How to Take Care of Weaknesses on Your Résumé

by J. Michael Farr

Do you have a unique circumstance that might raise a recruiter’s eyebrows when reviewing your résumé? Your first impulse might be just to lie about your past experience, put there are other ways still make yourself attractive to an employer without necessarily being deceitful.

Many people have gaps in their work history. If you have a legitimate reason for major gaps, such as going to school or having a child, you can simply state this on your résumé. You could, in some situations, handle one of these gaps by putting the alternative activity on the résumé, with dates, just as you would handle any other job.

Minor gaps such as being out of work for several months, do not need an explanation at all. You can often simply exclude any mention of months on your résumé. Instead, just refer to the years you were employed such as “1993 to 1994” and any gap of several months is not apparent at all.

Some of the most accomplished people I know have been out of work at one time or another and one out of five people in the workforce experiences some unemployment each year. It’s really not a sin and many people who are bosses have experienced it themselves. But the tradition is to try to hide this on the résumé.

One technique is to put something like “19xx to Present” on your résumé when referring to your most recent job. This approach makes it look like you are still employed. While this might be an acceptable approach in some cases, it may also require you to have to explain yourself early on in an interview. This soft deception can start you off on a negative note and may not end up helping you at all.

If you are currently out of work, your other alternatives are to write the actual month that you left your last job or to write in some interim activity such as being self-employed. Even if that means that you are working at a temporary agency or doing odd jobs, it may be better than being deceitful. Remember that many employers have experienced being out of work themselves and may have more understanding of your situation than you realize.

There is no reason for a résumé to include any details related to why you have left previous jobs — unless, of course, they were positive. For example, leaving to accept a more responsible job is to your credit. If you have been fired, analyze why. In most cases, it is for reasons that do not have to do with your performance. Most often, people are fired as a result of interpersonal conflicts. These are quite common and do not indicate that you will necessarily have the same problem in a different situation. If your performance was the reason, you may have to explain why that would not be the case in a new job.

The résumé itself should present what you did well in previous situations. Leave the discussion of problems for the interview, and take time in advance to practice what you will say if asked.

If your previous work experience is in jobs that don’t relate to what you want to do next, your best bet is to use a skills résumé. The advantage of the skills résumé in this situation is that it allows you to emphasize those transferable skills that you have developed and used in other settings.

This is a situation related to the one described above and would also be handled through the use of a skills résumé. A change in careers does require some justification on your part, so that it makes sense to an employer. This should mean that you should present experiences where you have demonstrated ability in or preparation for success in a different occupational area.

If you have recently graduated, you probably are competing against those with similar levels of education and more work experience. If you don’t have a lot of work experience related to the job you want, you will obviously want to emphasize your recent education or training. This might include specific mention of courses you took and other activities that most directly relate to the job you now seek. New graduates need to look at their schoolwork as the equivalent of work. Indeed, it is work in that it required self-discipline, completion of a variety of tasks, and other activities that are similar to those required in many jobs.

You also may have learned a variety of things that are directly related to doing the job you want and you should present these in a skills résumé in the same way you might present work experiences in a chronological résumé. You should also play up the fact, if you can, that you are familiar with the latest trends and techniques in your field and can apply these skills right away to the new job. And, since you are experienced in studying and learning new things, you will be better able to quickly learn the new job.

A skills résumé will also allow you to more effectively present skills you used in other jobs (such as waiting on tables) that don’t seem to directly relate to the job you now want. These jobs were also work experiences and can provide a wealth of adaptive and transferable skills that you can use, with some thought, to support your résumés job objective.

Young people, including recent graduates, often have difficulty in getting the jobs they want since employers will often hire someone with more experience. In this case, you may want to emphasize your adaptive skills that would tend to overcome a lack of experience. Once again, a skills résumé would allow you to present yourself in the best light. For example, emphasizing skills such as “hardworking” and “learn new things quickly” may impress an employer enough to consider you over more experienced workers.

You should also consider expressing a willingness to accept difficult or less desirable conditions as one way to break into a field and gain experience. For example, “willing to work weekends and evenings” or “able to travel or relocate” may open up some possibilities that might appeal to an employer.

You should also look for anything that might be acceptable as experience and emphasize it. This might include volunteer work, family responsibilities, education, training, military experience, or anything else that you might present as legitimate activities that support your ability to do the work that you feel you can do.

After a period of unemployment, most people become more willing to settle for less than they had hoped for. If you are willing to accept jobs where you may be defined as overqualified, consider not including some of your educational or work-related credentials on your résumé — though I do not necessarily recommend doing this. And be prepared to explain, in the interview, why you do want this particular job and how your wealth of experience is a positive and not a negative.

If you have the previous experience and skills to do a job that is often filled by someone with more education, you should take special care in preparing the education and experience sections of your résumé.

For those with substantial work experience, you can simply not include a section on education at all. While this does have the advantage of not presenting your lack of formal credentials in an obvious way, a better approach might be to present the education and training that you do have without indicating that you do or do not have a degree.

For example, mention that you attended such and such a college or program but don’t mention that you did not complete it. This approach avoids your being screened out unnecessarily and provides you with a chance at an interview that you might not otherwise get.

From the book titled, “The Quick Résumé and Cover Letter Book,” by J. Michael Farr. Copyright 1994, published by JIST Works, Inc., Indianapolis, IN. Used with permission of the publisher. Additional photocopies strictly prohibited.

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