CV tips

A friend recently asked for some advice in writing her CV (résumé) and suggested I turn what I told her into a blog post, so here it is. I don’t claim to be an expert in CV writing; these are just the ramblings of some random bloke on the internet. I hope you find them useful. Given that the fact you’re writing a CV means you’re likely to be looking for a job, I hope that you find a job you like, and the stress and disappointment along the way aren’t too bad.

Satellite photo of the Grand Canyon
CV means course of life. You’re trying to bring out the bits of this course that best meet the needs of the reader, like this photo of the course of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon brings out some things (such as the wiggliness) and leaves out others (such as the height).
Credit: http://www.terraprints.com, CC BY 2.5 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

First step – think about the purpose

I know that this might seem like making a mountain out of a molehill, but I think it’s worth taking a moment to think about why you’re doing this and what you’re hoping to achieve. For this article, I’m assuming that the purpose of the CV is to persuade someone to give you an interview for a particular job. I’m explicitly missing out at least two possibilities:

  • Your CV is going to be crunched by a program rather than read by a human.
  • You are applying to somewhere that has a two stage process – first they see if you generally fit the organisation / department etc., and then they see which specific role is the best fit for you.

I don’t have any advice for either of these – I hope you find it elsewhere.

At the risk of being like Swiss Toni from the Fast Show, I think that this is a UX (user experience) problem. You are designing something (your CV) to meet the needs of someone (the person reading your CV, who wants to recruit someone). Put yourself in their shoes, and think what will make their life easier (so you can do those things) or harder (so you can avoid those things).

They want to see if you fit the needs of the job well enough for it to be worth the time interviewing you. They have other things to do, probably including looking at other CVs, so they don’t have infinite time or patience to spend on your CV. So, if your CV is too long or too hard to read, you run the risk of being passed over even if you’re a good fit. If it’s unclear how you meet the needs of the job, that’s another risk of being passed over.

Second step – preparation

With that out of the way, it’s time to… prepare! (Sorry, not onto actually writing it yet, but we’re getting closer.)

If you ever write more than one CV, e.g. you apply for more than one job, it’s probably quicker in the long run if you create and maintain a library of things that you can use to build CVs from. This can be a bit daunting if you’ve had a few years’ of career history already, but the investment of time should be worth it. I have this in a very simple spreadsheet, but you could use something else if that works better for you.

The library is just a list of rows, where each row has these bits of information:

  • Which part of your CV to put it in (e.g. which employer and job title relates to it)
  • What skill or experience this can illustrate
  • Good enough notes to help you write this up on a CV (more on that below).

The point of this is that it helps you tailor your CV to the job application.

Third step – write it

We’re now in danger of actually typing stuff! In this section I’ll go into just the main part of the CV, that relates to your career history. The rest will be covered in the next section.

Get the job specification for the position you’re applying to, and extract or highlight all the things that you think seem important to the employer. This could be skills, experience, traits or behaviour. As part of this, see if some seem more important than others.

These are the requirements for this CV. Your next CV will be against different requirements, based on a different job spec. Go through your library of CV bits, and see which requirements you can meet. If one requirement matches several rows in the library, think about which rows meet the requirements best. Space will be limited, so you need to demonstrate how you meet the requirements as efficiently as possible. This means that you might not be able to include all the matching rows – so pick just the best ones.

You now hopefully have a list of things that you can include. You next need to think about how you turn each thing into words on the CV. If possible, tackle the So What? question. By that I mean: don’t just say that in a particular job you used skill X; instead say that you used skill X which lead to good outcome Y.

The skills etc. are a means to an end for your potential employer. They don’t want e.g. a manager, they want staff to feel engaged in their work, have the necessary skills, have roadblocks dealt with etc, and a manager is the means to those ends. Including the outcomes is more persuasive evidence that you have the thing they’re after, and that you’re aware of the business context that you operate in. However, including the outcomes will come at the cost of more words, so you need to keep this short and punchy.

If you have references to relevant external things that your reader can check up for themselves, strongly consider including them. This is things like hobby projects you work on, talks you’ve given, sites for volunteering you do etc. These give solid evidence that isn’t just one person’s opinion, and help you stand out from other people.

Fourth step – topping and tailing

Every word you write on your CV has to pull its weight, which includes the things outside of your career history. Each word you write is a word the reader has to read or ignore. So, if possible, make your hobbies and interests bring out skills etc. that will help with your application. As you progress in your career, your education background will probably compact down to e.g. degrees, apprenticeships and professional qualifications rather than including anything from earlier in your life.

I add two bits of summary at the top of the first page. The first is a short paragraph of prose that acts as a mini cover letter (which I’ll go into shortly), and then there’s a two-column list of bullet points.

The bullet points are probably what the reader’s attention will go to first, because they’re easier to read than the denser text that’s above and below them. Here I put the headlines, such as key skills or experiences. These must be backed up by things in the career history. Their purpose is to help you pass the “Should I even bother with this CV?” test. When the reader opens up your CV they will form an initial impression of it. If this impression is poor, they might skip you entirely, they might read on but be pre-disposed to reject you etc.

So I want their initial impression to be as good as possible, which means I want to make it as easy as possible for them to see if I’m a good match in broad terms. If I am, then they can dive into the details to check me out more thoroughly.

The first paragraph I think of as a kind of tie breaker. If the reader had two candidates – you and someone else who ticked the boxes in the same way as you – why should they consider you over the other person? How are you more than just the ticked boxes? How are you different from (hopefully smarter than) the average bear? Don’t go overboard here – these are more words that the reader has to wade through.

Fifth step – review it

If you continue with the Swiss Toni-esque view of the CV as software that’s delivering UX, it should be no surprise to you that it is very likely to contain bugs, and have areas where it could be made more effective or efficient. Spell check it! Grammar check it! These are table stakes for a good CV. Read it closely, looking for mistakes (which could be things that are missing, such as missed words). Ask someone else to look it over for you, to see where your words are clunky.

Summing up

These are random thoughts (on brand!) from a non-expert, so please treat them with the contempt and suspicion they deserve.

I think it’s worth considering your CV as a thing you’re designing to meet a particular purpose for a particular person, as that will help you get an interview. A library of bits will help you tailor your CV to each job application, which should also help. Make each word count, and think about the benefits that you and your skills, experience etc. have brought to previous employers. Check it. Good luck.

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