Gap years are now as common as going on holiday, with thousands of people from all walks of life taking time out before or during full-time employment to achieve other qualifications, to travel the world or for personal reasons. It’s perfectly normal and feasible to take time for personal development and to experience different situations – but how do you add that all to your CV to make you look like the ideal candidate?
Hiring managers aren’t surprised to see breaks on your CV, but they do expect a good explanation of what you did and what transferable skills you’ve acquired. If you fail to include this, you could be digging yourself a big hole and place yourself on the unemployment list.
There’s no need to panic, though. By following this guide, you’ll put your best foot forward and turn your gap year into a career-building experience.
1. Tell the Truth
The single most important thing to remember when dealing with a gap on your CV is that honesty is the best policy. You don’t have to go into immense detail if your gap was for something sensitive like health issues, but leaving it out completely or downright lying will make the gap stand out even more. And don’t be tempted to extend your previous working history as the hiring manager will find out and they’ll place a black mark next to your name.
2. Emphasise on the Positive
Be sure to give emphasis to any constructive activities you were part of during your gap year. This could be volunteer work, additional courses that you took to develop your skills, freelancing or working abroad. Draw on the positive experiences and how they have helped you grow as a person and learn more about different cultures. If your gap year was due to an illness you overcame or because you were caring for someone, draw on the skills you learnt that made you stronger.
3. Be Clear
One thing that recruiters hate is ambiguity. Leaving chunks of time unaccounted for on your CV will only lead to problems. At best, you can expect questions; at worst, your CV will simply end up filed in the dustbin, no matter how much hard work went into it.
It’s important to clearly show when your gap year was and what you did during this time. If you have a patchy employment history with several periods of unemployment, you may want to choose a skill-based CV, which allows you to describe the activities you undertook during your gap year without stressing too much about the sequence of events.
4. Describe Your Achievements
Your main goal is to describe your achievements during your gap year on your CV. These should be in a bullet point form and written in the past tense, eg: ‘Completed a volunteer programme where I was involved in teaching English to young students in Thailand’.
Where you have achieved specific measurable things – for example, mastering a language, passing a qualification or contributing to a worthy cause – be sure to list it. And don’t forget: you will need to provide enough details for the reader to really understand what you achieved during your time off. Phrase your achievements in ’business’ terms for best effect.
5. Explain Your Reasons
Regardless of whether you went on a backpacking trip with your friends for fun or to actually educate yourself, you should give a reason as to how it helped you professionally. Explain how it taught you to adapt to unfamiliar environments or how it increased your confidence when socialising with new people. Making a list of the skills you gained and how these will integrate with different aspects of the job specifications is good preparation for your interview.
6. Show the Transferable Skills You’ve Gained
What will really turn your gap year experience from something that provoked indifference among recruiters to something that actively sells your CV is when you describe the transferable skills gained during the period. You have to show how the skills gained during your gap year have actually made you more employable. Here are a number of skills you can use:
- Negotiation: You can specify how you developed strong negotiating skills, haggling with locals at markets for the cheapest price for products. You have learnt more about how business works and how to make sharp deals.
- Budgeting and Planning: You most likely had to save and plan for your career break; explain how this taught you to plan and keep within your budget, both before and during your travels.
- Adaptability: When you travel, things go wrong and plans change rapidly. As a traveller, you are forced to adapt easily to new situations and think quickly to find a solution to a problem. In the ever-changing world of business, being flexible and having the skill to solve problems is essential.
- Communication: Travelling and taking on new experiences comes with meeting new people of different cultures and backgrounds, forcing you to overcome any language barriers. The intercultural skills that you developed during this time play a vital role in the workplace and are a great asset to have.
- Leadership: If you were involved in teaching abroad, volunteering or even taking care of a sick family member, you can use the experience to show your leadership skills. You can achieve this by explaining that you were responsible for managing a class of children, taking the lead a project or taking care of all medical arrangements.
7. Show Your Commitment to Stability Now
If your gap year was recent or you have taken quite a few over the years, hiring managers will worry that you’re not committed and will be on the next flight out of there once you have enough savings.
This is where you explain how you carefully planned your gap year and are now ready to commit to your career development. Career adviser John Lee says: ‘If your career break was recent, talk long-term so an employer hears you’re now committed to the job, buzzing with renewed motivation. If your break was some time back, learn how to talk about it as a useful event that gave you a renewed focus on getting as much out of work as you have got out of other experiences.’
8. Make Your Gap Year Relevant to Your Employer
Make sure you alter your CV according to the job you are applying for; you can choose a few keywords from the job advert and add them to your gap year explanation. This will make it relevant to the position and the skills that are desired for the job.
9. Structure Your CV
Depending on whether your career break was long and frequent or just a few months long, you can adjust your CV accordingly. Here are a few examples you can follow, depending on your particular situation:
There are ways to format your CV to avoid drawing attention to the dates. An easy way to obscure a gap of a few months is to list only the years of employment. You can then explain in person when your gap was and what you did during that time.
For example, instead of:
Company ABC, January 2005 – January 2008
Company DE, June 2008 – December 2010
Company ABC, 2005 – 2008
Company DEF, 2008 – 2010
You can explain what you achieved during your time abroad:
A gap year spent working in Bolivia and Columbia. Six months spent in Bolivia helping to build a health centre and five months spent working in Columbia helping to restore a bombed church. Finances for the gap year were made available through fundraising efforts. Working as part of a team of six other gap year volunteers, alongside local professionals and other charity workers.
For a patchy employment history, you can opt for a skill-based CV like the example below, rather than a chronological timeline of your work experience:
10. Use Your Cover Letter
A well-written cover letter is a great way to explain the gap through highlighting the transferable skills you gained during that time, like the following example:
Although it might be tempting to skip over your gap year altogether, hiring managers frown upon inconsistencies on your CV. Be honest and show you took some time off – after all, it isn’t a crime, and you gained some admirable skills on your journey (whether you know it or not).
Do you have any tips and advice for other jobseekers that have returned from their break? Join the conversation down below and share your thoughts and experiences with us!
For more tips and advice, check out our comprehensive CV writing guide!