How to Deal with a Gap on Your Resume

If you want to take time away from the workforce, be smart about showcasing it on your resume.

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Say you want to take time away from the traditional workforce to pursue a passion. Or have a baby. Or complete a project. One of the biggest fears we have when making these plans isn't the venture itself, but returning to full-time work afterward. Will potential employers still want to hire you when they realize you've been away from the 9-to-5?

Regardless of how you spend your time away, the best way to deal with that gap on your resume is counter-intuitive: Don't present it as a gap. Instead, figure out how your experience adds to your skill set, and how you can use that to market yourself.

"Whether you're unemployed or employed, always be able to go back and deconstruct the elements of the work you've done," says Ginny Clarke, career coach and author of Career Mapping: Charting Your Course in the New World of Work. "You've got to account for the time ... Let people know that you weren't just sitting at home getting stale."

[See Ignore These 10 Outdated Pieces of Job-Search Advice.]

If you haven't yet taken your sabbatical, figure out ahead of time how to gain skills or experience that will boost your resume. That growth doesn't have to be the sole purpose of your career break—simply a complement to your main goal. And even with your ambitions in mind, you'll likely come out of the experience with additional skills you didn't expect to gain.

If you've already taken time away and are now looking to get back to work, think outside the box about what you learned during that time. Maybe you became a super multitasker while staying at home with four kids. Or worked as a freelancer while traveling the world. Or learned how to manage finances while volunteering for a nonprofit organization. How will what you learned make you a better employee?

And take this strategy beyond your resume. Be prepared to explain the benefits of your career break in person, because it's a topic that could come up during an interview. If you present it well, that experience could work in your favor, serving as an ice-breaker or making you a more interesting candidate. But if you approach an interview with a gap festering on your resume, hoping no one will notice, they probably will.

"If there's a gap, we always ask [about it]," says Rachel Platt, human resources director who hires for Reznick Group, an accounting, tax, and business advisory firm. "What we're typically looking for is an honest answer ... a well-thought-out decision for why they did it. And we especially like it, particularly if somebody was out of work not by their own choice, that they did something meaningful with their time."

[See How to Negotiate a Sabbatical.]

Clarke, too, recommends being upfront about how you spent your time. "You don't want [a hiring manager] to ask the question, you want to tell them before they ask," she says. "Because [otherwise,] the tendency is to think, what are you hiding?"

So what counts as meaningful, and how can you work that into your time away? Try volunteering, taking a class, researching a topic you're interested in, teaching yourself a new skill, or finding some other way to boost your value as an employee.

[See Can You Afford to Take a Sabbatical?]

Just because you shouldn't leave a gap on your resume doesn't mean you have to include a short-term job that didn't work out or every other detail of your employment history. Pick and choose from your experiences according to what will help you get the job you're applying for. If you don't want to include a certain job but it leaves an obvious gap, think about what else you accomplished during that time that you can highlight.

Whatever you do, don't apologize for your decision to take a sabbatical, Clarke says. Too many job seekers make the mistake of pointing out their weaknesses, rather than their strengths. Instead, be proud of your accomplishments and what you bring to the table. Because when it comes to an interview, Clarke says, "so much of [being successful] is attitude."

agrant@usnews.com