Resumes and Cover Letters

How to Explain a Gap in Your Resume

resume gap

Providing an explanation for a gap in your resume can be difficult even for the most confident job seekers. Here are some helpful tips for filling the gaps of your resume.

We all know that life happens, as the cliché goes. But the employment market seems to operate in a state of suspended reality, where no one is expected to take time off from work for any reason—ever.

If your resume makes it look like you’re part of the long-term unemployed—even if you were doing something important like caring for a sick family member— it can become a self-perpetuating problem, where companies are reluctant to hire you. That’s a problem for the 3.8 million Americans who have been unemployed at least six months.

So what do you do if you have a dreaded gap in your work experience? First, accept the reality that you probably can’t change a rigid employer’s thinking about that. Then tailor your approach to the more open-minded ones who will. Career experts say many hiring managers have been changing their attitudes, as we move into an economy where what you can actually accomplish is more important than punching a clock year after year.

Here are strategies to use from career coach Dana Manciagli, former worldwide sales general manager at Microsoft and author of Cut the Crap, Get a Job! A New Job Search Process for a New Era.

Recast your experience. You weren’t “just” raising kids or “just” volunteering. Unless you spent the whole time channel surfing, you picked up valuable skills somewhere. If, say, you were a stay-at-home parent, don’t leave that period in the “experience” section of your resume blank. Call it “managing a household.”

Window shop. Look at the jobs listed on LinkedIn or job boards. Do you have skills employers say they need? Weave them into the Experience section of your resume—regardless of whether you acquired them at a previous job, during a short consulting gig after a layoff or while managing the fundraising campaign for a local charity. You’ll probably find that looking at the ads boosts your confidence. “You’ll read them and say, `I can do that!’” says Manciagli.

Manciagli coached one client who worried that 14 years as a stay-at-home mom put her out of the running for a great job. “She thought she was going to be a mailroom clerk,” Manciagli says. Taking stock of the skills she’d picked up while raising her family and through her hobby of photography, Manciagli’s client fleshed out her resume—and got hired almost immediately as a college recruiter. “She could speak to college kids and had all the skills to be organized,” Manciagli says.

Don’t overshare. If you worked on projects relevant to an employer, you’re not obligated to spell out whether they were on a volunteer or pro bono basis on your resume—or during the interview. “The other person doesn’t need to know if you were paid,” says Manciagli. You’ll be better off highlighting an unpaid gig that’s connected to your field in the Experience section than a low-paid, unrelated service job.

Eliminate inconsistencies. Before you start job hunting, cross check all of your social media profiles to make sure that what you say about your experience is consistent. Are the dates you list the same throughout? “LinkedIn needs to match your resume,” says Manciagli. “It’s about integrity.”

About the Author

Elaine Pofeldt is an independent journalist who specializes in writing about entrepreneurship and careers. She was a senior editor for Fortune Small Business magazine, and her work has appeared in Fortune, Money, Forbes.com, Inc. and Crain's New York Business, among others.