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How to Explain a Career Gap on Your Resume

career gap

You may have been working for fifteen, twenty, even thirty years.

But you were out of work for a while, and now that you’re looking for a job, all you can think about is The Big Gap.

Maybe you left your job voluntarily, maybe not. Maybe you didn’t work for six months, a year, five years. Now, instead of feeling confident about your skills and talents and experience, you’re worried and sleepless and keep wondering—how am I going to explain that gap?

If, that is, you even get an interview. Because, you know, you have that gap.

At a time you need to feel at your best so you can present yourself well to potential employers, you might sabotage yourself. When you don’t get the job, you will blame the gap.

But often it is not the time you spent away from the workforce, but your attitude about it that torpedoes your job search. Renita Kalhorn, a career coach, advises people to stop letting that gap define them. “It isn’t a reflection of who you are,” she says. “It is a chronology.”

I am not suggesting that the situation is ideal. There will be hiring managers that will pass over your resume because of it (though more and more understand that the economy has changed, and that people’s lives don’t necessarily follow straight paths).

But there is no point making it worse by having a huge dark cloud hanging over your head. You can’t change the past, but you can choose how to handle it. “You can resist what it is and feel apologetic, or you can own it,” says Kalhorn.

Before you even start a job search, shake off any negative emotions you might have related to the gap. There are many reasons people stop working—to care for children or a sick or elderly relative, to pursue their own business, to relocate for a spouse, or to heal from an illness. People get laid off and fired. Those circumstances may give rise to emotions that can impact your self-esteem or your energy. You need to let go of those feelings so you can start to focus—positively—on the future.

No matter why you weren’t working, there are two basic guidelines to follow when explaining the gap during a job search:

  • Frame it in a positive way.
  • Talk about it briefly and directly.

How to Explain A Gap On Your Resume

The general advice here is that you want, if possible, to skip addressing a gap on your resume. If the gap is short, you don’t need to mention it. If you have been consulting, doing contract, freelance, or temporary work, group those under a single heading such as Freelance Web Designer or Startup Consulting.

Be sure to update any skills you have developed during your time away from work, whether you took an online course, mentored or coached, or ran a fund raiser that got great press or raised a lot of money. Otherwise, keep your resume a reflection of your work experience, and use your cover letter to address the gap.

Use Your Cover Letter to Explain a Gap

Your cover letter is the place to set the tone regarding your time away from work. Remember that you need to own the experience. If you made a choice to leave your a job, claim it. Say you chose to care for your spouse or to relocate. Say you decided to start your own business, though it turned out not to work out for you.

You don’t need to provide any details. They won’t help your case; in fact, they will only draw more attention to it. Just lay out the fact of your time off in a single short sentence—and then move on.

You overall letter needs to be a good one: a few strong paragraphs that draw out your unique ability to do something for the company. Focus on the future, and you may find that your gap will be history.

About the Author

Susan Price has been writing about careers, entrepreneurs and personal finance for more than a decade. She’s been an editor at BusinessWeek, Money, and iVillage.com, among others.