Got a glaring resume gap that’s keeping you awake? Read on for tips to make your employment history work for you!

In a perfect world, everyone’s employment history would flow from one position to the next without interruption. By now you know that reality is far from perfect — many excellent job candidates find themselves with employment gaps anywhere from a few months to a few years. If you are looking at your resume and feeling anxious about those “in-between” stretches, this is your guide to explaining gaps in your employment during your next job interview.

Manage your resume

First things first: What is the best way to deal with employment gaps on your resume?

The answer depends on your circumstance, but there are a few guidelines that apply across experience levels and industries.

  • Be honest. Lying on your resume may not be a crime, but it is a terrible way to start a new employment relationship.

  • Smaller gaps can be visually condensed if you eliminate months from a chronological or hybrid resume format and only show years.

  • Consider using a functional resume that places the emphasis on your expertise areas and skills, and away from employment timeframes. However, be mindful that functional resumes often raise a red flag for hiring managers, so you may be taking a risk by opting into this resume format.

What happens if you have a multi-year gap that cannot be “softened?”

First, consider being upfront about what kept you out of the workforce. If you took time off to care for a young child or an ailing parent, you may be hesitant to disclose that. After all, that decision to stay at home is a deeply personal one. Some people are reluctant to add “Caretaker for family” to their resume because they don’t want to come across as unprofessional. If you share that concern, you may be surprised to learn that taking time out of the workforce to take care of a family member is not a death blow to your career.

Explaining what you did during those “gap years” can go a long way towards eliminating the nagging question on the hiring manager’s mind. Employers are increasingly more understanding and respectful of professionals honoring their priorities and responsibilities outside of work. Companies compete for a spot on the prestigious “Top Companies for Working Mothers” list, and their support of work-life balance extends into hiring practices.

Finally, if your employment gap lasted four months or longer, consider addressing it briefly in the cover letter. It is best to keep it short and factual, with a focus on work-related activities that occupied your time. Keep in mind that employers are looking for signs of your dedication to being productive and technically up-to-date. If you have examples, this is a good time to use them. A class to improve your programming skills or a seminar on branding and marketing would be good examples of professional development activities to include.

Be prepared to explain your gaps in employment

After you have tweaked your resume and cover letter to get you in the door, spend some time preparing for the inevitable: your employment gap explanation. Similar to your approach to the resume, your in-person response should be factually accurate, concise, and drama-free. Here are a few sample responses that you can adapt for your own situation:

  • “I took five years off to stay at home with my son. While taking care of my family, I made it my priority to remain up-to-date on recent industry developments. I attended at least one professional conference each year and completed several continuing education courses online.”

  • “I took a year sabbatical to write a travel guide book on California waterfalls. During that year, I pitched and sold the idea of the book to a publishing house. I then traveled across the state taking photographs, documenting trails, and creating walking maps. I am proud to say that the book was published last month.”

  • “I was laid off from my last position at [technology startup] due to the lack of funding. While I was searching for my next opportunity, I spent 10 hours every week volunteering with Habitat for Humanity. I also used this gap as a chance to take several education courses that had been on my to-do list for over a year [add specifics].”

As you create your own response, aim for one that demonstrates your professionalism, commitment to continued development, and a desire to be productive. If you did freelance work or consulting while searching for the next job, be sure to mention it. Finally, own your reasons for the gap, which brings us to the next point.

Get internally comfortable with the gap

Resist the urge to apologize for the employment gap on your resume. This happens most often in relation to the decision to raise a family or take care of health-related issues (whether your own or those of a family member). Remember that your decision was carefully considered. You were not sitting on a couch eating bonbons — you were working hard, and that work is worthy of gratitude and admiration.

Also, reflect on the emotions that the employment gap triggers for you. It could be a sense that you are underqualified or somehow unhirable, or it could be regret over an old decision to leave a dead-end job. No matter what it is, find a way to reframe it in your mind. If you are embarrassed or deeply uncomfortable about your employment gap, it will be difficult to answer the hiring manager’s question with confidence.

Finally, the tough economy has a way of forcing professionals to do things they are overqualified for. For some, it may be a seasonal position at a retail or grocery store. For others, it may be conveyer-belt-style tax preparation work. You may feel embarrassed to add those positions to your otherwise white-collar resume because they do not reflect your potential. Consider listing them anyway. If those temporary positions were completely unrelated to your main line of work, you may want to list them under an “Additional Experience” section in your resume. They demonstrate your willingness to do the hard thing to provide for your family, and most employers won’t begrudge you for them.

Want help perfecting your answer to this tough interview question? Learn more about our interview coaching services.

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