Job seekers: How to overcome a resume employment gap
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Job seekers: How to overcome a resume employment gap

By Gorick Ng, a Research Associate in the Managing the Future of Work project at Harvard Business School

First, know that you aren’t alone if you have a lengthy gap in your resume due to the COVID pandemic. And, second, know that you will get through this, just as you’ve done for every other challenge you’ve had to overcome to get to where you are today.

In terms of the how, break up the job search into two stages: the resume screen (the stage you need to pass to get the interview) and the interview (the stage you need to pass to get the job).

The resume screen is all about convincing the recruiter or hiring manager (and the applicant tracking system—the software companies use to screen candidates) that you are worth interviewing. The interview is all about convincing your interviewer that you are as good as how you came across on paper.

For the resume screen, try the following three strategies:

  1. Plug the gap in your resume. Were you caring for a loved one? Tutoring a sibling? Blogging? Learning a new skill? Taking an online course? Attempting a side hustle? Whatever you did that led to some tangible output or self improvement, create a title, whether it’s “caregiver,” “tutor,” “blogger,” “student,” or “entrepreneur,” and add some bullet points as you would for any other job. A continuous work history is obviously ideal, but something is at least better than nothing.
  2. Explain yourself in your cover letter. If you were laid off as part of a firm-wide downsizing and not due to low performance, say it. Showcase all the problems you’ve solved, all the projects you’ve led, all the metrics you’ve hit, and all the results you’ve achieved—and how it was circumstances beyond your control that led to your layoff. Convince your reader that you are a great hire who was dealt a bad hand—not a bad hire, full stop.
  3. Circumvent the application process altogether. Applicant tracking systems don’t care how much you want the job, how well you can do the job, or how well you will fit with the team. All it cares about are the words that are on your page. Rather than subject yourself to the tyranny of a dispassionate computer, try building relationships with the human beings behind the process. Ask for an introduction to someone at the firm. If you don’t have a connection, try sending cold emails.

Once you are at the interview stage, focus on what you’ve done, rather than what you haven’t done. Talk about the people you’ve helped, the tangible output you’ve produced, the skills you’ve acquired, the topics you’ve learned about, and the projects you’ve attempted. In the end, it’s all about leaving your interviewer thinking, wow, you may have been dealt a bad hand, but man… you sure did make the most of the situation. That is, after all, the same hustle that your future colleagues are looking for in a potential teammate.