Explain a gap on your CV once the rucksack has been unpacked.

The gap year has been a popular tradition in the UK since the 70s. Students take time out, either immediately before or after university, to travel, experience other cultures, volunteer or take short courses before returning to either university or a career. Usually, the time is spent abroad, with around 230,000 young people taking advantage of the opportunity (pre-pandemic).

Occasionally, professionals choose to take a year out mid-career, for reasons such as redundancy or burnout, but this is far less common. If you're wondering how to explain a gap year on your CV, we have all the information you need here.

What are the benefits of a gap year?

A gap year is often hailed as a once-in-a-lifetime experience, which enables young people to grow in independence, gain valuable life lessons and experience the world. After many years in education, a gap year provides the chance to return to either university or work feeling refreshed, relaxed and ready to take on the next challenge.

If you're not sure what the next challenge will be, a year out may well provide the distance and perspective you need to help you decide. Along the way, you'll continue learning, whether formally or informally, and also have the potential to earn money towards your future plans.

Whether or not you choose to work as you go throughout your gap year, your CV will certainly receive a boost from the experience. You will be able to develop transferable skills, increase your cultural awareness, build your confidence, improve your language skills and gain work experience – all very saleable qualities when recruiters evaluate your CV.

Therefore, your personal growth is a key consideration in choosing whether or not to take a gap year. Consider one study that showed that students who take gap years are even more successful in their university studies.

What are the downsides of a gap year?

Of course, it's not all sunshine and roses. Travel and living costs during gap years can be expensive, particularly if you don't plan to undertake paid work, which is why the time away can have a reputation as being reserved only for those who are better off.

There's also the risk of losing momentum. How appealing do you find going home to grey British skies and a nine-to-five job when you're lying on a golden beach with an ice-cool drink and no cares in the world? And how will you feel, upon returning, to find that your peers have moved on and are already happily settled into university life or moving up the career ladder?

And don't forget that without a plan, your gap year dreams could be a huge waste of time when you discover that six months in, you're still sitting at home in your pyjamas talking about it rather than doing it.

Don't write the idea of a gap year off due to these concerns, however. A well-planned year out will ensure you return with the experience and skills necessary to succeed going forward.

What will be the impact of COVID-19 on gap years?

You know what they say about the best-laid plans! No one could have foreseen the global coronavirus pandemic coming when they were laying out their gap year plans in 2019.

With new travel restrictions, constantly changing quarantine rules and virtual learning, it has suddenly become much harder to make any concrete decisions. Many planned gap years are no longer able to happen, or they will need to be significantly adjusted to cope with the new situation we find ourselves in. Many students who didn't plan to take a gap year are now considering it, rather than choosing virtual lectures and a less-than-complete university experience. At the same time, limited gap year activities and travel options are being weighed up against limited learning and social freedom at university.

Voluntary opportunities are likely to take off, with international volunteering replaced by domestic volunteering. And with UK employment falling by the largest amount in over a decade, there will certainly be more people needing support as well as more people with the time on their hands to provide it.

With universities still awaiting concrete guidance from the government and students facing a new lack of control over their futures, this year's students will certainly have a unique experience different to anything others would have experienced pre-pandemic. The challenge is to leverage it to their advantage, whether that means a modified gap year or not.

How to explain a gap year on your CV

Use these techniques to make your gap year shine on your CV.

Be proud of the gap

As with any gap on your CV, the key is not to gloss over it but rather to embrace it as a positive. Provide a clear and honest explanation of how you spent the time, focussing on the transferable skills and experience that you gained. Don't fall into the trap of thinking that only paid, full-time, permanent work should be put on your CV – it's not true! Voluntary, part-time and freelance work, as well as experiences, are equally valuable.

Focus on skills

Start by identifying the skills you gained during your gap year (you'll find inspiration for these below). You'll then need to tie these skills into the jobs that you're interested in. Echo the language and keywords of the advert back to the recruiter (without sounding like a parrot), aligning your experience as closely as possible with the vacancy.

Include achievements 

Elevate your CV above those of your competitors by highlighting your achievements. Whilst you might find it challenging to pull achievements from a gap year, consider obstacles you've overcome and positive results you've delivered.

Don't go into excessive detail 

When you include a gap year in your CV, the information you provide on your CV must be focussed and relevant to the role you're targeting. Save the stories and details for the interview, when you have more opportunity to elaborate and deliver them from a personal perspective.

Consider the format of your CV

If you have more than one gap, you may find it beneficial to create a functional CV, focussing on your skills and including only a short work experience summary at the end. However, in most situations we advocate for a chronological CV, as they are clearer for a recruiter and prove that you have nothing to hide.

Show you're in it for the long term 

Above all, your CV and cover letter should emphasise that, although you've had a year out and travelled extensively, you're now keen to settle into a stable, long-term career. A candidate who is likely to leave for new adventures as soon as they're trained is not an attractive prospect, so you want to remove that concern.

What transferable skills should I include on my CV?

A gap year isn't something you embark upon half-heartedly, so make sure that your drive and passion come across on your CV. This is the kind of attitude that's valuable to a business!

If you've travelled during your gap year, your language skills and ability to communicate cross-culturally can't be underestimated, nor can your international perspective.

How did you start your gap year in the first place? You likely needed great planning and decision-making skills, not to mention initiative. And when things didn't quite go to plan, you had to be adaptable and use skills in problem solving and critical thinking.

Whether or not you worked, there's bound to have been some element of budgeting, and you may even have developed some leadership or teamworking skills.

These are just a few examples. Job specs and your own experience will throw up plenty of other ideas for you to leverage on your CV.

Here's an example of how to include a gap year on your CV: 

Despite the challenges presented by the coronavirus, the gap year is still a valuable addition to your CV, not to mention an amazing opportunity for your personal development. With careful thought and consideration, it can position you as a top candidate for the role of your dreams.

Show off what you've learned. Get a free CV review to find out if you're making the most of your gap year on your CV.

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