Our clients often ask us how to deal with a gap on a resume. Strategic job seekers want to know how to fill employment gaps, or if unemployment gaps will look bad to recruiters. Many people have employment gaps of 6 months or less, while others have been out of the workplace for years.
The truth is, very few people have a perfect, linear career history. In this article, we will discuss how to best handle each situation that led to gaps in employment. We also have resume samples with gaps in employment. By the end of this article, you will know how to fill in employment gaps on your resume.
What is an employment gap?
An employment gap is any period of time you were away from the workforce, ranging from a matter of weeks to any number of years. Sometimes these gaps in employment are caused by getting fired or quitting a job, while other reasons for being unemployed may include caretaking, personal health concerns, or long-term traveling.
What do employers think about employment gaps?
There are two factors that really make gaps worrisome for hiring personnel: when you were unemployed, and how long the unemployment lasted.
For example, if you were unemployed for a month or two twenty years ago, odds are that your prospective employer won’t care. On the other hand, if the gap was more recent and longer in duration, you need to have a plan to address this concern.
Employers also want to know the reason for the employment gap. If you have a habit of quitting your jobs, resulting in multiple gaps on your resume, you’re going to have a more difficult time explaining why your work history is so unreliable.
On the other hand, if you have a good reason for the gap, your unemployment on your resume will be far easier to explain. Good reasons include taking time off to care for your mother, or going back to school for an advanced degree.
In most cases, listing an unemployment on your resume that is six months or shorter in duration is not a problem.
In either case, most hiring managers are going to spend more time looking for a skills match and basic qualifications than looking to see if you have a perfectly linear career history. You can increase your odds of getting invited to interview for a job if your resume is optimized for an ATS scan. Make sure you're ready for online job applications by using our free resume review tool!
When is an unemployment gap too long?
There is no exact answer to this question, as everybody's situation is different. The biggest hurdle to overcome with employment gaps is explaining them to the employer in an effective way. You need to show that your time off was either a necessity or helped expand your knowledge in some way.
If possible, you should reassure your future employer that it is unlikely to happen again.
Here is what career expert Alison Green says regarding the length of unemployment:
"...it’s not the gap itself that’s an issue. It’s just that it raises a question of whether there could be something concerning behind it. When you can demonstrate that there isn’t, it’s a non-issue.
As for length, it’s very unlikely that you’ll ever even be asked about a gap of a few months or less. In general, gaps don’t become a question for employers until they’re five or six months or longer, and they don’t become potential red flags until they’re longer than that."
For more information on the length of an employment gap, we have a related post devoted to the subject: How Long is too Long Of An Employment Gap?
The best resume format for employment gaps
One of the best ways to deal with employment gaps is to make sure that you use the right resume format. In instances where you have a number of gaps, the functional resume is the classic answer.
Functional resumes focus on your actual skills and abilities rather than your detailed work history. Yes, you still need to list your work history, but that list can be created in a way that minimizes any gaps--more on that in a moment.
With the functional resume, you get to highlight relevant skills. That gives you an opportunity to incorporate those important keywords from the employer’s job posting, while shaping your resume in a way that demonstrates just how qualified you are to do the job at hand. It also allows you to cite abilities that you’ve utilized in previous jobs that might not be as self-evident if the prospective employer was just reading a dry list of your previous job titles.
To use a functional resume effectively, focus on those skills that best match the ones needed for the job you’re seeking. That can help you to properly position yourself for the new position by making it easy for the employer to identify the specific value that you can bring to his or her company.
Sample resume with gaps in employment
View 200+ more professional resume samples for all industries, along with a guide to writing resumes from our career experts.
As you can see after reading the whole resume, Mary Ann the medical assistant has not been in a professional employment setting since 2003. However, that detail is not obvious until you get to the bottom quarter of the page.
Instead, she leads her resume with her professional summary, education, and certifications--likely the most important qualification to her job search. Emphasizing these details naturally de-emphasizes the employment gap.
Next, this resume includes a skills section with more hard skills. This section optimizes keywords from medical assistant job posts, a key step in passing an ATS scan. Notice that Mary Ann includes skills that are still relevant in the field. There aren't any outdated systems, computer programs, or common skills that would be assumed in today's applicant pool.
She follows these qualifications by listing highlights of her work experience. These are similar to the bullet points included in the work experience section of a reverse-chronological resume, but even more selective.
Finally, Mary Ann splits up her employment experience in two sections. Even with the separate headings, this resume only devotes six lines of text to professional work history. She simplifies her employment dates by only including the years, instead of adding in months.
You can see more examples and information on our guide on the best resume formats.
Now that we have noted all these features on our resume example, let's go into more detail about why they're important.
Dealing with gaps in your employment history
Functional resumes still include a list of your employment history, along with the dates of employment. This information is necessary to verify your qualifications. However, it doesn't show up until the end of your strategic functional resume.
Why does that help? After all, won’t those gaps still show up?
In some instances, yes. If you’ve had periods of unemployment lasting for more than a year, it's hard to gloss over them--even using a functional resume format.
If you're trying to minimize long-term gaps, we have some advice.
3 tips for explaining a gap in employment
1. Don't lie
Don’t change dates in an attempt to stretch out periods of employment so that they cover up any gaps, and don't fabricate experiences. It’s unethical, and there’s a good chance that the employer will find out.
2. Be strategic
Being honest doesn’t mean exclude using other relevant experiences.
For example, if you spent an eleven-month period of unemployment learning several new computer programs or volunteering at the local shelter, include that in your timeline.
If you were taking care of your sick grandmother and managing her affairs, list that just as you would any job – and be sure to describe it in terms that fit with the rest of your employment narrative. “Served as caregiver and estate manager for elderly relative, handling medical and financial concerns” has a nicer ring to it than “time off to take care of grandma."
3. Don't over-share
Many gaps can be minimized by providing only the years that you were employed, rather than the more detailed month-and-year option. That can help to cover short gaps.
Consider this gap, for instance:
November, 2010 – June, 2015, Acme Coyote Supply
February, 2008 – January, 2010, ABC Widget Company
Presented in that format, there is an obvious gap of at least ten months between those two jobs. Employers could immediately focus on that gap. Now, consider the same work history listing, with the months removed:
2010-2015, Acme Coyote Supply
2008-2010, ABC Widget Company
When the months are excluded, that same work history has no apparent gap. Obviously, longer periods of time away from the workforce cannot be minimized in this manner, but for shorter gaps, this works perfectly.
When to use these resume gap tips
If you have an otherwise strong history of employment that is marred by one noticeable gap, you can often use the chronological resume format. You should still be honest when listing your work experience, and you will need to explain that major gap so that the employer understands why you were unemployed.
Instead of using your resume to explain the gap, you can address your unemployment in another part of your job application. As you’ll see below, the cover letter can sometimes be the perfect place to address this issue.
How to use a cover letter for explaining gaps in employment
Many experts recommend that you commit to using part of your cover letter to deal with gaps. Your cover letter is your introduction to the prospective employer, and your first opportunity to make a positive impression--but that also means that it can be an ideal place to dispense with potential distractions so that the hiring manager can spend his time focusing on the value you offer.
1. Don’t dwell on the negatives
Don’t lose sight of the positive benefits from your previous employment. There are lots of valid reasons for unemployment, but you can still focus on the periods of employment.
Did a personal tragedy disrupt your life and send you off in search of new meaning for your life? Skip the tragedy and focus on what you learned from that sabbatical.
Did your company shutter its doors, resulting in a lengthy period of unemployment? Give less emphasis to the closing and more to how you used your time on the unemployment line to make yourself an even more valuable hire.
Remember, you want to be positive. Your potential employer doesn’t care that your former employer’s third wife embezzled the company’s accounts and moved to Panama with her 18-year-old paramour. All the hiring manager wants to know is what you’ve done since then to make yourself a worthy addition to this company.
2. Focus on your strengths
Your cover letter should serve as a primer for your functional resume. It should emphasize your strengths. The fact is that hiring managers really only care about how your abilities and character can benefit their companies. Your cover letter needs to draw a straight line between your skills and the company’s bottom line.
Before even attempting to use your cover letter to explain work gaps, be sure that you understand what your cover letter is designed to accomplish. It’s not just an introduction to the employer; it’s a sales letter. The product you’re trying to sell is you!
With that in mind, try to de-emphasize small gaps, and quickly explain larger periods away from the workplace. How you do that will likely depend upon the reason for the gap, and what you accomplished in your time off. Here are two examples of the types of explanations that might be useful for your unique situation.
Sample cover letter explaining parental leave
In this situation, you should mention that you took time off to care for a child but also mention something productive you did that would help your career. This could be taking additional courses or studying a relevant subject. You can even add relevant interests and activities on your resume from your time off.
“After a successful nine-year career as a computer programmer for XYZ Corp., I took maternity leave, and then completed my bachelor’s degree in business management. During that period, I have been preparing for the next step in my career development by developing the exact set of skills that your company is presently seeking.”
Here are some more useful cover letter tips for maternity leave.
Sample cover letter explaining a layoff
“I spent 22 years working in the widget industry, with the last seven of those years employed as a senior floor manager. After the widget industry moved its operations overseas several years ago, our plant was closed and all domestic employees were laid off. In the time since that closing, I’ve completed (insert educational accomplishment or training) to develop the skills needed for this job.”
Sample cover letter explaining medical leave
"After spending 7 years as an accountant I had to take a break to deal with an illness. During this time I read and studied all the changes to accounting principles and procedures. I've fully recovered and am really excited to join the workforce again"
We wrote a good post here on how to deal with employment gaps on your resume due to a disability.
Many job seekers also ask how to deal with gaps on their resume regarding depression or other mental illness. The answer is that you don't need to bring attention to it directly. Just mention that you were dealing with an illness. Depression is nothing to be ashamed of, but some things are better left off your resume.
You should be cognizant of the need to deal with work gaps, but not to the point where it paralyzes you and prevents you from focusing on the skills and positive attributes you bring to the table.
It’s valuable to remember that today’s employers are far more accustomed to work gaps than in times past. While companies of the past once hired and retained employees for life, that is a far less common occurrence today. Most workers today have career paths that include a variety of different jobs.
Still, there is a need to explain frequent gaps, and gaps that last for more than a few months. What you shouldn’t do, however, is obsess over them in your resume and cover letter. Explain them in a confident manner, and then get on with the more important task of selling your skill set to that employer!
Good luck with your job search!
The ZipJob team is made up of professional writers located across the USA and Canada with backgrounds in HR, recruiting, career coaching, job placement, and professional writing.