What is an employment gap?
An employment gap is a period of time when you weren’t working. Usually, employers consider resume gaps of one month or longer as red flags.
Occasional career gaps are common, whether voluntary, like a sabbatical, or involuntary, like being laid off. Lapses in employment are nothing to be ashamed of, but if you don’t explain them, a hiring manager might reject your application.
To maximize your chances of getting an interview, clearly explain any gaps in your resume. Read on to discover how to explain and fill your resume gaps.
How to explain resume gaps
Unless you address resume gaps directly, a hiring manager might assume the worst. Be up front from the start of your application by explaining career gaps in your cover letter and in person if you land a job interview:
1. Write about your resume gaps in your cover letter
If you have gaps in your resume, explain them in your cover letter. Write about your situation in positive terms. For example, you can highlight how you used your career break productively by:
- staying up to date with industry trends
2. Prepare to talk about your career gaps in an interview
Employers will ask about your resume gaps in job interviews. Prepare by rehearsing convincing responses to questions about periods of unemployment on your resume.
Transparency is key. Explain why you took the time off and what you gained from the experience. Use the same good reasons for gaps in employment that you gave in your cover letter, but provide more details.
Own your decision. Instead of avoiding the topic, speak confidently about your career gaps. For example, replace phrases like “I didn’t know what I wanted to do” with “I chose to take time off to grow personally and professionally”
How to explain specific reasons for job gaps
Here’s how to explain six common reasons for a gap in employment:
1. Personal reasons
If you’ve experienced life-disrupting challenges like divorce or mental illness, you may have difficulty sharing that sensitive information with a stranger. But not divulging what happened can make you seem suspicious.
So prepare a straightforward explanation that you’re comfortable sharing. If you’re concerned about keeping your information confidential, keep your answer brief, and use general terms like “medical reasons.” Frame your career break in a positive way, and then steer the conversation back to your goals for the position.
Unexpected illness, whether yours or a family member’s, is a valid reason for a gap in employment. Caring for others or recovering shows your resilience and solid character.
When you explain a career gap, state what happened in simple terms. For example:
“I was diagnosed with breast cancer and took time off for treatment.”
Then assure the employer that the situation is resolved, and explain why you’ve decided to re-enter the workforce. You could say something like:
“I’ve been in remission for a year, and I’m ready to renew my career.”
Did you step back from work to raise your children? You’re not alone. During the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of women dropped out of the workforce to care for their families.
If you’re writing a stay-at-home mom or dad cover letter, explain that you chose to focus your energy on your family during that time, and highlight any upskilling or freelance work you did while caring for your loved ones. Then say why you’re ready to get back to work. For instance, maybe your kids have grown up or you’ve hired extra help.
Sabbaticals aren’t vacations, so your explanation should illustrate how you used your time productively.
List your sabbatical in your resume or academic CV’s work experience section, and include any research you conducted or papers you wrote during your break. Importantly, note that you stayed abreast of industry knowledge by attending webinars or taking short courses.
Showing continuing education on your resume makes you a more competitive candidate. Taking the time to add a new qualification to your name shows that you’re a lifelong learner with up-to-date knowledge.
To explain a career gap caused by going back to school:
- list any relevant modules and expertise you’ll apply to your new role in your resume’s education section
- write about how you can transfer that expertise to the workplace in your cover letter
- continue connecting your new skills to your target position in any job interviews you land
6. Gap year
If you took a gap year to travel overseas after high school or college, explain how your time away expanded your perspective.
Then center your response on the position you’re applying for. If possible, explain how life lessons you learned during your gap year help you fit the position. Also, emphasize that you’ve scratched your travel itch, and you’re ready to start your professional career.
How to fill in employment gaps on your resume
Sometimes you can use resume formatting to fill in a career gap. Here’s how:
1. Create a work-experience entry for lengthy gaps
If you’ve had a substantial work gap — anything over a year — add an entry to your resume’s work experience section that fills up this space.
List the reason for your career gap as the header. Then add any relevant information, such as courses you took, volunteer work you did, or even virtual events you attended.
Here’s an example:
Siem Reap, Cambodia, 2017–2018
- Taught English to children aged 6–9
- Volunteered at Phnom Penh Bear Sanctuary, performing various manual labor tasks
2. Omit months for short gaps
Disguise a short gap by listing only years in all the employment dates on your resume. For example:
SWEET VALLEY HIGH SCHOOL
English Teacher, August 2018–May 2020
MARCY ELEMENTARY SCHOOL
Assistant Teacher, December 2016–January 2018
SWEET VALLEY HIGH SCHOOL
English Teacher, 2018–2020
MARCY ELEMENTARY SCHOOL
Assistant Teacher, 2016–2018
Listing only the year makes a career gap less obvious. This strategy only works if your employment gap is less than a year in length.