I really enjoy helping people pull together a great CV. However, this seems to mostly involve giving the same initial advice each time!
Going forward, my aim is to make sure conversations focus as much as possible on substance rather than style. To that end, this article articulates some areas to tackle first.
Most of this advice isn’t foolproof or original. However, in almost a decade of doing this, these five basics are the things I’ve found the most effective to come back to.
Before you start, put yourself in the shoes of a person who might be reviewing your application.
There’s a decent chance they’ll be busy, and will have lots of other CVs to get through. They probably won’t feel obliged to read yours in painstaking detail, or to read it to the very end if it doesn’t look promising initially.
Bear this in mind throughout.
Consider it in your structure. Consider it in your choice of language. Consider it in the length of the document your create.
Help the reviewer make their decision quickly, and in your favour.
So here’s my list:
1. Make a strong first impression
Write a short introductory paragraph at the top, which acts as a ‘mini cover letter’. Explain why you want the job, and why you’re qualified to do it, in no more than four lines.
I tend to follow this with a ‘Highlights’ section. This consists of 4 or 5 bullet points, setting out the key achievements to date. These are the strongest aspects of the CV. These are the parts of your record most strongly linked to the job you’re applying for, and the things you want to make sure reviewer sees quickly, and fully appreciates.
Taken together, these sections should articulate a clear narrative about your career to date, explaining how this new potential role fits with the rest of your story so far.
These two short sections will probably be the hardest things to get right; it’s worth jotting down some ideas and coming back to this part once you’ve finished everything else.
2. Cut ruthlessly — pursue quality over quantity
Making your biggest achievements stand out is partly about removing the dross that surrounds them.
This means having no more than two pages, and no more than 3–5 bullet points per entry. It means asking yourself whether anyone actually cares about the the individual grades of your GCSEs or SATs at this stage in your career.
One way to slim down your content is to cut out unnecessary words, particularly the kind of flowery waffle that if you said it out loud to another human you’d be incredibly embarrassed.
Finally, another area of repetition you can usually remove are ‘Skills’ sections. Do you really need to bulk out your CV by assuring a potential employer that you’re ‘proficient with MS Office’? The exception to this are roles in which technical skills are crucial, and where you can clearly evidence the standards you are capable of, such as completed training, certifications or memberships of professional bodies.
3. Ensure your layout plays to your strengths
Much of this stems from getting the right priority order.
If your academic record is woeful, even though you’re a strong candidate, don’t start there. If your most recent role demonstrates you meet most of the key criteria, set the CV out in reverse chronological order.
The same logic applies to optional sections of a CV, such as named references — if you have some compelling ones, include them, if not, don’t. If you have an impressive portfolio of original content on an online platform, sign-post to it, if not, don’t. Simple.
4. Tailor to the role you’re applying for
Be clear on what the potential employer is looking for when they read your CV. Make it easy for them to see how your skills and experience match what they are looking for.
Go through the specification, ensuring you can demonstrate each requirement in at least one place. If you’re intending to apply for lots of roles under time pressure, a general CV with a tailored personal introduction and ‘career highlights’ section may be sufficient.
5. Quantify your personal achievements specifically
Where possible, a CV should operate in the realms of ‘fact’ rather than ‘opinion’. For every assertion you make, try and find a data-point which supports it e.g. “Increased sales by X%”, or “Line-managed X people”.
As well as striving to be evidence-based, help a reviewer understand what exactly your role and achievements involved in a given role. Couch your descriptions in the first person rather than saying “we did X, Y, or Z”.
Being specific also involves some basic morality ( i.e. don’t lie) and some basic common sense (e.g. if you have gaps in your CV, explain how you used that time and what you learned).
So, to recap:
- Start with a ~4 line intro paragraph
- Follow it with ~5 ‘career highlights / key achievements’
- Lay out the content so it tells a story about your career
- Have no more than 2 pages
- Stick to 3–5 bullet points for each entry
- Cut out ‘showy’, unnecessary language
- Use a layout that plays to your strengths
- Tailor your CV to the job spec of the role you’re applying for
- Try and get clear evidence to back up your achievements in each entry
- Be clear on what you did in each role, rather than what the team did that you were part of
Found this helpful? Disagree with any of these points? Have some tips of your own? I’d love to hear your comments!