Discovering the near-perfect CV

Recruiters express frustration these days about talent hunts at all levels. I hear and read it all the time: “We’re putting tremendous energy into finding the right CVs. But we’re losing the ability to find the right people.”

I have first-hand information from many of my nieces and nephews, all of whom have recently graduated, or are about to leave university. They therefore have a great deal of involvement with recruiters, university careers advisers, career coaches and more. This gives them insight, through overhearing at fairs, reading many pamphlets or through direct one-to-one conversations with experts, of the recruitment markets’ dos and don’ts, wants and dislikes.

They tell me that directors of internship programs, for example, are increasingly less impressed with an “I worked very hard for….” 2:1 on seemingly “perfect” students from elite schools, who have mastered, for example, multiple foreign languages. Given that most of my nieces and nephews went to St Andrews, Edinburgh or Glasgow, meeting students from elite schools isn’t unusual.

The reason recruiters give is that these recruits show surprisingly little initiative once they arrive at a big, busy company; they keep waiting to be told what to do. This is backed up by the very heavily publicised business leaders’ commentary that degrees are increasingly worth less now than at any previous time. Ultra-rigorous screening of internship candidates has inadvertently eliminated the freewheeling mavericks of previous eras. Those earlier interns might have lacked great transcripts, but they didn’t need anyone’s permission to try something bold. Perhaps it was because they needed to, because they were part of a relatively small percentage of people with degrees.

I find myself routinely telling clients that, if they can’t secure an interview, their default position of “the CV must be the problem” is often far from correct; and that they need to view a CV as a standalone part of the recruitment jigsaw, not a means to an end. Of course, it’s an ideal means to an end but not a given or assumed one.

My means of writing the “perfect” CV is to make it clear to the client that what they like is irrelevant. If they dislike it but employers do then it works. Though again, only as a standalone. There is no must-have link between an excellent CV and how the client then applies it.

So, recruiters insist on a perfect CV each time, and it’s impossible to make the most of highly promising candidates with gappy or apparently unflowing CVs. The lost opportunities can be excruciating. Imagine the regret of someone unwilling to back Steve Jobs in 1977, because the personal-computer pioneer never finished college. For that matter, consider Apple’s fate in the 1990s, if the company hadn’t invited Jobs back for another attempt at leading the company, even though his first run ended in dismissal.

As such extreme examples show, it’s essential to get comfortable with a CV that features a puzzling mix of highs and lows. Bring such candidates into play, and suddenly tomorrow’s unexpected stars become visible. This is in large part because the “Perfect” CV is needed to gain the candidate access to the recruiter. After that, who knows.

This willingness to decouple from traditional strict scrutiny of paper credentials – or at least split them – may look risky. But when it is pursued in a well-thought-out way, it’s possible to sidestep most of the apparent hazards.

Organisations that consider jagged CVs have clear ideas of what high points they must see. Privately, many will admit they seize on a few central character traits that are well known internally as future markers of likely success. Such enterprises think harder about which candidates might grow the most on the job, rather than which ones already possess all needed competencies for the task at hand. Traits such as resilience, efficiency, curiosity and self-reliance are among the most likely ones to raise a recruiter’s interest. It says, to those better, more focused, perhaps more “out of the box” recruiters, that they can concede experience but shouldn’t compromise on character.

Also, recruiters who are well-versed have well-thought-out ideas about which apparent shortcomings in a CV don’t matter and which ones do. Hopscotch work histories and internship, or volunteering that appears quirky, are often viewed leniently, largely depending on the age and history of the applicant – the older the client is, the lower the leniency: “why hasn’t he developed a career path” kind of recruiters’ mentality.

Of course, in some cases, applicants – younger or older – don’t know yet what sector or role they’re seeking. They perhaps changed courses at university or college; they joined the Navy or worked for Asda, or tried a flurry of other false starts. They wanted to be at the forefront of some field but couldn’t work out which or why. In these cases, is any CV perfect or is perfection – as in beauty – (sic) in the eye of the recruiter?

The past 11 years of economic turmoil followed by austerity have created a lot more hugely varying CVs. For some employers, that’s distasteful. For the next generation of savvy ones, that’s a rare opportunity. As the economy starts to revive, the companies that end up hiring the best people will be the ones that evaluate apparently poor, fragmented or illogical CVs most intelligently.

Of course, many candidates don’t help themselves. I very often read statements such as “Administered resolution of issues and implemented ideas proposed by individuals.”

“Contributed to meetings designed to enhance collaboration, identify and develop strategies to ensure success regarding the accomplishment of goals.”

“Experienced leader with superior interpersonal skills and business acumen talented at building productive relationships across a global organisation.”

It’s at that point that I advise this is meaningless nonsense. It is, what I call “what we think we put in a CV as opposed to what the reader needs from a CV” The client’s answer is usually along the lines of “yes but I’m a team-player and am very collaborative”. They’re then, variously, stumped, miffed, annoyed or bemused, when I say: yes, but how does the reader know that? They have no metric, no way off checking so it’s coming out; it’s meaningless drivel. Harsh? Maybe, but it’s done with the best of intentions.

We all know that there are more jobs being lost than created, and that an opening will get dozens, if not hundreds, of applicants. But in our fear to avoid saying anything that might get our CV tossed on top of the rejection pile, we end up saying nothing at all. As a result, the recruiter feels like they’re reading tea leaves, not CVs. One feels forced to come up with arbitrary rules to narrow the field. Nobody with an objective statement, no CVs longer than 3 pages, no serif fonts. As I usually say to clients, most will accept mine as right – not least because I always provide extensive, market-evidenced, review notes – but where they disagree it’s because they feel it’s very stripped back, very lean. They need to be reminded that the reader with 85 on the desk needs us to get to the point, not wade through waffle that says what a fantastic person they (believe they) are.

Of course, detail is key and I’m not immune. Personally, I look at the width of the dashes: the devil is in the detail. Microsoft Word will helpfully attempt to make a hyphen, n-dash, or m-dash based on the spacing you use when writing. Many people don’t know this, and they don’t notice that their dashes are all different lengths. Does this mean they are qualified to be a project planner? I don’t know, but it’s easy for me to say, if you don’t know that your own CV is inconsistent, how can you be expected to supervise £multi-million projects.

CV Tips

Other people have their own peccadilloes. The best you can do is try to achieve the maximum content with minimum peculiarity. Here’s a list of 9 things to make your CV stand a better chance of survival:

1. Get the formatting right. Line up bullet points, dates, headings. Weird spacing will get you questioned about skills that have nothing to do with what you can do on the job. And put dates flush against the right margin. The right-aligned tab stop remains a mystery for many CV writers.

2. Insert dates for everything. If you’ve got a gap, explain it in your cover letter. But don’t leave the dates off a job or a degree. Maybe you’re worried they’ll think you’re too old or too young — but at best you’ll look sloppy. At worst, sneaky. That said, I think it can be unnecessary to always add the months. If you apply for a job and started work at the Post Office in 2007, does it matter – at CV review stage, not necessarily interview – whether it was March or October? I’d argue not.

3. Use only a few buzzwords. Yes, buzzwords are typically “bad” for clarity, but you must get past the HR department first, and they’re screening for matches with the words in the job description. Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX), consumer goods industry, certified project manager…whatever it is that matches the requirements, put it in. As I often advise clients – and this coming from someone who hates buzzwords – the client’s prospective or preferred reader is very often not the person who will be the first reader.

4. Choose verbs that mean something. “Assisted,” “Worked on,” “Contributed to” and so on don’t convey much to a prospective employer. Instead, say what you did: “Wrote,” “Designed,” or “Managed.” The more specific, the better. Aim for selling yourself as “owning” or “delivering”, not a nuanced or could-be-interpreted-as “was just there”.

5. Adjust your CV for each job application. If you really want a job, your prospective employer isn’t going to be impressed by your inability to adjust one 3-page document to meet their needs. Highlight the top 3 to 7 things you’ve done that match the requirements of the job. If you find it impossible to do that, you need to ask: should I be applying for this at all. It’s what I call aspirational versus realistic.

6. State career objectives or outside interests — but be very careful. Do you know that they’re looking for a “motivated team player who wants to excel in international fashion and likes skiing?” Great, put that in. Otherwise, save the non-job stuff for the cover letter. Or preferably the interview.

7. The further into your past, the less detail you should have. Don’t have 13 bullets on a job from 10 years ago.

8. Keep it short. A 5-page CV may, at a stretch, be justified in certain sectors – often something woolly but where other like-minded people have time to waste: the most obvious example of this that I’ve worked on is governmental policy research, a veritable minefield of waffle. You’ve got to make it clear through headings and organisation why you need so much space. If you’ve got a list of publications or industry conferences you’ve spoken at, great, but put it at the end as a separate section. Consider the CV of a CEO. He doesn’t need to say that he “attended meetings, assigned work” and whatever other tasks. He ran a company. One line.

9. No typos. Your CV is like the toilet a restaurant — it’s the one room everyone sees. And if you can’t keep that clean, what’s it like in the kitchen?

Get it right and you’ll never guarantee you’ll be on the shortlist pile but you have a much better chance. Get it wrong and you’ll be on the other pile – of rubbish on the floor.

Written by

Nigel Benson is a professional career sector specialist with over 12 years' experience writing executive level CVs and expertise in recruitment, job interviews and training.

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