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How to Make Your CV Work for You

By Paul Phipps

The perfect CV is an elusive beast; with conflicting ideas of how it is best achieved, what to include or omit, which format and layout or even whether to include all jobs.  If you asked ten recruiters or HR Managers how to write the perfect CV, you may well get eleven answers.  What follows is merely my opinion and I hope it helps.

The CV has been around for many years and there are people out there that consider it to be an outdated medium in a digital age.  In an environment where bright-shiny-moving-things seem to be the only way to grab someone’s attention, how can you make the humble CV work for you?

Whether you are sending a paper or electronic copy, the same guidelines should apply.  The only thing that I would specifically say about a paper copy is to use a good quality paper and set the printer to high quality print.  In either case, the fundamental thing to remember is that your CV should be easy to read, which sounds obvious, but is easily overlooked in preference to a style that is too busy and lacks professionalism.

How do you make your CV easy to read?

The person reading your CV shouldn’t have to search around for basic information.  Your personal and contact details should be at the top with a concise profile below, followed by education and qualifications, then specialist skills such as sector specific computer packages and then the employment history.

As recruiters, we lay out CVs in our own format on our branded page and because we are an agency, we remove contact information, for obvious reasons.  I always lay out education and employment with the most recent first because it is probably the most relevant and it reads more naturally.

First or third person?

One of the perennial debates around CV writing is whether to use first or third person and there is sound reasoning on both sides.  Traditionally, it has always been third person, and this is the camp, within which, I personally sit.  Yes, it may seem an unnatural and more difficult way to write, but in my opinion, using ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘myself’ several times in a sentence can come across as too self-centred.

First person is fine for some things, such as blogs, personal and professional correspondence and fiction, but the CV is a medium for succinctly portraying information about your working life and for that purpose, third person seems more appropriate.

Should I extend the time in jobs to lose gaps?

The short answer is no – honesty is the best policy – and the truth has a habit of coming out.  In the information age it is extremely easy to check and if it comes to light that there was, in fact, a four-month gap not shown on your CV, you will lose the trust of a recruiter, HR Manager or prospective employer.  It’s worth remembering that within sectors, people speak to people and if you are relying on a reference from a previous employer, they are unlikely to confirm the dates you have given if they don’t match their records.

Should I capitalise ‘important’ words?

One of my pet hates is the capitalisation of words that are not proper nouns.  We recruit accountants for accountancy practices using job titles like Accountant, Auditor and Bookkeeper.  Notice that only the specific job title is capitalised.  The ‘Audit Manager’ has capitals, on the other hand, ‘audit managers’, does not.

In our sector, people often capitalise words like; bookkeeping, accounts and audit, which is clearly a deviation from English grammar rules and should be avoided.  If you are unsure, google it using Google.  Just because a word seems important, it doesn’t mean that it should be capitalised.

Should I miss out jobs that are not relevant to the application?

Some people say that a CV should be adjusted for each application and this could include omitting ‘irrelevant’ jobs.  I don’t agree.  A prospective employer wants to see relevant experience, but it gives a more rounded view if they can see your full employment history.  It can often work in your favour, especially if it shows that you are willing to work hard in lower level jobs to achieve your goals.

Should I use bullet points to list duties and responsibilities within a role?

Yes, it’s clear and much easier to read quickly, especially when the points are short and concise, as in the following:

  • Don’t use paragraphs to explain duties performed
  • Keep each point short and concise
  • Bullet points are easy to read quickly
  • Recruiters and hiring managers glaze over if they have to read long paragraphs describing what you did in a role and remember, they have many CVs to read
  • Bulleted lists break up the page making it more aesthetically pleasing

Should I add colour and a photo to my CV?

There is often a desire to make a CV stand out by using different colour text and adding a photo.  In my opinion, using coloured texts looks somewhat unprofessional and generally adds nothing to the content and can even detract from it.  In short, it’s style over content.

Photos are problematic and can potentially lead to various forms of discrimination and unless you are applying for a modelling job, your appearance should be irrelevant.

What are the common mistakes found on CVs?

Apart from those already discussed, one of the most common mistakes is when people just tack on to an existing CV without reviewing and editing.  Your current position should be written in the present tense, but previous roles should be written in the past tense.

How can you say that you are carrying out this or that duty, when that role ended three years ago, surely, that duty was carried out?  Therefore, you should ensure that past roles are written in the past tense because it appears lazy to leave them in the present.  Following on from that, you should also ensure that the entire CV is in the same font size and style because it suggests a lack of attention to detail.

That leads me on to another of my ‘favourite’ mistakes.  This is when people say that they have an ‘acute attention to detail’ only to have a CV full of spelling mistakes, grammatical errors and dates that don’t add up.  Here’s the thing; those red and blue lines under words in a Word document are trying to tell you something.

Your CV is a selling tool and it should represent you in the best possible light, but that doesn’t mean that being dishonest or disingenuous is okay.  If you bought a car that was advertised as giving 50 miles per gallon of fuel, but it only gave 25, you would feel somewhat disgruntled, and rightly so.  Therefore, exaggerating your abilities and skills isn’t okay and will often come to light eventually and this helps no one, especially you, if you lose your job because you can’t do what you claimed that you could do.

How long should my CV be?

This is a tricky one because it varies from person to person and there is no correct length, but what you must consider is, does every word earn its keep or is there enough information?  Depending upon the length of your working life, two or three sides of A4 is a fair gauge as an average.

You may have heard that it should be a single page, but this is an unreasonable suggestion.  The only time that a one-page CV is appropriate is for a school leaver and to condense a longer CV to one page will make it cluttered and difficult to read.  If your CV is more than four pages, you should consider some editing, making shorter sentences and removing unnecessary detail.

Layout can also help here.  Make good use of the page by not having role details on multiple lines.  Our house style puts the company name, job title and dates on one line using the tab key and space bar to space neatly and made bold for definition.  For example:

123 Accountancy Ltd                                            Accounts Senior                              May 2015 – August 2017

Responsibilities included:

  • Preparation of statutory accounts

If you have a long CV and are considering making the font smaller, be aware that it can become difficult to read and look cluttered.  I use 11-point text and wouldn’t recommend going below 10-point.  Try to avoid squashing text too closely, it’s good to have some white space especially between sections and roles.  Changing the margins can help and I often do this to avoid a single bullet point dropping to the next page.  In Word click: Layout > Margins > Custom Margins and set accordingly.

I started this blog by suggesting that there are no hard and fast rules along with a multitude of varying opinions, however, there are some basic conventions that are important.  Telling the truth is uppermost and demonstrating the ability to do the job that you are applying for is essential.  Keep your explanations of duties as concise as possible and avoid irrelevant information and overly wordy paragraphs.  Make the layout clear and easy to read and most of all, put yourself in the position of the person reading it, bearing in mind that your CV will be one of many, maybe hundreds, that a recruiter, hiring manager or employer will be reading.

I hope that this has been useful, and we wish you luck in your job search.

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