How to Explain an Employment Gap on Your Resume, According to a Career Expert

“Tell the story honestly, but highlight your drive, your ambition and your talent,” advises Lori Shreve Blake, senior director of career engagement at the USC Career Center.

From solidifying the perfect cover letter to nailing an interview with a potential employer, there are numerous best practices when it comes to hunting for a new job.

One common concern heightened by the pandemic, however, is addressing a gap in your employment history. People can end up with gaps in their resume for all sorts of reasons, whether it’s because they chose to head back to school, started a family, had to care for a sick loved one, followed their partner to another city for a job opportunity, needed a break between jobs or fell ill themselves.

Others have simply struggled to find a new job right away, and today, more people than ever have found themselves in such circumstances, as lockdowns led to widespread downsizing and certain industries stalling entirely.

To find out how to approach a career gap and successfully reenter the job market, we spoke with Lori Shreve Blake, senior director of career engagement at the USC Career Center, below.

Highlight Your Volunteering

“What you can do, and in fact what we encourage people to do, is add related projects or volunteer work to their resume. Maybe they’re taking care of children, or maybe they’re active with the Parent Teacher Association or Homeowner Association, or just involved in some kind of volunteer position — put it on there. It doesn’t matter whether you get paid $0 or a million dollars. It still shows you’ve been active and have skills,” Shreve Blake told USC Online.

The next step is to identify how these projects have either taught you or helped you develop specific skills relevant to the position. Don’t lie or exaggerate, Shreve Blake warned, but consider including aspects of your projects and how they make you a stronger candidate.

Fundraising while volunteering, for example, could be a transferable skill. Or maybe you effectively collaborated with people, solved a problem or exceeded expectations.

“Just put the position down and explain those transferable skills in the bullets. Use your creativity,” Shreve Blake said.

Be Transparent

Of course, sometimes you have not done anything career-related during your gap. For example, those caring for a sick relative may have been too physically and emotionally drained to be engaged in outside projects. That’s fine, Shreve Blake said — just mark it down specifically on your resume so employers can better understand your situation.

Shreve Blake also warned that it’s important for jobseekers to keep up any applicable professional association memberships. Not only does it demonstrate your passion for the field, but it also helps with networking and proves you’re continuing to flex your skills and gain current industry knowledge.

Another tip for those with a more significant career gap is to look into available reentry internships, which are most common in the finance and tech industries.

“They’re for people who have been out five, 10 years and are now looking into coming back to the workforce. For three months or so, these corporate jobs bring people on and get a sample of their work, which will usually result in full-time opportunities,” Shreve Blake explained.

And reentry internships aren’t just for younger employees — companies including Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan and Morgan Stanley are actively hiring experienced reentry candidates who have had multi-year career gaps, according to Shreve Blake.

Maximize Your Cover Letter

If your career gap is significant, it is also important to address the circumstances in your cover letter. When it comes to writing the cover letter, Shreve Blake suggests explaining what led to the gap as well as emphasizing your enthusiasm for the field and how you’ve kept your skills sharp.

“It’s all about the language. Tell the story honestly, but highlight your drive, your ambition and your talent. Explain the relocation, the downsizing, the childcare, but also make it clear you’re aware of the current industry trends. Write those sentences confidently and quickly, and keep it moving,” she said.

Once you reach the interview, however, don’t feel compelled to mention your employment gap. Let the interviewer bring it up if they have questions, Shreve Blake advised, but otherwise, focus on all the other noteworthy parts of your resume.

“Sell yourself! Your qualities, talent and skills are what’s the most important,” she said.

Don’t Flag Short Breaks

While employment gaps can span decades, others can last just a few months or even a year. If it’s under a year, you don’t need to necessarily flag it, said Shreve Blake. After all, people often need to “decompress and relax” between jobs.

If you’re in a similar situation, Shreve Blake recommended to not add the month portion of your employment dates to your resume. For example, list “Marketing Associate, 2018 to 2020” as opposed to “Marketing Associate, November 2018 to March 2020.” This ensures employers are less likely to question if you experienced a career gap.

When it comes to smaller gaps, especially recently, Shreve Blake stressed that the COVID-19 pandemic has drastically changed the job market. An employment gap during 2020 won’t be unheard of or even unexpected, and thus it shouldn’t be difficult to explain away.

“There will be grace by employers. This is the pandemic of the century — there are many people who could not find a job during this trying time. And if you had to take a job you might not have necessarily taken before, put it on the resume. Show your drive, show your determination, show your grit with what you did,” she concluded.

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