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How to Make Travel Look Good on a Resume

by Matthew Kepnes Jul 28, 2008
Turn your travel adventures into an edge over competitors in your search for a job.

YOU’VE JUST GOTTEN BACK from a year away and now you need to get a job. You’re nervous and have to figure out how getting drunk at hostels, lying on beaches, and photographing churches can be classified as “experience.”

First, breathe. It’s not that bad. You’re lucky, not only because you got to travel, but because current events have turned in your favor.

Businesses need experienced people who know other cultures, have a desire to learn, are motivated, speak another language, and are willing to move around, all of which are qualities you possess.

It was only five years go that taking a year off was considered career suicide, but now, it’s often considered a career boost- a sign of independence, motivation, and ambition. Employers won’t throw away your resume anymore because of a gap year.

But how do you turn that year into tangible experience to showcase in a resume?

1. Don’t put everything on your résumé

90% of your travels aren’t really “experience,” but soft skills you picked up on the road: people skills, confidence, and independence. Though you may be tempted to write that stuff on your resume, don’t. You’ll sound cheesy and as though you are just putting in useless filler.

2. It’s not the resume, it’s the cover letter!

Your travels are a story and the details don’t translate well as bullet points on a resume. Talk about them in the cover letter, where you can give more detail.

Explain why you left, what your experience taught you, and how it makes you a better employee. This is also where you want to mention those “soft skills,” as they require more detail than a simple bullet point expression. Discuss your travels in depth here using only a small section of the resume as support.

Tip: Regale interviewers with funny (but not over the top) stories. It will make you stand apart from everyone else. Those willing to take a chance are the type of leaders businesses look for. They want people who lead them into new directions, not waste away behind a desk.

3. Step by step instructions for articulating your experience.

Step One: Call it what it is. Many people put their trip under work experience, but since it’s not work, it’s not work experience. At the bottom of your resume, create a section called “Other Experience” and title it “(Your Name) Gap Year” and include the dates.

Step Two: Pick tangible skills. Skills that translate into any job. Like everything on a resume, this will be all about how you word things. Choose your wording carefully. For example:

Haggled over a dollar with a tuk tuk driver or tried to save a few thousand Dong off a shirt in Vietnam? Negotiation Skills.

Got stuck in an airport because you forgot your plane? Adaptability.

Had to plan, finance, and organize your trip? Budgeting and Planning.

Got stuck in a jungle at night because you explored off the trail? Self-reliance and independence.

You get the idea. It’s all about wording your experience correctly. Notice how those are all skills you can use in the business world. I didn’t put any of those “soft skills” down.

Writing “I’m good with people” is generic and makes you sound full of crap. Choose only job related “hard” skills for the resume because what you are doing is showing how your life experience makes up for your lack of practical experience.

Step Three: Know your audience! Only put travel on your resume if it helps explain an extended work gap (i.e. a year or longer), is relevant to the job, or unique. If all you did was live in Thailand on Phuket and got drunk then it is useless filler that will only hurt you. If you volunteered in an orphanage in Cambodia, then keep it on. If this job requires extended travel, definitely put it here.

So what would this all look like? Here’s how I would put it on my resume.

Other Experience

Matt’s Gap Year 2007-2008

  • Developed negotiation skills through daily contact with sellers in markets and vendors throughout Asia.
  • Learned how to adapt to unanticipated situations and improvise new plans due to periodic travel mishaps and unexpected events.
  • Developed budgeting and planning skills by financing, planning, organizing my year around the world. This involved using various spreadsheets and keeping a record of expenses.
  • Cultivated language and communication skills through contact with people from around the world. Learned to use non verbal and verbal communication to overcome communication and language barriers.

That sounds professional, actionable, and tangible. It explains each skill and how I developed it. Remember that the employer is going to ask you to explain these points just like they would any other part of your resume.

It’s important you have anecdotes supporting each bullet point, especially since these have no boss to confirm any of this- just your word. If you can’t explain it well, keep it off.

Use your travel experience to differentiate yourself. That’s why in the beginning, I said put it in the cover letter. It allows you more time to explain the story behind it.

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