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How to Explain Gaps on Your Resumé: 6 Easy Steps

By Tim Stobierski
September 26, 2019

If you’ve got employment gaps on your resumé, it’s easy to feel a little stressed—especially if you are in the process of looking for a new job, transitioning to a new career, or reentering the professional world after a long time away. 

You know that potential employers might see those periods of unemployment and think twice about hiring you or may even hesitate to call you in for an interview at all. 

The good news is there are ways to explain a gap in your resumé to potential employers that will position you as a competitive candidate. Below, we explore the reasons that employers care about resumé gaps, provide steps for you to follow in explaining these breaks, and offer detailed advice for specific types of resumé gaps. 

Why Employers Care About Resumé Gaps

When reviewing resumés and job applications, potential employers and human resources representatives look for applicable skills, relevant experience, and often, unexplained gaps in employment history. 

The reason for this is multi-faceted. A hole in your resumé can mean a number of things—that you have purposely left work history off of your resumé in an attempt to hide something, that you unexpectedly lost your job and had difficulty finding a new one, that you voluntarily left your job without having a new position lined up, that you were in prison or otherwise unable to work—and all of these could signal to potential employers that you might be a risky hire.

One prominent risk is that the company might spend valuable resources, time, and energy interviewing, hiring, onboarding, and training you, only to see you leave soon after. What’s more, the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) reports that the cost of an employee departure can be as high as one-third of that employee’s annual salary, often allocated as:

  • 67 percent to cover soft costs: Reduced productivity, interview time, institutional “brain drain,” etc.  
  • 33 percent to cover hard costs: Recruiting, background checks, drug screenings, the hiring of temp workers, etc. 

Therefore, it is the hiring manager’s responsibility to identify any gaps you might have in your resumé, determine the cause behind those periods of unemployment, and understand whether or not they point to a pattern of behavior that implies you should not be hired. 

How to Explain Resumé Gaps

1. Be honest.

While it might be tempting to cover up gaps in your resumé by altering dates or otherwise attempting to hide the fact that you were out of work, honesty is generally the best policy. 

Think about it. The first person to look at your resumé and application is likely to be a human resources representative or someone at a staffing agency. These are people who spend a substantial amount of time reviewing resumés. They are skilled at spotting errors and inaccuracies, and often have tools at their disposal to cross-check the dates that you provide in your resumé. 

All that it takes is a call to a former employer to determine whether or not you have lied. In addition to reflecting terribly on you during the interview process, lying on your resumé can be grounds for dismissal in the future if it is uncovered.

2. Speak to the gap in your cover letter.

Nobody likes writing cover letters, but they play an incredibly important role in the job application process. Your cover letter is a tool that you can use to explain information that is not easily conveyed in a resumé or job application.

If you’ve got a substantial gap in your employment history, consider speaking to that gap in your cover letter. Identify the time period in question, and in one or two sentences explain what caused the break in employment. Also mention anything that you did during that time period that could be construed as career development—for example, furthering your education or starting a business.

Here, brevity is key. Offer your explanation, and then use the rest of your cover letter to explain the value that you would bring to the company and why you are perfect for the role. If the employer wants further details, they can ask you during any followup interviews that occur.

3. Be prepared to speak about the gap during an interview.

As mentioned above, before your resumé is reviewed by the hiring manager, it will most likely first be reviewed by a member of the human resources team, whose job it is to identify which applicants should be considered for full interviews. As a part of their screening process, they may reach out to job candidates in order to ask questions and gather additional information. Employment gaps are often addressed during these preliminary calls. 

When you sit down to prepare for an interview, take some time to create talking points that will help you be able to speak to your resumé gaps should they come up during the interview process. 

It is also worth noting that, while job-hopping is not considered to be an employment gap, it is something that a potential employer might inquire about. If you have had a series of short-lived positions, you should also be prepared to speak to the reasoning behind it. You should be able to imply to the interviewer that this is not something they should be concerned about were they to hire you. 

4. Make up for gaps with the rest of your resumé.

In most cases, if your work and educational experience are strong enough, a potential employer will not be too concerned with small gaps in your resumé. That’s why it is so critical that your resumé does a great job of conveying the value that you will bring to your employer. 

Whether or not you have gaps in your employment, it is a good idea to sit down and update your resumé once every year or so, or anytime your role or responsibilities change. Simple adjustments to formatting—for example, using different font sizes for headers—can help you draw the reader’s eye to the content that you want them to focus on and away from the content you want to minimize (like any gaps in your work history).

5. Don’t worry about every gap.

While you should be prepared to speak to any holes in your resumé, you don’t necessarily need to obsess and fret over every single gap. Generally speaking, for example, employers care more about recent employment gaps than those that are years and decades old.

Again, it is a good idea to be prepared to speak to these breaks during an interview. But you shouldn’t feel the need to draw attention to the fact that the gap exists—especially if you have had a solid employment history since. 

6. Shorten resumé gaps—or avoid them completely.

If you currently find yourself in the middle of an employment gap, try to identify ways that you can use this break in employment to bolster your resumé. Doing so will help you to limit the damage caused by the lapse.

For example, now might be the perfect time for you to finish a degree, pursue a certification related to your desired career, or simply sign up for a workshop or online class. Doing so will allow you to spin the employment gap as a period of career development. Similarly, if you have ever considered entrepreneurship, you might consider pursuing freelance or part-time work while you look for a full-time job.

Employment Gap Explanation Examples

Not sure how to explain a gap in your resumé? Below are a few sample explanations that you can tailor to your personal situation the next time you need to explain an employment gap to a potential employer. 

If you were let go unexpectedly from a job…

This is often one of the most awkward of employment gaps to explain away, but your best option is to simply be upfront with the interviewer. This is your chance to frame the discussion around the event, so put that opportunity to good use. 

If you were let go because of reasons that were outside of your control (business concerns, downsizing, corporate restructuring) explain those considerations to your interviewer, but be careful not to provide too many details, which could be a cause for concern for a potential employer. 

If you voluntarily took time off…

There are many reasons that someone might decide to voluntarily take time off from work that have nothing to do with employability or performance issues. A desire to travel and see the word, a desire to volunteer and give back to the community, a desire to pursue a side project that you have put off—all of these are perfectly valid reasons for a gap to exist. 

In discussing any sabbatical you might have taken, start by explaining the reasons that led you to take the time off. Then explain the ways in which you grew, personally and professionally, from the experience. Portrayed the correct way, these kinds of resumé gaps can actually become a positive item on your CV.

If you (or a family member) were ill…

If you took time off because you were ill or injured and unable to work, or because a family member faced a medical emergency and you needed to care for them, you don’t need to offer too many details about the diagnosis or treatment. But you do need to acknowledge the gap in your resumé. A short, concise explanation should be more than enough. 

If you were on maternity/paternity leave…

As with health issues (discussed above), a gap caused by maternity/paternity leave should be addressed simply and directly. If your leave was extended, consider other non-work experiences which may partially fill the gap—such as volunteer work.

If you went back to school…

It isn’t uncommon for an individual to either take time off away from work or reduce their work schedule in order to further their education. Whether you were finishing a degree you already started, pursuing a graduate degree, or enrolled in a bootcamp or online class, these are all perfectly justifiable reasons to have a gap in your employment history.

It is important that you be prepared to explain to the interviewer how that learning impacted your career. What skills did you learn through your studies and how did you become more effective in your role? How did the education prepare you for the position that you are applying for?

If you’re looking for ways to improve your resumé, stand out from the competition, or advance your career, speak to an admissions counselor to learn about how Northeastern’s bachelor’s completion options can help. 

About Tim Stobierski
Tim Stobierski is a marketing specialist and contributing writer for Northeastern University.