Career advice

How not to write your curriculum vitae

One of our Michael Page Technology recruiters gives advice on what to include, and more importantly what to exclude, when you’re writing your CV.
 
‘‘I am a visionary, strategically minded customer replenishment executive.’’ TRANSLATION FROM EARLY 21ST CENTURY CV META-LANGUAGE = SHELF STACKER
 
As you can imagine from nearly two decades worth of CVs crossing my desk, I’ve seen an awful lot of nonsense written in the name of ‘selling myself’. Sadly, despite what you might expect, the number of genuinely hilarious ones I have received can be counted on one hand, and in most cases these are of questionable provenance. Only the one I received from a Russian ‘security professional’ who believed that his chances of employment as a local government accountant were to be enhanced by writing, ‘I am not afraid to die for my employer’ was just too damned odd not to have been created by a bored recruitment consultant with more wit than active roles to recruit.
 
That said, the number of poorly constructed, spelled or conceived CVs must run to the tens of thousands, and the most alarming thing is that they are getting worse.
 
If you lie on your CV, can’t be bothered to use a spell-checker or decided to use your personal email address of studmuffin @hotstuffmail.com, you don’t deserve to get your dream job, and are likely to remain a government statistic. However the reality is that most candidates' CV errors are not this elementary, and are normally misconceived attempts to ‘stand out’, which actually results in being sifted out.
 
The first of these is undoubtedly the result of perceptions of modern recruitment practice. Many candidates, particularly in technical disciplines like engineering or IT, assume that all companies and recruiters rely entirely on ‘parsing’ technology and don’t actually read the CV. This results in vast lists of every process or package they’ve ever worked with, trained on, heard of or read on the job spec. This does the candidate no favours, especially when that CV hits an in-house HR manager looking to assess candidates on ‘softer’ skills and competencies. The candidates just don’t get hired.
 
The next self-defeating attempt at selling yourself is the candidate photograph. If you are blessed with Jude Law/Natalie Portman looks and are working in a selling/account management/marketing role requiring face to face contact, this will not actively harm your application. However, in my experience, IT, finance, HR and the vast majority of professional jobs go to the person with the best looking CV, not picture. When this is added to the fact that people with model and movie star looks end up as models and movie stars, it does mean that in the majority of cases, most professional people at best are going to look ‘ordinary’. If this was the impression you look to achieve then get yourself down to ‘Photo-me’. If not, keep your picture, 80s haircut and ‘should have gone to Specsavers’ frames off your CV. They can be a nice surprise for the interview.
 
Most CVs are too long. HR and recruitment professionals are busy people, and hence your CV needs to reflect all of your selling points and nothing else. But what to chop out? You might get the advice to chop out the hobbies or early jobs on the CV, both of which might have merit. That said, personally I like to get the full picture, and a few (non-embarassing) hobbies to break the ice at interview and a summary of early jobs to provide context does no harm. The thing to cut out is the waffley ‘boasting box’ favoured by at least 50% of candidates at the start of their CV. God alone knows how this first started to happen and even more mysterious is why it still proliferates, but there are no good reasons to do it and lots not to. These are my top five reasons NOT to write an (always irritatingly italicised) executive summary:-
 
1. It is normally a total fabrication and hence will catch you out when a bored MD who hasn’t read the rest of the CV says, ‘I note Mr Smith you describe yourself as assertive, strategically minded and ambitious. How will that help you fry chips?’
 
2. It is normally just a list of management buzz words which will tell the client nothing apart from that you read ‘Who moved my fromage frais?’ eight years ago.
 
3. It takes up space where you could be drawing attention to your genuine skill set, tailored to the job at hand. Whatever happened to the covering letter?
 
4. No-one ever reads them. I really, really promise, that apart from the unlucky scenarios described above, NO-ONE EVER READS THEM. Not even the clever parsing technology used by recruitment companies can read adjectives!
 
5. People are so keen to include all the ‘right’ words, that all of these things read the same. If you can send me your current CV, with executive summary and it doesn’t contain at least five of the next 10 words or phrases, then I’ll be genuinely impressed.
 
  • Strategic
  • Driven
  • Proven track record of success
  • Business enabling
  • Blue sky thinking
  • Dynamic
  • Diverse 
  • Commercial
  • Thought leadership
  • Vision
Hence, in essence, while a CV needs to include all of your selling points, your cause will also be helped by not including all the irrelevant gumpf which diverts attention away from your core capabilities. The art is as much about what to leave out as what to include.