Returning to Full-Time Work? Here’s How to Overcome a Resume Gap

a woman and her daughters in a kitchen
Alison Cooper with her daughters, Emlen, 10, and Nina, 7, at their home in Atlanta. Carmen Mandato/The Penny Hoarder

Alison Cooper knew it was the right time.

After spending almost a decade away from a full-time career in writing and editing to raise two daughters, she decided she was ready to start looking for steady work.

“I was tired of it,” says Cooper, 43, who lives in Atlanta. “I needed to get out of my house. I needed benefits, and I wanted to do something with other people — badly.”

Even though Cooper had done freelance writing and editing while raising her kids, she still had a long period of time on her resume between full-time jobs. She worried that this gap would hold her back in her job search, particularly since she lacked management experience.

“It was very hard for me to figure out where to jump in because I have almost 20 years experience in my field, but I had no upward movement,” she says. “I had no idea what kind of money to ask for, what kind positions to look for. I was shooting in the dark.”

Cooper’s fears and concerns might sound familiar to other people wanting to rejoin the workforce full time after a hiatus. But whatever the reason for the resume gap, you can overcome it by applying these tips.

A Resume Gap Is Not a Scarlet Letter

a woman and her daughter holding hands outside surrounded by trees.
After 10 years at home, Cooper wanted to re-enter the workforce. She says she needed the benefits and social interaction. Carmen Mandato/The Penny Hoarder

In the past, when diehard “company men” dominated the workforce, the idea of being laid off or fired was viewed as being severely detrimental to one’s career. According to Loren Margolis, CEO of Training & Leadership Success and a former human resources professional, we Americans tend to define ourselves by our careers. If we have a setback, we carry it around as a stigma.

That way of thinking started to change in the aftermath of the Great Recession, says Pam Bisconer, an HR professional and resume-building tutor with Varsity Tutors.

Between 2008 and 2009, 8.4 million jobs were lost in the United States. Many of the people affected had their careers disrupted when companies executed mass layoffs in an attempt to stay in business. About a decade removed from the financial crisis, the people who are now doing the hiring remember how rough that period was on workers. Margolis says that, in general, job hunters might be surprised how understanding hiring personnel are about things that happen outside employees’ control.  

“The days of working 40 years at IBM are over,” Margolis says. “You just have to explain the gaps… Having the gap in your resume is not the ding that it used to be.”

Use Your Cover Letter and Resume to Do the Talking

a woman uses a laptop in her kitchen
After four months of job hunting, Cooper landed a position as a health communications specialist. Carmen Mandato/The Penny Hoarder

One of the best ways to explain a resume gap is to write about it in your cover letter.

“The cover letter is not optional, especially when you have something that you need to explain on your resume and you don’t have the benefit of being in the room with the recruiter reading your resume,” Margolis says.

She suggests, for example, using phrases that sum up the nature of your gap, including “I was laid off along with ‘X’ employees as the organization was reorganizing,” or “I’m delighted to return from the workforce after taking a year off to be with new family.”

Be Honest About Your Resume Gap

It’s very important to be honest about your gap in employment.

“The chances are if you’re not honest, it’ll come back to you anyway,” says Bisconer. “They’re going to find out when they do their background check or reference check, so it’s better to be honest up front.”

Even if you were terminated from your previous job, Bisconer recommends being open about what happened and then explaining how you’ve turned it into a positive.

“As long as [people] explain, are honest and say that they learned from their experience, I don’t think that’ll necessarily be a strike against them,” she says.

You Have More Skills Than You Think

a woman sits on a chair outdoors
Cooper freelanced and volunteered at her kids’ schools doing communications work while she was raising her children. She included those experiences on her resume. Carmen Mandato/The Penny Hoarder

People with gaps spanning several years, such as mothers reentering the workforce, might think a hiatus produced no transferable skills. They’d be wrong.

Activities such as participating in the PTA or volunteering at a church or school can be a great way to beef up a resume and minimize the gap. Margolis notes that, with the rise of the gig economy, it’s wise to list part-time work or temp work on your resume — as long as those jobs have transferable skills that can be applied to the position you’re seeking.

Cooper says she freelanced and volunteered at her kids’ schools doing communications work like social media. She included those experiences on her resume.

When Cooper started interviewing, she was surprised that her resume gap wasn’t that much of a black mark.

“I think people are more understanding than I’d thought they would be,” she says. “It wasn’t that big of a deal.”

After four months of job hunting, Cooper landed a position at the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention as a health communications specialist. It was the job she wanted most during her search.

She’s thrilled to be working full time again.

And for those worried about applying for their first job following an employment gap, Cooper offers some simple advice:

“Just go for it and be honest.”

Matt Reinstetle is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. Matt also has a gap in his resume and wants people not to let it hold them back from pursuing their dream job.