background and qualifications, and armed with a resume that cogently makes a strong case for your employability, you will eventually find the job that rises to your expectations.
Kristin Schuchman, MSW is a career counselor and author based in Portland, Oregon who works with creative and mission-driven professionals. She writes resumes and coaches individuals seeking support for career indecision, next steps, work re-entry, advancement, starting a business, and work-life-balance. She offers a free 30-minute Zoom or phone session and presently works with clients remotely. You can find her books The DIY Website Workbook and Jump Start: How to redirect a career that has stalled, lost direction or reached a crossroads on Amazon.