How To Write a CV that will Secure you an Interview
It was the school summer holidays. I was fifteen and my mother had ordered me to sit down and write a CV so that I could apply for a part-time job with the local supermarket. In those days real part-time jobs where you were actually paid real money were hard to come by and much sought-after. I remember staring blankly at the white foolscap page, chewing the top of my pen, staring out the window and wondering how to start; asking myself, ‘œWhat the heck am I meant to include?’ Eventually I cobbled together enough information together to fill a page, with a few mentions of ambitions for the futures and some dubious claims of representing the school football team.
I will wager that this is a fairly common experience, not just at the start of a person’s career, but right through to retirement and, these days, even beyond that. Indeed, the more experienced you become, the more difficult it appears to write a CV. When all of your experience seems relevant, shouldn’t it all go in? Clearly not or a CV would stretch northward of ten pages. Let’s cover the main areas to consider when writing a CV and this will provide an effective representation of your skills and experience and help you to secure an interview.
First things first – decide on the format you are going to use. For most CVs, clear, simple and uncluttered is the best option. Research has shown that people who read CVs professionally (recruiters and HR professionals) spend an average of around six seconds initially scanning a CV, typically in an ‘F’ shape. For you the candidate, this leaves very little time to create a good first impression, making it vital to lay your CV out in an organised and visually appealing way with the key information easy to find.
For most candidates, using a word processing package like MS Word is preferable. The font should be easy to read, which means avoiding artistic or creative flourishes. Non-traditional fonts can appear to make a CV more interesting, but remember, this is a business document and therefore one of its key features should be to communicate your information clearly without forcing the reader to search too hard. A HR professional or recruiter will probably be reading thirty or more CVs at a sitting and will be scanning for information. Initially s/he just wants to know the answer to one question – How closely does this candidate match the requirements of the job? Do they have SAP experience? What have their sales figures been like over the last three years? Have they worked with our competitors? Give them what they want.
Some fonts that work well are: Calibri, Arial, Helvetica, Geneva and Times New Roman. Personally, I prefer Calibri because it reads well both on-screen and on the printed page. This can be helpful because your cv will probably be read in electronic format firstly, before being printed out for recruitment discussions and later the interviews.
Colours? Should they be included in a CV? Traditionally, cvs were like the early Ford Model T. cars – any colour you like as long as it’s black. However, using an extra colour can sometimes improve the visual appeal of a CV. There are several caveats to this however. Colours should be:
- Restrained – dark brown or blue can be effective without taking from the flow of the document. However, avoid any shade of green – it is synonymous with stalking; probably not a good thing in a candidate.
- Limited to one – steer clear of replicating the spectrum.
- No more than two font sizes larger than the following paragraph i.e. if the text is size 12, the heading should be size 14.
- Used sparingly – preferably for headings like Education and Career history.
Information to include
There is certain information that should be included in almost every CV. Recruiters, HR staff and hiring managers look for it and if it is missing they will often make negative assumptions, to the detriment of your application.
This means your name, address, telephone number and email address. It is also worthwhile including a URL for your Linkedin profile (making sure this is employer-ready). If you have a Skype address it can be useful to also put this in.
In addition, remember to include any relevant professional designations after your name e.g. ‘Joseph Bloggs, ACCA’ or ‘Jacqueline Anon, MIRP’.
In several countries, including the UK, it is illegal to discriminate on the basis of age, so it is generally best to omit your date of birth. However, the corollary is also true – if you are living in a country where including the date of birth is the norm then it is better to do so.
Education, qualifications and training
Starting with your highest level of qualification attained, work in reverse chronological order (most recent first). Include the title of the qualification, institution and years attended. If you achieved an honours grade this can be included as well – if not, it is best to avoid drawing attention to this. Those who have graduated from university within the last few years can also include second level qualifications, but otherwise these can usually be omitted.
The essential information to include is:
- Dates of employment
- Job title
- Company name
Sometimes it can be useful to include the city or country in which you were based, particularly when you have travelled. If you have had employment gaps you may be able to avoid highlighting these by only stating the years of employment. Employers will find out about these, of course, either at the interview stage or when you are submitting paperwork to HR, but by then an employer may be convinced you are a fantastic candidate and willing to overlook such details.
An important part of your career history is the key responsibilities of your current and previous roles and it is worth thinking carefully about what these actually were. Too often, candidates take the unimaginative and slightly lazy approach of copying and pasting from a job description. This is a bad idea for several reasons. A job description tends to include a broad range of activities, covering a multitude of tasks that an employee might be asked to undertake in the role. As a result, if you transcribe this information you will usually cause your CV to lack focus and conciseness. You are also likely to erase your individuality from the CV, making it generic and similar to the countless applications that are sitting in a recruiter’s inbox. And don’t forget that the people who will be reading your CV – HR professionals and recruiters – spend a large part of their day-to-day jobs reading job descriptions and they will quickly realise that they are reading a copy and paste effort. They are left none the wiser as to what you actually did in you previous role(s) and have no reason to shortlist your application.
Instead, take some time to sit down and think about what your key responsibilities and activities actually were. Your job description(s) will help you to do this, but avoid slavishly copying the information. Compare this to what you did and highlight the parts where you occupied the majority of your role, bearing in mind the importance of targeting your CV (more information about this a little further on). When you have finished outlining responsibilities you can move onto probably the most important element of your CV, which is dealt with extensively in the next section and is the one that many candidates forget about completely.
Before this, don’t forget:
IT skills and languages
It is always worth stating your IT and linguistic skills. Remember to include the various packages and languages you have experience of and the level you have attained.
This is a crucial element in promoting your strengths as a candidate and one of the most effective ways of differentiating your application from those of the other applicants. If a job requires certain qualifications and is likely to attract individuals with similar levels of experience then you will probably be one of many identikit candidates.
The way to make your application stand out as superior to the rest is to highlight your successes, showing how you have performed above expectations in your previous roles – particularly as they relate to your targeted role. This is an incredibly powerful tool for several reasons:
- Your achievements will make you unique – even two candidates doing the same job in the same company will have different achievements.
- They act as evidence of your ability to do the job, giving hiring managers a reason to employ you.
- They show that you are results driven, helping to convince a potential employer that can help them achieve their objectives.
So what should you include?
Achievements are all about explaining your contribution towards realising an organisation’s goals. Therefore, describe what the situation was, what you did and what the outcome was. Think facts and figures – budgets, costs, financial contribution, time or money savings, employee numbers etc. The goal is to demonstrate your abilities through the detail.
Help! I don’t have any achievements!
This is a common reaction – your mind goes blank and you are left feeling like you have achieved precisely nothing in your previous roles. However, it is very unlikely that this is the case. You may just need to jog your memory a little. Start by thinking about the people you have interacted with (including team mates, managers, other colleagues and clients). Think about what you have done with them or for them. Consider any projects that you have participated in or any positive feedback you have received. As a tip, performance appraisals can be a good source of inspiration, so you many find them useful in helping you to recall past successes.
- Which industry do you work in?
- What type of role do you perform?
- And lastly, what do you want to do?
It is worth considering the answers to these questions because it will help you to target your CV effectively for the roles you are seeking. Skill-sets vary enormously between roles and this means that a considered approach is essential. For example, a sales agent position will usually require good sales ability, tenacity and an outgoing personality. On the other hand, a scientific research role usually needs previous experience of working with data, ability to follow a process and a methodical approach. A hiring manager will be looking for evidence of these qualities and the onus is on you, the candidate, to demonstrate that you can provide them. To avoid any confusion – an employer is not interested in you. They are interested in whether you can do the job for which they are recruiting. Therefore, it is important for you to focus on the employer’s need, using your CV to highlight the skills, experience and qualifications that most closely match this. Conversely it will also guide you as which areas are unimportant and worth omitting.
What should I include and what should I leave out?
If you are unsure of which areas are essential for an employer it may be useful to examine relevant job advertisements to help you identify the common skills and types of experience. Start with a long list and qualify it, concentrating on matching your strongest experience. Bear in mind that you will not be suitable for every vacancy out there so avoid trying to match every skill-set. There is no such thing as the perfect candidate. If you meet the essential criteria you have a good chance of being called for interview, so focus on this.
There is no single format that works for all candidates and it is important to always focus on what approach will work best for your situation. Consider your CV objectively from an employer’s perspective and ask yourself, ‘œAm I demonstrating that I match the role?’
Fergal Bell is a director of Magnus Recruitment Services, a specialist consultancy providing expertise to candidates during the recruitment process.
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