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  • Malvika Patil

How to Explain Layoffs and Unemployment Gaps in my MBA Application

Talking openly about being unemployed, when you’re trying to make a good impression for the AdCom, can be uncomfortable. But if you’re thinking about overlooking the topic in the hope that AdCom doesn’t notice, we advise against this. 

In our experience, the AdCom always notices. After all, it’s their job. If you have been unemployed for more than 2-3 months, you will be asked to explain this in the optional essay, application form, or your interview. 

Here’s how some schools ask about employment gaps in their MBA applications:

Wharton: Please use this space to share any additional information about yourself that cannot be found elsewhere in your application and that you would like to share with the Admissions Committee. This space can also be used to address any extenuating circumstances (e.g. unexplained gaps in work experience, choice of recommenders, inconsistent or questionable academic performance, areas of weakness, etc.) that you would like the Admissions Committee to consider. (500 words, optional)

Cornell Johnson: You may use this essay to call attention to items needing clarification and to add additional details to any aspects of your application that do not accurately reflect your potential for success at Johnson. (350 words, optional)

Stanford GSB: We are deliberate in the questions we ask. We believe that we get to know you well through all of the elements of your application. Complete this section only if you have critical information you could not convey elsewhere on your application (e.g., extenuating circumstances affecting academic or work performance). This section should not be used as an additional essay. (Optional)

Typically, candidates have an professional gap because:

  • They were laid off in a corporate restructuring

  • They had extenuating personal circumstances, such as a health condition

  • They left a job to focus on personal or professional growth

It’s best to be upfront about why you had to take a gap; this demonstrates maturity and growth. If you leave this unexplained, the AdCom may draw their own conclusions and mark you negatively. And as we’ll explore next, it’s not a deal-breaker for MBA applications, as long as you handle it right.

Here’s how you can tackle employment gaps in your MBA application:

1. I was laid off

The last few years have seen mass layoffs across industries, especially in tech and finance. Many roles were made redundant during COVID, which led to a boom in the number of talented professionals applying for MBA programs. 

Business schools saw an opportunity here. In 2022, Northwestern Kellogg waived the GMAT and GRE exams for tech workers who were laid off. So did Cornell, even offering an application fee waiver. Berkeley Haas and MIT Sloan extended their Round 2 application deadlines for recently laid-off workers, and UCLA Anderson announced an expedited application process with only one essay question for their Round 2 applicants in 2022, as well as deadline extensions for the GRE/GMAT and recommendation letters.

Seeing such initiatives from schools to attract recently laid-off talent, it’s safe to say that business schools don’t see layoffs as taboo anymore. Treat this instead as an opportunity to strengthen your personal brand and demonstrate resilience, adaptability, and drive. 

Be direct and clear on what happened and don’t come across as bitter or resentful of your former employer. Don’t position your layoff as a personal failure, either! Perhaps the company wasn’t the right cultural fit for you, there were communication gaps, or you were impacted by circumstances beyond your control. Briefly state what happened and move on.

Next, reflect on what you learned from the experience. For some people, a layoff may significantly affect their career direction. In this case, discuss how you used this time to reflect on and pivot your career goals. 

Finally, show that you used your time productively while you were in between jobs. Perhaps you took this opportunity to work on a personal project, chased a passion, started an entrepreneurial venture, or used this time to study or travel. Focus on the transferable skills you learned during this time. 

Note: If you did freelance work or took on short-term projects between jobs, position yourself as a solopreneur rather than a freelancer. Try to formalize any work experience. For example, by creating a business website and setting up social media accounts on LinkedIn and other networking sites. This will build credibility and help you showcase your business development, marketing, and management skills, and turn the redundancy from a weakness to a strength in your application.

2. I had extenuating personal circumstances

Sometimes, extenuating circumstances like physical or mental health conditions, family emergencies, motherhood, or legal matters may lead you to take some time off work. That need not be a problem for MBA applications.

Be honest and transparent; explain why you took this break and how it impacted your career or immediate plans. Again, you should also describe how you used this time to build new skills that will help you succeed during your MBA and beyond. 

Don’t try to appeal to emotion here. Be concise and objective about your circumstances. A good way to structure your story (and avoid rambling on) is to use the SCAR essay structure. Present your situation, the challenge in question, the actions you took to overcome this challenge, the result, and the lessons you learned. Reflect on how these lessons have impacted your decisions and actions moving forward.

3. I quit to focus on personal or professional growth

Some professionals leave their jobs to figure out their passion or invest in personal or intellectual development. This may mean working on an independent project, side hustle, or entrepreneurial venture, gaining new certifications or pursuing online courses, or to prepare for standardized tests and MBA applications. 

  • Passion or side hustle: Candidates who hit a plateau in their career sometimes choose to take some time off to pursue a personal project, expand their side hustle, or to lay the groundwork for a new venture. Make sure that your passion or side project fits into your overall career plans, which includes how it will benefit from an MBA. 

  • Gaining new certifications: If you want to transition from your current role to a different business function or industry, you may have picked up an online course or certification to help you make this pivot. Specify the technical/soft skills that you will acquire through this certification or course and clearly state how it will help you grow personally and professionally.

  • Preparing for standardized tests and MBA: A lot of MBA applicants quit their jobs to focus on preparing for the GMAT/GRE and their MBA applications. This might seem like a worthy reason to leave your job, but we recommend against it. At business school, you’ll be expected to juggle your classes, club activities, extracurriculars, networking events, and recruitment. So if it looks like you can’t handle your job, MBA applications, and GMAT/GRE prep - like so many other candidates do every year - the AdCom may think that you have poor time management skills. 

Finally, don’t worry too much about having an employment gap! The AdCom assesses your profile and career progression holistically, so an employment gap isn’t a death sentence. They are more interested in how you made use of your period of unemployment and demonstrated resilience and took initiative, even in challenging circumstances. 

Struggling to explain an employment gap in your MBA application? We can help. Book a free chat with one of our expert consultants today.


Learn how to tackle employment gaps in the MBA optional essay by referring to real essay examples based on successful applicants. Join now!


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