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How to explain gaps in your resume

Updated on March 16, 2008

The situation is this--your resume gives plenty of details about all the jobs you have had so far, and the years you spent at school and college, but it is not complete. It has gaps in it of unexplained time--maybe there is a year missing between leaving college and starting your first job, perhaps there are months or even years between each job, or at least between some of them.

This is not good news if you are an employer who is looking at your resume and considering you for a job. Gaps worry an employer, because he does not know what they mean. They could mean that you were in prison during that time, or that you were fired from a job for incompetence and found it extremely difficult to get another. Either way, those gaps lessen your chances of success in the jobs market.

Or there could be explanations that are far less damaging to your reputation. For example, you took a gap year to travel to Thailand and Singapore. Or you were let go rather than fired, due to an industry downturn that affected many more people than just yourself. Or you stopped work for a while to look after an elderly relative in their last illness.

Don't be embarrassed by your past

The point is that, just from looking at your resume, the impending employer has no idea whether those gaps are for good reasons or bad. Unless you get to the interview stage you will have no chance of putting him right, and the gaps make that chance a remote one.

Taking time out from the employment rat race is not a bad thing, and not a cause for embarrassment. If it took you a year to find a new post, say so, but also say what you were doing during that time when you weren't filling in application forms and knocking on office doors. Perhaps you helped out at a community centre one evening a week, for example?

There's nothing wrong in accentuating the positive and eliminating the negative. "Studying the marine environment of the Northern Pacific" sounds a lot more worthy than "beach bumming and surfing in Hawaii"!

OK--let's suppose there really is something there that you'd rather forget about and would like to keep quiet, such as a spell in jail. The blunt fact is that it happened, you can't hide from it, and the fact doesn't help your job prospects.

If you leave it out, the employer will guess the truth or find out from other sources. This just adds deceitfulness to your record of misdemeanours, which hardly helps. However, you are presumably a reformed character and you need to emphasise this. If your offence was a minor one, such as a default on a fine, make this clear. Did you do community work as part of your sentence, or do excellent work in the prison library or kitchens? Again, make use of these high spots.

Remember that not everyone is a paragon of virtue and employers know this. The "perfect" resume is far more likely to excite suspicion than one that is honest. You don't have to do yourself down when writing the resume, but you must never tell a downright lie, and you must never leave gaps.

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    • profile image

      Ali 

      7 years ago

      Any advise on how to indicate that taking time off for travel was by choice (i.e I quit) rather than forced (i.e if I had gotten fired)

      I took a year off to travel, varied experiences, and no regrets...but the question of how to sum it up for my resume is tricky...

      thanks!

    • The Indexer profile imageAUTHOR

      John Welford 

      7 years ago from UK

      Cedars, Did you read the whole of my piece? I covered this question towards the end.

    • profile image

      Cedars 

      7 years ago

      What happens if the gap is due to a prison sentence? You want to be honest but how do you position that one?

    • The Indexer profile imageAUTHOR

      John Welford 

      8 years ago from UK

      Tomas, You make it sound as though you do want to "explain" but "excuse" your career change. Many employers are delighted to see applicants who have a broader portfolio - it shows that they are people who think for themselves and are not prepared to go through life with a blinkered view that only looks down one career channel. OK, so there are other employers who demand single-minded devoition to one course of action, but is this the kind you really want to work for?

    • profile image

      Tomas 

      8 years ago

      How do I explain this, I was in the Telecomm industry for 15 years, layed off 3.5 years ago, got a nursing degree during this time, but now want to go back to Telecomm, how do I explain the shift in careers?

    • The Indexer profile imageAUTHOR

      John Welford 

      8 years ago from UK

      Genie,

      I have covered this point in my article. A resume cannot lie, it must tell nothing but the truth, but it does not necessarily have to tell the whole truth.

    • profile image

      Genie 

      8 years ago

      I prepare resumes for a living - this is a new career for me, and I'm encountering for the first time a student who has a large gap due to prison time served. What exactly do we put on the resume for that time period? Nothing? Or do we actually put the explanation on the resume? I've been researching but haven't quite found the solution to this problem.

    • The Indexer profile imageAUTHOR

      John Welford 

      8 years ago from UK

      Moz, I don't see that you have anything to explain. Your gap in employment was the result of leaving to have a child - probably the best reason in the world! If an employer objected to that as a reason, that is not the sort of employer I would want to work for anyway!

      (It is possible that your illness was part of your pregnancy, so it is not a case of one or the other)

    • profile image

      Moz 

      8 years ago

      Hi Indexer.

      This is agreat blog. Could you please help me explain my situation. I left work because I was ill and was adivised by my doctor to take some time off. However I also realised that I was pregnant and so took off more time to care for my little. I am now planning to go back to work. How should i explain the gap? Should I forcus on the illness or the fact that I had a child or both? Thanks.

    • The Indexer profile imageAUTHOR

      John Welford 

      8 years ago from UK

      Lasanga,

      It is no crime to be ill. However, not all employers are as understanding of depressive illness as others - some might reckon that depression is the next thing to mental instability, and some that they don't want to hire someone who can't "hack it".

      You can simply say that you were ill, and not specify the type of illness - it is after all your right to keep such information confidential, as nobody can demand your full medical history at this stage of the proceeedings. If the employer asks more questions later, you can decide how open you want to be, but this is not the function of a resume.

      One consideration you might bear in mind is whether you want to work for someone who does not understand depression. It is, after all, a very common ailment that most people suffer from at some stage of their lives, including employers!

      The basic advice is as given above - don't lie, but don't say more than you need to.

    • profile image

      lasanga 

      8 years ago

      hi index,

      Do you have advice for someone who struggles with phases of depression that affects their ability to work and leaves gaps in their resume.? i can more details if you want.

    • The Indexer profile imageAUTHOR

      John Welford 

      9 years ago from UK

      Suiiki,

      What you must do is accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative! Can you word the two-year free course in a way that makes it look more official than it actually is, without actually lying? You don't have to say that it is free, or taught by a friend, for example. This sounds a bit like the line in my article about beach-bumming versus environmental research - you must always tell the truth, but whether you feel constrained to tell the whole truth is entirely up to you!

    • Suiiki profile image

      Suiiki 

      9 years ago from City of the Newly Wed and Nearly Dead

      This is a well-written hub. It's very informative and enjoyable.

      Do you have any suggestions for a situation like mine? I left college after one year of nursing school to move to Canada and get married, and I have not worked or gone to school in over a year because I am waiting for residency paperwork. I don't have any volunteer work because most places do not want a non-resident, though I am working on writing a novel, and I am taking a two-year free course taught by one of my friends online with the goal of learning proper planning and writing techniques for novelists. How should I explain this when I get back into the workforce, once my residency paperwork is approved?

    • apeksha profile image

      apeksha 

      9 years ago from India.

      They could mean that you were in prison during that time, or that you were fired from a job for incompetence and found it extremely difficult to get another. Either way, those gaps lessen your chances of success in the jobs market.

      Remember that not everyone is a paragon of virtue and employers know this.

      ultiamtely written..

      I have a gap in my engineering carrier as I was ill.And same problem I am now facing while giving interviews...I am going to mail it to my frnds & brother who is very reseptive ...

      Thanks...

    • profile image

      Eug81 

      10 years ago from Auckland

      What a key point - not being embarrassed by your past. I work with people returningto the workforce from sometimes quite serious injuries, and also have worked with reformed drug & alcohol addicts and this is precisely the stuff that comes up, and you're right, you need to admit it, explain how far you've come, and move on.

    • profile image

      melville 

      10 years ago

      Traveling as much as I have over the last 15 years I have found myself in the position of having several gaps in my resume, what I have done is explained it as gathering life experience. I point out to potential employers that the depth and breadth of experience I have make me a valuable asset to any company.

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