How to explain pandemic-caused résumé gaps

As the COVID-19 pandemic raged over the past year, among those hit hardest were graduating students attempting to launch their careers.

Canceled internships, shuttered campuses, and curtailed extracurricular activities left many students with bare-bones résumés instead of those filled with glowing descriptions of collegiate accomplishments.

“It certainly has been a different year,” said Kathy Schaum, executive director of university talent acquisition for KPMG LLP, a global professional services firm. “Some students had their internships put on hold last summer because of the pandemic, leaving them with no work opportunities.”

But all is not lost. Hiring experts weigh in on how students can overcome gaps in their résumés and reclaim their careers.

Highlight skills you learned from pandemic activities. At KPMG, recruiters focus on identifying students who have the skills needed to serve clients, Schaum said.

“Internships are just one way students can demonstrate those skills, but there are certainly other opportunities to do that as well,” she added.

She recommended students think outside the box and consider the skills they gained from class projects, online leadership programs, or managing virtual conferencing using software such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom. Even activities in their personal lives count — such as helping their families navigate the pandemic, making masks for essential workers, mentoring kids struggling with online learning, or running errands for neighbors who could not go out.

“New graduates might surprise themselves when they discover they have acquired a lot of acquired skills they can put on their résumé or in their cover letter,” Schaum said.

Turn to a campus career counselor for help. Your college career center is a great place to go for advice on how to structure your résumé , said Brian Guerrero, assistant dean at the Center for Career and Professional Success at The Ohio State University.

“We are available to meet with students and ask them what they have been doing in the last year and walk them through the process of outlining their accomplishments,” he said.

A college counselor can also help students research their chosen profession to understand the skill sets needed and help them craft their job search materials to demonstrate that understanding. This exercise is also a good way to envision yourself in a professional role and explain to hiring managers why you are a good fit.

Quantify your accomplishments. When creating résumés, students often miss out on the opportunity to state clear metrics. “Employers really do look for résumés that show specific achievements, and in the accounting industry, they look for hard numbers that measure accomplishments,” Guerrero said.

Hiring professionals might ask for precise information like your GPA or a list of training you have completed. Detail leadership experience, projects that required teamwork in a virtual environment, and volunteerism, but also go a step further by demonstrating the impact of your efforts, Guerrero said. “This really helps set you apart from other candidates that are simply including the more routine lists of activities normally listed in a résumé,” he said.

Hone your interview skills. If you make it to the interview stage in your job search, be prepared to address gaps in your résumé without fumbling, Schaum advised.

“Practice mock interviews with friends, family, or career center personnel and spend time preparing descriptions of how you spent the last year,” she said. If you have holes where activities should go, be ready to explain what caused them and how you filled them without making excuses, and you likely won’t be penalized. “We all understand it has been a difficult year,” she added.

Visit the Global Career Hub from AICPA & CIMA for help with finding a job or recruiting.

Teri Saylor is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, a JofA associate director.

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