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How Should Your Resume Explain Unemployment Gaps?

woman working on her laptop, searching for a job
GaudiLab/Shutterstock

While the actual unemployment rate is notoriously hard to pin down, one thing’s for sure: many people will go through a period of unemployment at some point in their lives. And those gaps don’t just make it hard to pay bills in the meantime—they can also make it harder to get a new job.

The dreaded “employment gap” on your resume can be a red flag to potential employers who wonder what you were up to during that time. But it doesn’t have to be a red flag. If you know the right approach, you can use your resume to explain your experience—even the gaps—in a way that shows you’re the ideal candidate for the job.

How can you use your resume to explain unemployed periods? Here’s how to spin it to get the job you want.

Fill Your Gaps Wisely

If you find yourself unemployed, now or in the future, this is a great time to fill that gap with a productive experience that you can put on your resume.

There are lots of ways to advance your career or skills without actually having a job. Take this time to volunteer in your industry, or sign up for a free online course to grow your skillset. Now, you’ll have relevant experience that you can add to your resume for the period when you were unemployed.

If you can, add the date of this non-work experience when you list it on your resume (such as giving the date of completion for your online course). That way, you can signal to potential employers that even when you weren’t officially working, you were still working on your career.

Loosen up Your Dates

If you already have past employment gaps that you didn’t fill with other valuable experience, you can still make them less prominent on your resume. Consider listing your dates in a way that’s a little more flexible. Instead of listing the month and year that you started and ended each job, just list the year. That way, even if you were unemployed for several months within a year, it won’t be glaringly obvious.

Switch Your Format

If you have a chronological resume format, your employment dates (and any gaps in them) are front and center. Changing to a functional or hybrid resume pushes that information further down the page, or gets rid of it altogether.

You can put other information, like your valuable skills, at the top of the page instead. Focusing on the value that you bring to the table first can make even a glaring work history gap less concerning.

Never Lie

You have lots of options for concealing work history gaps on your resume. However, never resort to straight-up lying. It’s all too easy to get caught in a lie when asked about it in your interview, which will inevitably cost you the job. Plus, with so many options for explaining or hiding periods of unemployment on your resume, you really don’t need to lie.

Label It a “Sabbatical”

One way to address gaps in your resume is to be as clear and straightforward as possible. If you want, you can list your unemployment dates in your Work History section under the label “Professional Sabbatical.” This indicates that you intentionally spent time away from work, without going into details.

Use Your Cover Letter

Whether you list a sabbatical on your resume or use a different method to manage the gap, you can use your cover letter to answer any questions that the employer might have. For example, you could briefly mention that you were away from work for several months to take care of an aging parent, or that you spend some time backpacking in Europe. Even better, try to mention something you learned from that non-work time that will help you at the job you’re applying for.

In many industries, employment gaps are more common than they used to be. And in spite of the difficulties of unemployment, those gaps can also be beneficial—they give you a great opportunity to explore contract work, recover from burnout, educate yourself, or donate your time to a good cause. As you build your resume, try to focus on the positives of what you did in those gap periods, and you’ll signal to potential employers that you’re a focused worker who always uses their time wisely.

Next, learn how to tailor your resume for each job you apply for.

Elyse Hauser Elyse Hauser
Elyse Hauser is a Seattle-based writer and editor with a Master's in Writing Studies from Saint Joseph's University. Her work has appeared in publications like Racked, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, and Rum Punch Press. She was awarded a 2017 Writing Between the Vines residency.  Read Full Bio »

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