There are a few oft-repeated truisms when it comes to resumes and job searching, and one of them is that resume gaps are bad. But that isn’t always the case! If you’ve taken a few months — or even a few years — off between jobs, voluntarily or otherwise, it doesn’t have to be a big deal.
The truth about employment gaps
Why does it matter?
In and of itself, a resume gap doesn’t matter. Hiring managers aren’t deliberately screening out applicants just because they haven’t been working for every single day of their lives. The reason employers notice resume gaps is because they raise questions.
What questions do they raise?
When employers see a resume gap, here’s what they might be wondering:
- Were you fired?
- Did you quit on a whim or with no warning?
- Did you leave without another job lined up?
- Have you left one or more jobs off your resume?
- If any of these were true, why?
Here's a list of common questions recruiters have about employment gaps. These all basically boil down to one thing: Is there a gap on your resume because you’re trying to hide something? If not, you have nothing to worry about.
When are resume gaps not a big deal?
Most resume gaps are unlikely to be a problem. In particular:
If it’s short
Employment gaps of less than six months aren’t likely to even stand out. Six months is a fairly normal timeframe for a job search, so you may not even need to explain a shorter gap.
If it’s recent
Hiring managers aren’t living in a bubble — they know people are struggling right now. If you were laid off, furloughed, or had trouble finding work over the past year, no reasonable employer is going to hold that against you.
If it’s a one-time occurrence
If you only have a single gap on your resume, it’s unlikely to raise red flags the same way a series of gaps might. Like anything else on your resume, context matters — if you have a single gap on your resume that you’re able to explain, most employers won’t care.
If there’s a good reason
What is a good reason for an employment gap? Basically, anything non-work-related. If you’ve relocated, had a baby, or taken time off for a family or health emergency, those are all good reasons that have nothing to do with your work performance. A career change could be another good reason, especially if you've used that time to go back to school or update your skill set.
When do they become a problem?
Employment gaps are only likely to become red flags if none of the above is true. If your resume shows a pattern of extended, work-related gaps, you’ll need to explain that in more detail than you otherwise would. This still won’t necessarily be prohibitive, but you’ll have a harder time explaining that you stormed out of your last job without notice than you would explaining taking time off to care for an elderly relative.
How to deal with resume gaps
Here are some examples of common reasons you might have a gap on your resume, and how to deal with it head-on.
Address a career break directly
If you have a single, easy to explain gap in your resume, the best strategy is just to explain it. Your cover letter is a good place for this. You don’t need to spend a whole paragraph justifying it — a sentence or two is usually enough.
You can also list a career break in your resume like this in your work experience. This allows you to go into a little more details about what you did during the hiatus, which is ideal if you’ve achieved something during this time that you’d like to highlight. This should usually only be done if you're currently on a gap.
Appropriate accomplishments could include freelance projects, online courses, or volunteer work. List these the same way you would your regular word experience, by using quantifiable, action-based bullet points. Make sure to include keywords, too — anything that’s relevant to the job you’re applying for can help you get through the initial screening step.
If you’re currently unemployed
If you’re currently in the middle of an employment gap, try asking yourself if there’s anything you can do now to improve yourself professionally. This doesn’t have to be full-time — even doing something for a few hours a week can be worthy of inclusion on your resume. Here are some ideas for activities you can pursue:
- Volunteer. Volunteer work looks good on a resume and is a great way to fill an employment gap.
- Take on freelance, consulting, or other temporary work. Upwork is a great place to start, as is reaching out to previous employers to see if you can do some work on a contract basis.
- Start your own business. This one is often more time-consuming, but it doesn’t have to be. Start your own blog, podcast, or streaming channel, or create and sell your own t-shirts, jewelry, or knit hats. Learning about social media advertising and Google AdSense can not only help you monetize your hobby, it can also teach you some marketable skills.
- Pursue further education. You don’t need to start a full degree program (unless it’s absolutely essential for the job you want) — even a short or online course related to your desired career can help give you a leg up over the competition.
If you were laid off
Being laid off (as opposed to fired) isn’t a red flag for employers. This goes double if you were laid off in the past year or so — hiring managers are well aware of how tough the current job market is.
In the entry for your previous job, you can explicitly state that you were laid off due to COVID-19. If the layoff was caused by something else, like a workplace contraction, you should briefly explain that, too. Use your bullet points to highlight your major accomplishments and projects you were working on prior to the layoff — you want to emphasize that you were a strong performer and that the quality of your work wasn’t the problem. These are some ways to can explain the circumstances of a layoff:
- “As part of a large-scale layoff”
- “The company announced a round of layoffs and my position was eliminated”
- “The entire division was shut down”
- “Due to COVID-19”
If you took a break for personal reasons
Major life changes like having a baby, caring for a family member, relocating interstate or internationally, or personal illness or injury, are all valid reasons for a career gap that are unlikely to raise further questions. The best way to deal with these is to clearly explain the situation without going into too much detail.
If you were caring for a family member, it’s best to keep the entry short. The exception is if you demonstrated transferrable skills that are relevant to your career, like if you’re going into a healthcare or administrative role. In that case, you can add a little more detail about the exact nature of those skills.
If the gap was due to personal injury or illness, the most important thing is to reassure employers that it won’t happen again. You can address that with a short sentence stating that the issue is fully resolved.
You should avoid going into specifics, especially if it’s related to mental health. The sad reality is that some employers still have biases against mental illness, and you aren’t legally required to disclose any of the details.
Show you’ve been keeping busy
If you’ve taken some of our suggestions and kept busy with further education, freelancing, or volunteer work, you’ll definitely want to highlight that on your resume. In fact, if you’ve been doing any of these things, your resume gap might turn out not to be a gap at all.
Freelance or contract work
If you’ve completed a series of freelance or contract projects, you can list these without cluttering up your resume. Grouping them under a single job heading like this is a good way to do that, and it also allows you to emphasize your most impressive or relevant accomplishments. Here are more tips for how to list short-term or temporary work on your resume.
Not all work experience has to be paid! Volunteering is a great way to fill any gaps in regular employment. Listing volunteer work on your resume can demonstrate your involvement in the community, show a passion for your chosen industry, and generate some genuinely resume-worthy accomplishments.
If you took a break from working full-time to pursue further education, that’s not really a career break — you can just list it in your education section (which should be at the top of your resume if it’s your most recent or relevant experience). Even if you’ve only been taking one or two online or short courses to try to stay relevant, that’s still worthy of inclusion, particularly if you’ve been upskilling in an area relevant to the job you’re applying for.
Example of a resume that has a career break
If you're struggling to write your own resume from scratch, why not check out our ready-made resume templates? Here's a sample resume you can use as a starting point when addressing a career break:
Resume gaps do’s and don’ts
- Explain the gap. You can do this with a short sentence or two in your cover letter. Simply explain that you took some time off to raise a child/move overseas/care for a relative (or whatever your reason is) and that you’re eager to return to work full-time.
- Mention what you’ve been doing during your career break. If you’ve spent any time volunteering, pursuing further education, or running a side business, employers will want to hear about it. If you can, use this opportunity to include relevant keywords.
- Optimize your resume. Most of the time, employers fixate on so-called red flags when there are other issues with a resume. Running your resume though a free resume review can help identify any areas for improvement and give personalized suggestions.
- Network. If you can forge a personal connection with the hiring manager — whether through shared connections or reaching out directly — gaps on your resume will start to stand out less.
- Use a resume summary to provide a brief overview of your employment history and highlight your top skills and experience. This can help contextualize any job gaps (but steer clear of mentioning them directly in a resume objective or summary).
- Make sure your LinkedIn profile mirrors your resume and cover letter in addressing any gaps. Don’t leave potential employers or connections wondering what happened.
- Be prepared to answer questions. If you get to the interview stage, you may be asked about anything that stands out on your resume, including a gap. Clearly explain your reasons for taking the break and reassure the hiring manager that it’s unlikely to happen again. If you were dealing with a health issue or other potentially ongoing situation, state that it’s now been resolved.
- Don't try to hide the truth. Don’t stretch out the start and end dates of other jobs to try to cover a gap, or list a job you never held. Lying on your resume is never okay, and it will almost always be caught down the line.
- Don't make a big deal out of it. If you have only a single short or recent gap, you don’t need to call attention to it — most people probably won’t even notice. A study from the Society for Human Resource Management even found that employers increasingly support the need for career break.
- Don't pad out your resume with non-work activities. Things like running a household, planning a wedding, or being a stay-at-home parent might feel like a full-time job, but employers won’t see it the same way you do. Listing your job title as “Family CEO” or “Executive Director of the household” is gimmicky and more likely to harm your credibility than help.
- Don't use a functional resume format. These are often sold as being ideal for people with limited or sketchy work experience, but employers know this and will wonder what you’re trying to hide. Functional resumes don’t include dates of employment or a clear job history and make it impossible to evaluate candidates effectively. Most employers see anything other than a standard chronological resume as an instant red flag, so it'll more likely to get you rejected than owning and explaining any gaps.