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How to explain a job gap in an interview

Millions of people have lost their jobs because of COVID-19, and many others have left their jobs for various reasons, such as having to care for family members. When trying to re-enter the workforce, it may sound intimidating to have a gap in your employment history, but don't panic! Instead, talk about it openly on your resume and redirect the focus in your cover letters to how you adapted to these difficult circumstances.

In an interview, it can be intimidating to explain a gap in employment. You’d like to think that hiring managers will be understanding. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Many employers ask in the interview about how people were affected by the pandemic.

Remember, you are not alone if you’re feeling stumped for an employment gap explanation. In 2021, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that nearly 40% of the unemployed had been out of work for more than six months.

Read on for tips on spinning your pandemic career gap and other unemployed periods in your resume.

  • Be honest about your unemployment

There’s always the temptation to fudge and lie about the gaps on your resume, when faced with career gap interview questions, but don’t do it. Changing dates or making up a non-existent job is unethical, and once you get caught, there’s no going back.

  • Take control of the conversation

If a hiring manager asks you, “Tell me about yourself,” don’t wait for them to ask you about your career gap. Tell them right away that you were laid off and tell them what you learned from it. Keep it short – don’t give more than a minute before moving on to other important details about your career.

If the conversation goes in a direction that makes you uncomfortable, you can always say, “I’d prefer not to go into further detail. However, I’d like to talk more about my work experience.” Then you can share a new anecdote about your work history that qualifies you for the job.

  • Explain the context of your job loss

When you share your job loss, make it clear that it is not related to an individual performance problem. It could be a corporate decision that affected many people. If you worked in a large department and were one of 10 team members laid off due to downsizing, you should mention this and point out that nine other people were also affected by this decision.

  • Emphasize what you did during your hiatus

Even if you are interviewing with a compassionate person, they will want to know what you did during the shutdown. Ideally, you should have a prepared story to tell. The person interviewing you will not be interested in the lockdown for more than a few minutes. So focus on your skills, the knowledge you gained during your downtime, and any volunteer or freelance work you did.

  • Tell your story to explain a gap in employment

Sharing the positive things that happened during your unemployment and the things you learned from the difficult times says a lot about your attitude and personality. Your answer could show that you are a good fit for the company or job.

Be confident. You have experience and skills, and you don’t need to apologize for the gap in your resume. Consider what you have learned in your time away and how you’ve grown professionally and personally. Think about those qualities and skills, identify transferable skills, and build them into your story.

  • Turn the gap in your favor

In the interview, say that job quality and fulfillment are important to you, rather than filling the gap with employers who may not be a good fit for you. Then sell yourself by explaining that you have been waiting for the right employers and that, based on your research, you have concluded that the company is a good fit for you.

5 examples of how to answer career gap interview questions

While the pandemic has led to many inevitable gaps in resumes, there are other common situations where you will be asked to explain periods of unemployment in an interview. From taking time off to care for kids, to explaining a sabbatical, here are some employment gap interview answers on how you should handle the question:

  • If you took time off to travel:

“I took a six-month sabbatical to immerse myself in a different culture, and as a result, I’ve gained a new perspective and learned some valuable life lessons. I feel much more ready to dive back into my career.”

  • If you were sick:

“Due to an illness, I was unable to continue in my previous position. But I’ve since fully recovered and am ready for my next challenge.”

  • If you were laid off:

“I was laid off from my previous employment. It could have been due to budget cuts or a first-in, last-out policy. Either way, I am proud of what I accomplished while there, as my previous manager and one of my references can attest.”

  • If you were fired:

“I left the company for many reasons, but the main one was that we had different expectations. When I think about what happened, I realize that I could have done some things differently. I learned a lot and look forward to bringing that experience to my new role.”

  • If you took time off to raise children:

“I often hear that people want to ‘have it all,’ but I don’t think it’s possible. I chose to put my career on hold to raise my kids, so now I want to get back to work.”

Final thoughts

A gap in your resume is not always a disadvantage – and recruiters agree. You can make steady progress in your job search if you know how to explain your job gap in an interview by managing the situation and having a positive, forward-thinking attitude. 

Whatever the reason for your career hiatus, think about all the successes and career highlights you have and leverage those in each of your applications. Being prepared with the best answer for a career gap in an interview will also help you feel more confident.

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