This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA Blog on U.S.News.com
If you’re feeling anxious about explaining a gap in employment history in your MBA application, take heart. The members of the admissions committee are human beings who will empathize with someone who has faced a lay-off or firing and lived to tell the tale.
You should address an employment gap lasting longer than three months in the optional essay, and/or in the application data forms if requested. Ideally, you’ll show that you did more than just look for a job during that period, and what you learned from the experience. Never say unemployment has motivated you to apply to business school, and if you’re currently unemployed, definitely don’t say you’re working on your MBA applications in lieu of finding a job.
The biggest mistake you can make is leaving that time period unexplained and up to the imagination of your application reviewer. By addressing the elephant in the room head on, you’ll avoid any unintended negative inferences by the admissions team.
Don’t blame anyone—not even yourself.
You’re walking a fine line here, as you don’t want to appear bitter or willing to throw your previous employer under the bus if you were laid off or fired. Nor do you want to draw unnecessary attention to your possible shortcomings by blaming yourself for the parting of ways. The key is keeping the tone matter-of-fact and acknowledging what you may have done wrong.
Perhaps you picked the wrong company to work for and it folded. You may have erred by not communicating enough with your team; not making your work accomplishments more visible to your supervisors; not taking initiative; or not doing a project well. Steer clear of any negative tone and quickly move on to the next, crucial step toward counteracting those drawbacks.
Discuss what you learned.
As I’ve covered here before, self-reflection and personal growth are critical elements of the MBA application journey. We often learn more from our failures than we do from our successes, and the ability to process your mistakes and move forward to better and greater things is an invaluable skill.
Take the opportunity to demonstrate how you can or already have incorporated those lessons learned going forward. Whether you realized the hard way that you should be more discerning about your employment selection; or learned the importance of speaking up and showing initiative at work; or gained better time management skills that later led to improved performance, an honest assessment and sincere efforts to improve will go a long way toward persuading the admissions committee to take a chance on you.
Show how you have bounced back.
Resilience and being proactive are the hallmark characteristics of successful business people. Every client I’ve worked with has approached the challenge of an employment gap differently. Some may have used the time away to travel extensively; others dove into volunteer work that allowed them to hone their business skills while giving something back; and still others used the time to give life to their entrepreneurial dreams.
Our client Christian had been laid off from his position as an analyst at a large social media website that ultimately couldn’t compete with Facebook. Other than his unemployment, Christian was a strong MBA candidate with a 3.7 GPA from Emory University and a 740 GMAT score.
While unemployed, Christian was working on a niche retail website in his spare time, and volunteering with an organization called Taproot to keep his strategy skills fresh. Christian wanted to pursue his MBA to give him a foundation in marketing and accounting that would help him operate his own company.
The key aspect that helped us shape Christian’s profile was that he had remained busy and optimistic. Christian saw his layoff as an opportunity to pursue a dream of entrepreneurship. His volunteer work gave him an opportunity to cite recent teamwork and also showed that he was interested in giving back, even while he went through tough times himself.
Overall, Christian demonstrated that he had the grit to persevere through a difficult experience—a quality in high demand within MBA programs. Christian ultimately attended UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, where he made the most of the opportunity to become an expert on marketing and accounting for his start-up.
Admissions committees repeatedly stress that no single element of your application will make or break your chances of acceptance, so try not to fret too much about your “interrupted” resume. Relax and have confidence in both your career successes and detours, knowing that it’s all in how you paint the picture.