Immature party animal or unstable mental patient?
June 15, 2008 9:06 PM   Subscribe

My first job interview is coming up and I'm wondering which is the lesser of two evils to disclose.

The facts:
I retook my first year at uni three times, every year I took a few exams and passed those, but it took me three years to go to the second year. I passed the second, third and fourth year without problems and graduated cum laude.

The truth:
I fell into a depression, got treatment in the form of medication and therapy and managed to climb out of it and face the issues I had to face. My university was well aware of the situation and helped me enormously. I'm European, so there were no healthcare provider issues to worry about, they paid the largest part of my medication bill.

I'm fairly confident I won't relapse, as the reason for my depression was dealing with the fact I've been sexually abused for several years by a close family member. This is not something I want to disclose, as you will probably understand.
However, without disclosing this, the prospective employer could likely think there's a great chance of relapse, find me an unstable person, have a negative feeling about me, etc. (Of course, this stigma is completely bollocks, just suggesting what they could be thinking.)

The lie:
When people ask me about the reason of those wasted years, I always tell them that I was brought up in a very strict environment, that I enjoyed the independence and freedom of living alone at uni, and became quite a party animal. Quite understandably, after the first two failed years, my parents wouldn't pay fully for my education anymore, realised I had to be more serious and mature, got my act together, found a student job, paid the largest part of that year myself and passed.

This is all true, although I only did party for the first few months in the first year. But I did actually get a job and paid the largest part of the third year. Of course, my friends all know the truth about my depression, so I only tell this version of the facts to people I don't know that well.
However, the prospective employer could think I'm immature, not dependable, etc.

As an aside, I don't have any moral problems with lying about this and I'm a good liar, so I know I can pull this lie off without accidently slipping.

When asked directly about those wasted years, what should I tell them?
I know there's also a chance this subject won't come up, so you don't have to reassure me. I just want to know what the best answer would be, if asked directly.

Throwaway email account: askmehelpme at gmail dot com
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (34 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
If I was your employer, I'd want to know the truth. What if they found out someday?
posted by DMan at 9:13 PM on June 15, 2008

"Health issues"
posted by phoenixy at 9:14 PM on June 15, 2008 [13 favorites]

Phoenixy nailed it.
posted by WinnipegDragon at 9:18 PM on June 15, 2008

I have a hard time believing that they'd be more comfortable with someone who managed to party away three years of schooling rather than someone who had "personal issues" during that period of time and worked and matured through them.

That being said, I would not disclose that you actually were depressed...a friend of mine disclosed this and as a result was denied an interview for something they wanted very much to do...and were qualified for in every other way. People still are very idiotic when it comes to dealing with issues of emotional wellness.

I think you could say, honestly, something like "At the time I couldn't handle the stress of taking all of my classes all at once, due to some issues going on at the time so I took the classes I could take and worked towards completing my degree anyway rather than giving up on my education. Once I had worked through my problems, I was able to put all my energy into my coursework and as you can see I graduated cum laude." If they press on the "issues" just tell them, "I'm sorry but they're personal issues; I assure you that they will not affect my work here, just as they did not effect my final three years of University."
posted by Deathalicious at 9:21 PM on June 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Why would it ever come up? I have never had an employer ask to see a transcript, so how would they know it took you 7 years instead of 4? And even if they did, a simple sentence about how you found university to be pretty tough at first will suffice.

Your medical history (and your experiences with abuse) are private, and you are fully and completely entitled to keep them that way. (Caveat -- there are careers, such as law enforcement, getting a high-level security clearance, and some others, in which a deep background check is done, and one's history with mental-health issues is considered open for discussion. But that aside, it's flat out none of their business.)

Your current fib of "I partied a lot" is ok, but a more neutral story (like "university was really tough at first" or "I was trying to work and study at the same time and it wasn't easy") might be a bit better. There remains a lot of stigma about mental health issues, and I think you are completely correct to not discuss this openly with an employer. (Again, assuming that you are not planning a career in a field in which these issues are probed openly.)
posted by Forktine at 9:23 PM on June 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

as the reason for my depression was dealing with the fact I've been sexually abused for several years by a close family member.

I hope that I've was a typo, and not the tense you meant.

I've been in on interviews with quite literally thousands of prospective hires at many different firms, and I've never asked, nor seen anyone else ask, for an explanation of "missing years" unless it was something quite odd, like 20 years spent on an island in the South Pacific studying tree frogs.

A college degree in three years or five years or seven years simply wouldn't be noticed or cared about. You have the degree you claim to have, with good marks, from the right institution. Check!

If you do choose to cover it up, your choice of lie seems needlessly elaborate and counterproductive. Why not simply say you were paying your own way through university and could only take a 3/4 workload or something? That way at least it's a positive (hard worker, determined) not an additional negative (crazy party person.)
posted by rokusan at 9:23 PM on June 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

There remains a lot of stigma about mental health issues,

To be fair, a lot of that stigma is straightforward employer fear, and it's somewhat justified: mental health issues in employees can be huge monkey wrenches that can be a surprise drain on resources. An employee dealing with physical disabilities is at least a known quantity and thus expectations are more likely to be met.
posted by rokusan at 9:26 PM on June 15, 2008

You live in a different country from me. You say "Uni" and you are worried about questions that are considered inappropriate or at least irrelavent around here.

Does everybody from your country go directly from school to "uni" and graduate at the exact same age? It's not like that here.

Nevertheless, you ask how to lie in answer to this question. My mom used to tell me to save my lies, I might need them some day. If somebody had the HOTA to ask me something like this in an interview and I were not in any position to tell them to go to hell, I'd consider spending a lie at that point. Luckily, you don't have to.

Play up the work you did. At that point in your life, you went to work to save for school. Your medical condition is none of their business, your wild party days (brief though they may have been) are also none of their business.

At that point in your life, school wasn't the most important thing. A few years later, you started school in earnest and your GPA (or whatever you call it) shows that.
posted by stubby phillips at 9:27 PM on June 15, 2008

I have something similar in my educational history except the two years were further through, I achieved nothing during that time, and I ended up with a second class degree instead of the first I was originally on track for. It does come up occasionally although generally not in a formal job interview situation. I see no need to lie but also no need to tell all the truth. So I just directly and somewhat coolly tell whoever that I had health issues during that time which have since been resolved and are no longer an issue. I've never been pushed beyond that but if I was I would emphasize the being resolved part (I guess to the point that I could get a medical certificate, although that would have to be for an extreme reason) and make it clear there's nothing wrong with me at all now.

So my advice is that you do the same. Don't make up lies about wasting time partying, you're doing yourself a big disservice there which you totally don't deserve, and don't give them details about what was actually wrong with you as your educational record clearly shows that it's no longer an issue. Practise a brush off sentence about health issues that are now resolved so that it comes out smoothly and you're not tempted to babble. Then stop and wait for the next question. If they do push things you could focus on how working during the second part of your degree taught you responsibility or whatever, or possibly a comment about nearly losing the ability to achieve made you more determined (then highlight the resulting good grades), something that moves the focus onto what you did after you got better rather than whatever happened while you were sick.

Actually, really really don't go in half cocked and just babble. I did that during my first interview after recovering and so was not going to get that job. It's great that you're putting some thought into this now, so prepare something simple to say then don't over-think it all. Good luck!
posted by shelleycat at 9:54 PM on June 15, 2008

It took me 5 years to get through a four year university -- whenever the topic comes up I just say "I changed majors halfway through."
posted by tkolar at 9:57 PM on June 15, 2008

I had a pretty heinous car accident and a few years' recovery time that also included a truly crap relationship that turned into a crap and short-lived marriage and a bout of depression. I get asked about what I was up to when employers look at my resume, I tell them I had a medical issue and it's been resolved. They stop asking.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 10:00 PM on June 15, 2008

An employee dealing with physical disabilities is at least a known quantity and thus expectations are more likely to be met.

wow you just encapsulated the prejudice very very well. "Known quantity?" Really? So you know to the day when the guy with the heart condition is going to drop dead? If you did somehow find out about his heart condition, would you even THINK about holding it against him for an office job? of course not.

anyway, i think the simplest solution is not to call attention to the "wasted years" at all. Just list the degree, not how long it took. Don't lie if it comes up, but I can't imagine why it would? In the US at least, age discrimination is illegal, so even asking when someone finished school (and thus how old they are more or less) is iffy legally.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:01 PM on June 15, 2008

Plenty of people take six years (or more) to finish college. Hell, tell them you just had to work the whole time and pay for it yourself.
posted by rhizome at 10:03 PM on June 15, 2008

I'd agree that there's no need to go into any details about this. It's not uncommon at all (at least in the US) to take a bit of time to figure out what to do with yourself at school. A lot of employers would also probably appreciate having someone a bit older and more mature, as 22 year olds can be a bit rough around the edges.

So, as I see it, the most truthful but private way to talk about this is just that you had a rough couple of years (be vague) away from home. They're likely to understand that as some combination of identity crisis, homesickness, and partying. If they ask, I would probably simply say it took you some time to figure out some things when you first started school, but point out that you clearly found something that works for you, given your high honors. When you speak about this, speak of it as something that you believe you had to do, and something that has ultimately made you a happier and better put together person. If they continue to ask about it, just say that it's personal.
posted by !Jim at 10:03 PM on June 15, 2008

It's less intense than the stigma around mental health, but there can be plenty of stigma around physical health issues, too, particularly if they're serious enough to disable you for years at a stretch. If you absolutely must make a truthful excuse, it's not a bad one, but I think it's safer to avoid the whole matter. Say as little as possible, and follow it up with an upbeat note. E.g., you took a few years at the beginning of college to be sure of what you really wanted to do; once you did, you went full force and graduated cum laude.
posted by sculpin at 10:22 PM on June 15, 2008

i agree with those who say that all you need to say is that you had some health issues that have now been resolved. no need to go into further details, and if you are pressed (which is unlikely—i think it's even unlikely that you will even be asked the question is plenty of people take more than the "traditional" four years to get through college), just tell them it's a private matter that has no bearing on your life now and move on from there. as long as you have the degree, the grades, and the qualifications, i highly doubt anyone will care what you did with two years of your life when you first started college.
posted by violetk at 10:30 PM on June 15, 2008

forgot to add, if they press, you tell them it's a private matter that was resolved and has no bearing on your life now as evidenced by the fact that you were able to get great grades and graduate cum laude.
posted by violetk at 10:31 PM on June 15, 2008

I have been asked many times why it took me 6 years to get my bachelors. I say that it was a 5-year program and that I also worked my way through school, graduating with significant f/t work experience. I do find that some employers think I must be covering something up. However, I honestly did take a 5-year program and I honestly did work my way through. Some people have a hard time understanding that. I don't see the problem. But, sometimes, you run into a freaky recruiter who is bent on knowing everything. I've even been questioned about why I felt the need to work during school or why, if I wanted to work, I bothered getting a degree, since I had a job. Some recruiters are idiots. Just pick a truthful (but not necessarily explicit) explanation.

Disclaimer: I really was just working since I didn't want loans.
posted by acoutu at 10:56 PM on June 15, 2008

I like the health issue method other posters have suggested. The only other thing I might consider doing is prevaricating this way:

So, first year took you three years?
Yes, entering university was a difficult transition for me, but I'm tenacious and I was determined to stick with it until I improved, which is evidenced by my graduating GPA.

You've told them nothing except that you are tough (you are) and determined (you are) and that you get results (you do). Anything else, I think, is none of their business.
posted by b33j at 11:07 PM on June 15, 2008 [2 favorites]

b33j has the answer I would go for, if you must disclose that your four year degree took 6 years.

But like a lot of people, I don't see why you need to. Treat the first two years as an extended Gap Year if they're not asking for transcripts. If they are asking for transcripts, or have them because it's an on-campus thing, then verbatim what b33j said.

By the way, this is exactly what the careers office at your uni is for. Ask them. They'll be far better able to asses the specifics of your interview than we will on an Anon question. Sure, they're unlikely to tell you to lie, but more data is always good.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:56 PM on June 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

I would not necessarily suggest that you state that you were working during those 'lost years' and that's why it took longer, for the simple reason that the interviewers could potentially then want details. Details that include names of employers among other things, and they could even ask you to provide this employer as reference (I went into a recent job interview, talked about a long-ago job that provided me with relevant experience that I had--stupidly--left off my resume, and the interviewers handed me my resume and asked me to update it).

Thus, I would agree with those who emphasize that no, it really is not unusual to take more than four years to finish (depending on what part of Europe you're from, it can be really common). It will probably be a non-issue, but if it is, I would suggest the simple 'health issues' followed up with the emphasis on the final three years and the cum laude graduation.
posted by librarylis at 12:24 AM on June 16, 2008

If you're in the UK, you could say "Those first two years I was studying Maths; I found I didn't have the passion for university maths that I thought I did. After I moved to Computer Science I was better able to apply myself, as my grades demonstrate"

Or you could go for the old "Private medical issues, relating to my huge dick" - I find it shuts down inappropriate lines of questioning pretty quickly.
posted by Mike1024 at 12:29 AM on June 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Simply generic "health problems" ought to be enough.

The thing is, depending on where in the world you are, if you make shit up, and then relapse into depression the "making shit up" gives them grounds to get rid of you. You lied about yourself in your interview. If you acknowledge past health issues and they reoccur, they're unlikely to be allowed to simply fire you.
posted by rodgerd at 1:09 AM on June 16, 2008

When asked directly about those wasted years, what should I tell them?

health issues works but looking a recruiter straight into his/her eyes and saying "I was young and needed to figure a few things out before I got serious and graduated cum laude" is refreshingly honest. don't just bring it up on your own, only respond if this comes up at all.

you came around in the end and proved yourself. that's far more important. I don't think your 'youthful indesgressions' will be all that much of an issue.

good luck.
posted by krautland at 4:02 AM on June 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

While I think the "health problems" angle is more than enough detail, you could even be more specific and say that you had "a traumatic injury to recover from."
posted by Rock Steady at 4:54 AM on June 16, 2008

I wouldn't volunteer anything unless they ask. I've interviewed kids straight out of school and frankly I don't think it matters as much as you think it does. I might not have even bothered to ask.

I agree with the earlier advice, if asked. "I had some health problems and after recovering from them I completed my studies at a normal pace and graduated with honors." I certainly wouldn't knock you for that answer.
posted by meta_eli at 5:48 AM on June 16, 2008

Also, the average (mean) time to completing a bachelor's degree for all people is closer to 5 years than 4. Fyi.
posted by meta_eli at 5:49 AM on June 16, 2008

Nthing health issues, now resolved. It's simple and not untrue. Elaborate explanations are TMI.
posted by desuetude at 6:15 AM on June 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

I think you could also just say that "a family member was sick" or "there was a problem in my family that I had to help attend to." I mean really, you could have been caring for a grandmother with Alzheimer's. No one needs to know...unfortunately, employers will usually hold such a thing against you.
posted by mintchip at 6:16 AM on June 16, 2008

Resist the temptation to provide extra information in the attempt to make the explanation more plausible. Otherwise, you run the risk of getting hired and then, for the next umpteen years, having people say "Oh, we can't go skydiving for the company outing - remember that anonymous had that horrid back injury in her/his youth..." People will latch on to tiny info-bits as a self-reassurance that they remember you, especially if they don't know much else about you.

Now-resolved health or family issues are fine. Taking a bit of time to find your passion in school (as evidenced by marks and graduating cum laude) is also very good. More than that? Unnecessary. If the recruiter pushes, a polite smile and "That was a long time ago, and won't affect my work for you" should cover it.

Best of luck!
posted by catlet at 7:23 AM on June 16, 2008

it's "health issues" a long time ago, ie it's your privacy, what the fuck do they care
posted by matteo at 7:25 AM on June 16, 2008

Perhaps you can (through one of the mods) say more about what's standard to reveal in resumes or job applications where you are -- I'm guessing it might be different than what's the norm for me and some of the respondents.

It took me 7 years to get a B.S. (in the U.S.), with a terrible start and a good finish. A couple of my first interviewers did see my transcript (as the companies often sent people to grad school and wanted to know their applicants' admissibility.) Even then, no one asked "Hey, what's the deal with these grades the first year?" or "What was up with this semester you didn't go to school?"

Since then, my resume just lists degree and date, and it's never, ever come up.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 8:55 AM on June 16, 2008

Forktine nailed it: Your medical history (and your experiences with abuse) are private, and you are fully and completely entitled to keep them that way. [. . .] it's flat out none of their business.)

Don't lie. Just tell them it's personal. The phrase "medical issues that have been resolved" is excellent. Then draw their notice to the fact that despite that, you graduated cum laude - there are lots of great suggestions here about how to emphasize the good stuff. (And you deserve to be proud of yourself!)

But legally, I think (IANAL), once employers hear that there were "health" or "medical issues" they aren't allowed to probe. I think it's something under the Disabilities Act. I'm sure someone more knowledgeable will be able to clarify better.
posted by GardenGal at 3:09 PM on June 16, 2008

I have to disagree with everyone here advising to answer "medical issues" or "private stuff but it's resolved now." To my (perhaps paranoid) mind, that kind of answer could raise all kinds of red flags to a biased employer, whereas a neutral non-answer like b33j's is great:

So, first year took you three years?
Yes, entering university was a difficult transition for me, but I'm tenacious and I was determined to stick with it until I improved, which is evidenced by my graduating GPA.

Every country is different, and I have no idea what you are required to disclose or what employers are allowed to ask where you are. However, since there are so many ways to answer this question that emphasize your strengths (I work hard! I am not a quitter! I overcome challenges!) rather than someone's biased ideas of what your weaknesses might be (He/she is a nutcase! He/she will get depressed and take three years to do the first year of work! The last guy I hired with "health issues" took three days off every week and turned out to be an addict!), I don't see any reason to give an answer which volunteers personal information about your health, your mental health, or your personal history.
posted by Forktine at 3:19 PM on June 16, 2008

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