Career Talk

Q: How do I deal with an unusual gap in my resum‚-such as taking time off to travel or being laid off from an unsuccessful start-up?

A: That year you spent in the Rockies testing products for a bit foggy now, doesn’t it? Sure, The Industry Standard said it was going to be the next eBay-and you swallowed it hook, line, and sinker. At the time your career path was a testament to your adventuresome spirit and youthful optimism, but how do you explain it now, as you sit in your spiffy new suit hoping to impress a recruiter who’s looking for a stable employee?

With the economy struggling, companies are returning to conservative viewpoints on new hires. “Especially when the market tightens, companies are more likely to look for people with experience and a proven track record instead of someone who has jumped around and has lots of gaps,” says Laurie Boockvar, associate director at Columbia Business School’s Office of MBA Career Services.

Your best strategy for explaining employment-history hiccups depends, of course, on the reason for the gap; taking time off to care for a sick relative is different from ditching an I-banking job to start an online gambling business. Regardless of the reason, avoid acting as if you have something to hide.

“Overall you need to be nondefensive and open,” advises Boockvar. “You need to have woven this into the overall story so that it makes sense-or if it doesn’t, explain it and move on. Don’t dwell on it.” Account for substantial time off in the “additional information” section at the end of your resum‚.

For students who took extensive sabbaticals to travel or for other opportunities, one tip is to interview at businesses whose culture is tolerant of such ventures. Smaller firms, non-profits, media companies, and organizations with an entrepreneurial spirit might be more accepting. Jobs in which risk taking is essential-such as trading-might also be a good fit.

Even more traditional employers might be amenable to an odd gap in one’s resum‚. Susan Levine, manager of marketing recruiting at Bain & Company, says her firm seeks well-rounded employees with varied experiences. Taking time to see the world or to be with family is “perfectly acceptable, within reason,” she says. “People have so many different circumstances; I don’t think that the consulting field looks negatively on people taking time off for opportunities.”

If you were involved in several failed start-ups, put a positive spin on the experience: Relate the skills you acquired to the job for which you are interviewing. Perhaps you learned how to manage up, or the right way to perform due diligence on an acquisition. “I think it’s accepted as fact that there was this big Internet bubble and it burst, and it’s nothing to be ashamed about,” Boockvar says. “Your attitude is most important. I think you also need to rely on people being understanding. Not everyone has been able to have a linear career path and move steadily without life interrupting.”

Levine, too, notes that experience from a start-up-even a dot-bomb-is valuable to a company. As downsizing becomes more frequent, involuntary unemployment is losing its stigma. In any case, don’t be too hard on yourself; the fact that you’re in business school is likely to overshadow a layoff from a previous job, says Boockvar.

Printed with the permission of MBA Jungle. Have a question you’d like to see answered in Q&MBA? email us at