How to explain career breaks in your resume

It’s easy to picture your career as one long, unbroken path, from the start of adulthood to the day you retire. You know what’s not so easy? Reality. Life can get in the way of even the best-planned career paths, causing gaps and disruption in your employment history. Maybe you took time off for personal health reasons or to take care of a child or family member. Maybe you got laid off, and it took longer than expected to find a new gig. Maybe, at one point, you decided to go backpacking through Lithuania for a year. Whatever the cause, you’re not alone. And a gap isn’t a dealbreaker—we promise. So let’s look at ways to approach breaks in your work history as you’re looking for a new job.

5 rules to explaining a resume gap

1. Be honest

Lying on a resume is always going to be a huge no-no. (And in these days of easily Googleable personal info, it’s a fast way to self-sabotage.) If you’re trying to spin a work gap, don’t put dates on your resume that don’t exist.

What you can do is format your resume so that brief gaps aren’t so glaringly obvious. For example, instead of saying that you worked at X company from March 2014 to February 2018, you can use just the years (2014–2018).

2. Be selective

Your resume doesn’t necessarily need to include every single job you’ve ever held, especially if you’ve already been working for a long time. It’s acceptable to omit jobs (especially far-back ones or jobs that are not super-relevant to the job for which you’re applying now) and focus on the most relevant.

3. Be a format rebel

There’s no hard-and-fast rule that your resume needs to follow the oh-so-traditional format of header, opening line/objective, then work experience. Instead, if you’re trying to spin an employment gap, consider using a skills-based resume format, which puts the Skills section front and center before your work history.

Remember: your resume is a professional narrative, and you control that. If you want to make the story your skills and qualifications rather than the amount of time spent in other jobs, you can make that the focus.

4. Be productive during your time away

If you’re anticipating an upcoming break or you’re still in one as you start to think about what comes next, make sure you’re using your time to stay current on any necessary skills or certifications you’ll need. Keeping your toe in the water can make for a much easier narrative to sell when you’re ready to get back to the full-time grind.

5. Be prepared to talk about it

However you decide to frame the gap in your resume, it may come up in the interview. This shouldn’t be a “hide your shame” situation. People understand that life throws challenges that require us to make choices or adjustments. Whatever caused the break in your resume, it happened. It’s okay to own that. But do keep in mind that potential employers aren’t allowed to make hiring decisions based on your personal or family status, so you’re not obligated to give details. It’s okay to keep it general.

Like with your resume, this is your chance to make the narrative what you want it to be, and emphasize the positive aspects. Emphasize what you learned from the experience, and what makes you ready to pick back up with this new job.

If you were fired or laid off: “I wasn’t expecting things to shake out that way, but it gave me a chance to dig deep into my career goals, build new skills, and refocus my energies.”

If you chose to take time off to travel or similar: “I’d reached a point where I needed to take a breather and re-evaluate my career path. It helped me build my skills and taught me so much about working with people from different cultures and perspectives. And now I’m back with more energy and focus than ever.”

If you had health issues: “I was going through a tough time, and decided to take the time to concentrate on getting better. I’m a stronger person for devoting that time to my recovery, and I’m ready to take on what comes next.”

If you were taking care of family: “I decided to prioritize my family for the past two years. Now I’m in a position to pick up my career and focus on my professional goals. Plus, after juggling this care and other responsibilities, my time management and organizational skills are stronger than ever!”

Explaining gaps in your employment history may not be your ideal situation, but it shouldn’t be a source of despair, either. Be positive and make sure you’re emphasizing all the things that make you a great candidate, and you’ll be ready.

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