Make your CV the Best It Can Be

Google search “the best CV construction” and all of the first few are CVs for the building trade. So, I tried “the best CV standard” – 215,000,000 in 0.6 of a second. Probably safe to say then that, errors or chronic nonsense apart, there is no black and white.

When I write LinkedIn profiles for clients, my opening advice is always standard: if the platform’s own numbers are to be believed, in 2017 there are roughly 0.5 billion profiles. So, if anyone says, “that must be a paragraph”, “that can only be 1 line”, “that can’t be added”, and so on – walk away, its rubbish.

Does the same apply to CVs? Are there so many differences of opinion because there are 215 million+ “right” ways. Of course not. Apart from anything, the figure is for number of entries not number of opinions which differ. But, are there differences of opinion which allow for CV variation – with none of them being wrong? Yes. But are there ground rules which should – must? – apply to every CV? Absolutely.

So, many conflicting recommendations out there. Should you keep it to one page? Do you put a summary at the top? Do you include personal interests and volunteering? This may be your best chance to make a good first impression, so you’ve got to get it right.

I hope I’m not arrogant enough to call myself a cast-iron expert. That said, I do like to think that 15 years in, and with a healthy LinkedIn, I know a bit about what makes a quality CV.

Clients often ask me, within 5 minutes of my receiving the job, when can I have my CV. They forget I may have other clients. The relevance? Don’t think you’re going to sit down and hammer it out in an hour. You have to think carefully about what to say and how to say it so the employer thinks, “This person can do what I need done”. Remember, it’s more than a CV, it’s a marketing document.

They key is understanding the difference between – but crucially, balancing – perception and content. If the perception, *pre-read* is huge sections, block paragraphs, long sentences – in other words, as I say to clients, the recruiter thinking “he’s making me work” – then you could be Neil Armstrong or the Pope, but they won’t keep reading. You need to “be them” not think you know what they want and put that in a CV – all that does is tell them you haven’t “been them”.

Open strongly – you’re past the perception, now don’t lose the impact:

The first line or 2 are critically important – start with a summary of your expertise. You’ll have the opportunity to expand on your experience further down in your CV and in your cover letter. For now, keep it short. I advise clients in advance that they should expect a summary of no more than 2 – 3 lines. Many are flabbergasted to hear this but when they understand the methodology, they understand why.

To my mind, it should consist of a descriptor or job title like, “senior programme manager with 20 years’ UK public sector experience, primarily central Government and the NHS”. Or “business development executive with 12+ years’ experience designing, leading, and implementing a range of £20m+ corporate growth and realignment initiatives, primarily in retail and supply chain”

Get the order right:

If you’re switching industries, don’t launch into job experience that the recruiter probably won’t think is relevant. Possibly add accomplishments right after the opener – it can bridge the experience and the job requirements. That said, this is moot. I prefer the accomplishments to be contextual, placed within a role. To me, it gives the reader a framework. “I worked for X, for 4 years; within that, I did A, B and C; and in that context, I achieved X, Y and Z” But I fully accept there is no right or wrong.

Depending on where accomplishments are placed, if you add it, list your employment history and related experience. Then add any relevant education. Some people want to put their education at the top. That might be appropriate in academia but for a business CV, you should highlight your work experience first, and save your degrees and certifications for the end.

And that ever-popular “skills” section? If you have expertise with a specific type of software, for example, include it in the experience section. And if it’s a drop-dead requirement for the job, also include it in the summary at the very top. Again, I feel, moot. I usually have a separate skills section immediately below the summary but it, too, is totally specific – IT tools, languages, supply chain, etc. Not “project management – budget, resource, etc. Everybody has that. Again, “be” the reader.

Be selective:

It’s tempting to list every job, accomplishment, volunteer assignment, skill, and degree you’ve ever had. But don’t. A CV is not meant to be comprehensive – as I advise the clients, we need to draw the “CV purpose vs. interview distinction”. This applies to volunteer work as well. Only include it as part of your experience — right along with your paid jobs — if it’s relevant.

Share accomplishments, not responsibilities – this doesn’t conflict with the above; rather, it’s about balance. Full of “I managed 10 people”, “I ran the office” and so on – boring and banal. But some of that needs to be there, I feel, to provide the framework.

Arguably, 95% of what you talk about should be accomplishments. “I managed a team of 10” doesn’t say much. But did everyone in your team earn promotions? Did they exceed their targets? Give tangible, concrete examples. If you’re able to attach percentages or £ signs, people will pay even more attention. Numbers are a winner. And, where possible, give £ not just %. Again, context. 12% may be a huge figure to you but the reader doesn’t know that. If 12% was £12.4 million, you must include that.

Make it readable:

Stop fiddling with the margins, font, layout – yes, they must be good but the lovely look at the expense of any meaningful content is an absolute no. Any more than 2, debatably 3, pages and it shows that you can’t edit. You can supplement what’s on the page with links to your work or publications. Some writers feel they shouldn’t just include the URL – in fact most writers have never even thought of inserting that; I’ve done it for years. Tell them in a brief, one-line phrase what’s so important about the work you’re providing.
And stick to the most common fonts. It’s not how fancy it is. It’s how clear, clean, and elegant it is in its simplicity. This is also ATS’s favourite. It doesn’t always like tables, boxes, graphics, etc. Top-down, free-flow, simple is good. Vary the line length and avoid crammed text or paragraphs that look identical. The goal is to include enough white space so that a recruiter wants to keep reading. Arial and Calibri usually go down well; Gothic won’t.

Tweak it for each opportunity:

Don’t think you can get away with having just one CV. You can have the 1 CV that compellingly articulates the most important information, but you have to alter it for each opportunity. Of course, you may need to write the first version as your template – 90% of it is what you will use each time. But for each subsequent one, you need context. Research the organisation. Talk to someone — or ideally two or three people — who’ve worked there before, work there now, or otherwise know the organisation. Then tweak it for the position, the industry, etc. What words or experiences do I need to highlight? What can I get rid of because it’s not relevant? They don’t have to be very different, but they need to do the job for each situation.

Align your LinkedIn profile:

Your LinkedIn profile is sometimes just as important as your CV. If you don’t have one, get one immediately. And remember it’s not the same as a CV. You also want to tweak the tone. For example, the summary section may be written in the first person. It gives you the opportunity to present yourself as a living, breathing human being. Again, however, all of this is moot – rules – yes; some areas a categoric no – yes.

Principles to Remember:

Do:

Start with a short summary of who you are and why you’re the right person for the job
Emphasise accomplishments more than responsibilities
Create a new version of your CV for every opportunity

Don’t:

Use clichés — explain what makes you a good candidate in concrete, specific words
Cram text in or use a small font size ­— it must be readable

Most of my clients and I view the process as a collaboration, not my diktat. That I understand their specifications and steer, and take on their views. But they also understand they’ve come to me for a reason – because I write CVs, not manage IT infrastructure. If the collaboration and the areas of CV flexibility are handled well, the client has the best chance they can. Whether they use it correctly is a different thing!

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