Life happens and for one reason or another, you may end up with an employment gap on your resume. To be successful at explaining the gap, you might want to spend time reflecting on what led to the gap and what you did next. Craft a story that connects what you learned to what you are expected to do in the roles you are targeting. The onus is on you to bridge the gap, but feel free to consult a trusted friend or mentor and practice the story.
An employment gap won’t automatically disqualify you as a candidate, but it is viewed as a red flag. It represents a big unknown, and employers are interested in finding out what the gap means in your case. “They may either be concerned that you were terminated for poor performance or that you may give up too easily when things don't go your way,” says Lily Boyer, associate director of coaching and education at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School. You can’t control what preconceptions an employer comes with when seeing a gap on your resume, but you can control the way in which you explain it. One thing is certain: You don’t want to ignore the gap. Approach the issue from the employer's perspective. You know they are curious about the gap, so address it: On your resume, in your cover letter and during the interview.
On the Resume
“Write a summary at the top of the resume to show employers how you would add impact to their business,” recommends Boyer. This professional summary immediately indicates who you are, what abilities you bring and how you can help employers address issues and increase efficiency. Start by jotting down all you did during the gap and explore how it led you to pursue the opportunities you are currently targeting. Next, craft a three- or four-sentence summary. You may also add a "core competencies" section where you list qualifications most relevant to the role. Next, depending on the kind of activities you did during the gap, you need to customize your education and experience sections.
If you went back to school, include your education section immediately after the professional summary and competencies list. In the experience section, highlight school projects, competitions, pro-bono cases, club or association work, volunteer experience, or freelance work to showcase your recent engagements. That’s exactly what I encourage my students to do. I also invite them to be proactive and approach each school engagement intentionally to better communicate its value later. If you took time to travel, point out key experiences and lessons learned. If you took time off to care for young children or elderly parents, what related activities were you involved in? Perhaps you helped at your children’s school or at a senior center. If you started your own business and it failed, don’t try to hide it, thus increasing the gap on your resume; rather, include the experience and point out lessons learned. Remember to quantify your accomplishments so employers understand your impact.
In the Cover Letter
“Use your cover letter to describe what you did in those gaps that made you a stronger candidate,” advises Boyer. The cover letter allows you to clarify the gap and expand on relevant lessons learned, especially if the gap was a result of something that’s difficult to add on a resume (like illness). Keep two things in mind. First, show your motivation by making sure everything you mention clearly leads to the role you are currently targeting. Second, avoid spending too much time on the gap; instead, focus on highlighting relevant skills and experience you bring.
As you review job descriptions, take note of what employers are looking for and speak about your experience, including the gap, in a way that shows you have what they need. You don’t want to exaggerate your accomplishments during the gap, but you also don’t want to underestimate what you did by completely dismissing the gap as a period that can help you show something worth seeing. What employers want to see is that you have demonstrated an ability to solve real problems and that you have explained how you can do it again.
During the Interview
You have no reason to be caught off guard with an interview question about an employment gap, and if you’ve drafted an effective cover letter, you are well on your way of excelling in the interview. You know you have a gap, and the employer knows you have a gap, so don’t try to ignore it. Your response to “Tell Me About Yourself” gives you opportunity to connect the dots. Be confident and matter-of-fact about your story. If you look uncomfortable discussing your gap or if you look as if you are trying to hide something, employers may get the wrong idea. Present a polished, honest and clear story and don’t assume that it’s obvious what you did. For example, if you attended graduate school, simply mentioning your degree is not enough. Interviewers will expect a story that communicates what motivated you to pursue the degree and what you gained beyond simply earning high grades.
If you took time off to care for young children or elderly parents, avoid cutesy descriptions and definitely don’t make up a project you supposedly worked on. Rather, be honest about what you did but stay away from lengthy explanations. A sentence or two will do. Next, focus on highlighting what the experience taught you. You may also want to point out how you followed up on trends in your target industry or what you’ve done to ease your way back into the workplace. Although you were focused on caring for a family member, perhaps you kept your knowledge and skills up-to-date by completing online courses or freelancing. If you haven’t done that yet, it’s not too late. This is the first step in getting out of an employment gap: Showing employers that you are already committing to being a qualified candidate.
Even if you follow all recommendations, have a stellar resume and craft an effective story that explains the gap, you won’t hear back from employers if your only strategy is online applications. As challenging as it may seem, identifying potential contacts at target companies and reaching out for informational interviews will be more beneficial than submitting multiple applications every day. Employers are first and foremost trying to learn who you are so they have a better understanding of the value you could bring. Establishing relationships with experts and influencers -- online or in person -- helps you get to a position of trust. If people trust you, know what you bring and can advocate on your behalf, an employment gap won’t be as salient. Remember that building and maintaining meaningful connections is key to long-term career success because no matter what comes your way, you’ll have a network to fall back on.