Whether you are writing your CV for the first time or updating your old CV, the task can be overwhelming. With lots of conflicting information how exactly are you supposed to know the best way to put it together.
There is plenty of advice online regarding how you should or shouldn’t write a CV. More recently, these seem to favour specific words that you should use or should avoid. While there is some merit in these studies, they are superficial in nature. It is more important to understand why certain things are good or bad for your CV. Understanding the principles will lead you to naturally choose the right language or the best layout and allow you to avoid the more common mistakes.
The most important thing to consider with any piece of business writing is your audience. Whether you are writing a proposal, a press release, an internal memo or a white paper, you have to understand who your audience is and how you are going to best appeal to them. The same goes for your CV.
The generic CV is the one that most agencies, job boards and CV writing services will warn you against writing, but even these can be effective, as long as you understand the audience you are appealing to. Are you writing a general CV that you want to post to a job board? The majority of people searching job board databases are recruiters either working for agencies or working in house.
In all cases, they are looking for specific keywords that will indicate that you might be suitable for a job brief that they are trying to fill. This article from elearning offers some insight into how recruiters behave when looking through CV’s. You may not have a job role in mind, but you should be able to identify your strongest skills and have some idea of what you would most like to be doing in a new role. These are the skills and traits you want to highlight in your CV. Anyone who finds you based on those skills is going to be calling you about jobs that at least might interest you and if it is a good match, you can always offer to tailor the CV for the specific role you have been contacted about.
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If you are designing a CV for a specific vacancy you have seen or for a specific job function, then you already have some insight into who your audience is likely to be. If you have a job description to work with, you already know what the relevant skills are and probably have some guidance about the kind of individual that is likely to fit into the role, so make sure that you are including evidence of the skills and character traits that you have to offer which are most relevant.
Should you be putting a CV together that is designed to appeal to a broader audience, but you know what industry sector you want to be working in or have an idea of the kind of job function you want to move into, again, it should be relatively easy to figure out what your audience wants to see. Do research online, there will be plenty of jobs advertised that might appeal to you and reading through a sample of these will give you an idea of what common traits and skills employers are looking for.
Maximise the impact of your CV by ensuring that you highlight those traits and skills when writing about your own experience.
A golden rule
If you do nothing else, make sure your CV is accurate. That covers everything from phone number to dates, spelling to job roles. Check and double check your grammar. Avoid errors by looking at it over the course of several days and ask a trusted friend to gain a fresh perspective.
Any mistake will make it look like you haven't put the time in, or you don't believe that detail is important. Those looking at your CV will identify inaccuracy as weakness, they will do it quickly and be difficult to bring back onside. As there is no excuse, it is almost impossible to recover from.
Ultimately the question of length is immaterial. Unless specifically given a limit, the only pertinent question should be about how relevant your CV is. Make sure that you are concise and focused when writing about your experience. Setting out to write a CV that exactly covers two pages of A4 is going to distract you from the more important task of making sure that you are getting the important details down.
Think about this a little like giving someone directions to the high street. You want to give them the simplest, most direct route to follow. You might want to mention some significant landmarks along the way. For example, take the second left just past the big Sainsbury’s rather than, go past the big house with the red door and the pretty rose bushes in the front garden, then take a left when you get to Auntie Sylvia’s house. The one with the bird table. Mentioning excessive detail is distracting, confusing and pointless.
If you focus on keeping your CV concise and relevant, you will probably find that you manage to fit it all in to a few pages anyway.
If your CV is going beyond 3 pages, ask yourself questions about how relevant your content is. You probably need to go back to the first question about who your audience is and then look at ways to strip things back to make sure that you are only addressing that audience. Unfortunately, it is easy to assume that there is too much irrelevant content if the document starts to become too lengthy.
Try to avoid leaving large chunks of blank space. Fill each page that you use. White space makes it easier navigate and frames each section naturally. Avoiding tables to section your CV. Your CV will evolve over time and what helps on day one, will become a compounding issue in years to come.
Make sure that the information your audience is going to be most interested in is clearly visible
A novel visual approach should be the reserve of people seeking creative jobs. When looking professional, it is rarely the right choice. Black, white and dark grey are safe. And related to this, avoid flamboyant fonts.
The same goes for graphs and visual timelines. They might be pleasing but they rarely use a tangible scale. Stating real-world measures to demonstrate your skill level such as project outcomes or qualifications is far better.
Of course, it doesn’t matter how relevant your CV is if the information can’t be easily found. You will find statistics all over the web telling you that your CV is only given somewhere between 5 and 30 seconds before a decision is made on whether you are suitable or not.
Most suggest that a CV is rejected in as little as 5-6 seconds on average. A study of recruitment professionals conducted by Reed suggested that most recruiters spend on average 5-7 seconds on a CV. Bear in mind that online job advertising generates on average 118 responses per ad. The average time spent on a CV is low because most are rejected very quickly. In many cases, CVs are rejected for basic faux pas such as a lack of contact details or location, or even just the visual appeal.
It is important that you get past this first hurdle and you should stick with convention here. Make sure your address and telephone number are clearly displayed at the top of your CV, just under your name, in a header along the top margin or in the top left or right corner.
Make it easy to read. Keep your longest block paragraphs (profile and most recent role) to a maximum of 3 or 4 sentences. If you need to write more, move to bullet points, they are easier to scan for key points because they gravitate to short statements that can be taken at a glance.
Highlight your contribution in projects & demonstrate your willingness to assist on elements or tasks beyond your prescribed remit
You identified your audience before writing, make sure that the information your audience is going to be most interested in are clearly visible, in the first half of page one. Highlighting specific information can work to draw the reader’s eye to important details, but it can also look untidy and if you find yourself having to do this, perhaps the layout of your CV isn’t as clear as it should be?
Unless you are a model, actor or actress adding a photograph will add no value. Conscience or subconsciously you could be judged on it. The space could be better used. The same goes for graphs and visual timelines. They might be pleasing but they rarely use a tangible scale. Stating real-world measures to demonstrate your skill level such as project outcomes or qualifications is far better.
Convention or Creative
The layout and construction of your CV should help you pass the “7 second test”, but going beyond this, you need to make sure that the information throughout your CV is clearly presented. For the most part, you want your CV to follow convention, because most of the people reading your CV will be used to conventional formats.
Even if you are presenting yourself for creative or design oriented roles, it is worth bearing in mind that some conventionality is likely to help if your CV is initially being reviewed by HR recruitment specialists or professionals.
Examples of your creative work can be included later in a CV or you can direct people to your online portfolio, but those of us who are less creative are still looking for the same basic information on front and centre. Name, address, telephone number, email address, relevant core skills. Again, bear in mind that a recruiter can be looking at well over 200 CVs in a day. The key details need to be immediately recognisable.
There are a variety of templates available for CV layouts. All of the common word processing packages that you might use offer CV templates. All of the major job boards have career pages that offer free templates. As good as the templates are, bear in mind that they can also be restrictive.
This is your CV and you don’t have to adhere to any set templates. It is worth sticking to some general, common practices, however. Name, city, postcode, telephone number, email address, profile, current role, recent roles, personal achievements, education, interests. And you're done. Remember, you are trying to create a document that someone who does not know you can read easily.
CV writing tips
5 things to include...
- Your name and contact details at the top of your CV. You don’t need to put “CV” or “Curriculum Vitae” at the top of your CV. We all know exactly what it is. There is no point in creating the perfect CV if you leave the reader with the frustration of wanting to contact you, but with no means of doing so.
- Include a profile, ideally giving some indication of what you are looking for and what you can offer. A couple of carefully constructed sentences should suffice. Avoid platitudes and stock phrases. In your profile, simply summarise what you have become in your career, your path to get there and where you might like it to go next. It's a few sentences to hook the reader by suggesting you are relevant to the role they are looking to fill.
- Employment history. A good rule is to mention your last 10 years of work, or 5 job roles in some detail. Halve the amount you write about each post you held until you reach just one or two sentences and a number of bullet points.
- Providing plenty of detail on your recent role is generally the biggest indicator of your abilities at this stage in your career.
- Education. Most employers are still interested in some of the details of your education and qualifications. List the most recent first. Grades aren’t always necessary, but if you have grades you can be proud of, list them out. You don’t have to list everything out, especially if it is not at all relevant. The Head of Development at that software house isn’t going to be worried about one D grade GCSE.
5 not to...
- References. Only if you are making a direct application to a business you hope to work for, could these help in securing the role, then this might be useful. If you are offered a job, you will be asked to supply them at that stage.
- Unnecessary personal information. Whether you are chosen to interview or not will most certainly not be decided by the names and ages of your children.
- Colours, images, unusual fonts, random variations in font style and size, flashing graphics and effects. The only exception to this is if you are applying for creative or graphic design roles. Some simple, attractive design features may help your cause, but if you want someone to experience the full breadth of your creative genius, add a link to a portfolio or include examples of your work in a separate document.
- Stock phrases. Avoid these, like the plague. They are a complete waste of space, offer no insight into you as an individual and worst of all, they annoy the hell out of most recruiters and HR professionals. It is the worst kind of bet hedging too and suggests that you have sent a generic, catch-all CV.
- Avoid over-selling a function. There is nothing wrong with selling yourself and drawing attention to your achievements, as long as they count as achievements. “Successfully maintaining full stock replenishment targets and maximising shelf capacity quotients” still just means you were putting goods on the shelf in a shop and anyone reading it knows this.
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