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CV Writing Tips

I'm not claiming to be an expert on this, but I've been on both sides of the fence when it comes to recruitment and I think I've learnt a thing or two about 'effective' CV writing. I'm not going to mention all the 'usual' ones like checking spelling, grammar, staying in the 2 page limit etc, so these are (as far as I know) genuinely new tips that I've learned and applied by trial and error myself over the years.

Tip 1: Managers hate recruiting

Yes, recruiting has to be the most disliked roles of any manager. And that unfortunately means they hate looking at CVs. So effectively it stands to reason that most people will approach your CV with negativity more often than not and indifference at best.

So the correct strategy for CV writing is critical. Tip 2 counteracts a common fallacy:

Tip 2: A CV is NOT a document

Gasp! And here I was thinking that it is an chronological historical record of all my skills and achievements: where I've been and what I've done. Sorry to disappoint, but if that's your CV, you are missing a trick. To put it bluntly a CV in its modern incarnation is an advertisement, a poster.

In an age of short attention spans and shallow sound-bites it is a way of marketing yourself, grabbing attention, generating interest - and hopefully getting your foot in the door for that all-important interview.

My point is that nobody 'reads' a CV. At least initially, most CVs are scanned with all the care and attention of a commuter reading a billboard as he drives to work.

Tip 3: Have a marketing plan

Let's run with the poster/advert metaphor.

You're the product. What do you do? What is your core message/skill/experience? What makes you better than the other 'products' out there?

Plan the layout and 'look' of the CV, what it says about you and how it says it. You only have one page in which to make your impact so hone that message down to the optimum. Remove any and all materials which dilute or detract from your marketing plan.

What? Only one page? Isn't a CV 2 pages? Well no, if they are not impressed by page 1, page 2 may never even be seen! So page 1 really is a poster.

Tip 4: Stand out, don't stick out

Don't take the poster/advertisement metaphor too far!

Make you CV memorable for what's in it, not for what it looks like.

Be clear, factual and concise. Leave nothing to assumption or imaginationl but don't ramble (remember CV's are scanned, not read). Use a clear font. Don't use colours and definitely no pictures. The pictures in this poster need to be painted with words, layout, and clever use of bold, italics and block capitals.

Tip 5: Don't write sentences unless you must

Advertisements don't generally have sentences - neither should your CV.

Use short bullet points and sentence fragments. Use abbreviations and buzzwords only if you are certain they will mean something to the reader. Embellish with sentences only where it will reinforce the marketing plan by clarifying a point. If a point is not clear and the clarifying sentence dilutes or detracts from your marketing plan, it might be a clue to just get rid of that bullet point.

Managers hate recruiting and hate CVs. So you can bet they'll appreciate a shorter, well-presented CV that summarises all they want to know about you without having to tax their brains by reading it too carefully!

Tip 6: Order you CV appropriately

This is where things get a bit less clear-cut. How you lay out your CV depends on your past career, the role being applied for, and your own marketing plan. No successful advertisement consigns a positive point to the small print. So good stuff goes on page 1, as close to the top as possible.

Are you applying for more of the same? - then experience will count, so that goes first. If you are changing career or taking on a new path then relevant or transferable past skills, training or knowledge need to be presented first. In my line of work the technology I am competent in is crucial so that goes first. I follow it up with a section on experience because that backs up my use of stated technical skills.

Tip 7: Agency-proof your CV

I used to have a really complex layout which looked fantastic on screen and when printed. I always got contacted by agencies but never by end-clients. Why? It took me ages to find out that my agents were inadvertently sabotaging my chances by copy-pasting my CV to remove my contact details before forwarding the CV to the end-client. In the process they were losing essential elements of formatting which completely spoiled what the end-clients saw.

The point is you have to balance the uniqueness and layout of your CV with its ease of maintainability both by yourself and agencies. That means you have to be able to copy and paste all or sections of your CV easily. I now have a less visually-appealing CV, but it is getting picked by end-clients more often than before.

Another thing to bear in mind is that your CV will be entered into an electronic database where it will be indexed for keywords or phrases. If your CV is not structured in a clear logical way with keywords or phrases pertinent to your career path, you may not show up on the search.

Tip 8: Customise you CV - only if you need to

I read this on CV sites from time to time. If you are applying for a permanent position this may be appropriate. If you are a contractor or freelancer it is in my opinion, unrealistic. To do it properly is just too time consuming and unless you spend a great deal of time per customisation you'll end up sending your agency or potential employer a CV that is just not as cohesive as it might have been had you concentrated on just a single core message.

I think it is far better to have a very strong generic CV and then create a brief cover letter to point out your strong points (cherry-picked from the CV) for the position being applied for. (A letter provides the opportunity for you to elaborate and explain why you would be perfect for the role in much more detail than the economy of a CV would allow.)

My final point against CV customisation is that, if you are sending out dozens of CVs you'll soon start to feel the pressure of maintaining all those versions and you'll likely make mistakes.

Tip 9: Don't waste your money on 'professional' CV writers

I might take some flak for this, but here goes. 'Professional' CV writers don't as far as I know, 'write' your CV. They advise YOU on how to write YOUR CV whilst having only a basic grasp of you, your career, your personality and career ambitions. At one low point of my career I sought advice from one of these 'professionals'. I was asked to restructure my CV indicating what each project I did achieved for the company, that is did it earn money, save money, save time etc. It's great if you can actually say your work did any of these. I couldn't and I couldn't help but think they were just following a set formula for CV construction without understanding that some people's careers do not run like that.

I spend a great deal of time delivering intangible value to my clients which in turn allow them to achieve tangible results - many of which I'm not aware of. The fact that I have been engaged to work for a client for a period of time on a project that they have chosen to spend time and money on, proves that for them at least there is a tangible benefit to the project. I don't attempt to explain what those are in my CV. Sometimes its obvious, sometimes not.

Tip 10: A CV is never 'finished'

This is one I've learnt over the years. A CV is a work in continuous progress, under continuous look and feel and content review. The marketing plan must change to reflect your own skill changes and changes in aspiration. People with permanent jobs will change their CV less often but I think you should always have an up-to-date CV. You never know when you might be head-hunted.

My own CV is constantly being tweaked in layout and content. Sometimes the feedback is immediately positive or negative. Sometimes I have to wait until I get the sense it works or needs to be changed or reverted from whether or not I get interviewed and the interview itself. It basically is a process of trial and error.

Edit: 02 Jan 2012

I've just been reading this post again...realising I have now broken Tip 4 on my own CV: I now use colour and images although in a limited way. I use blue to make keywords stand out, and have my Microsoft certification logos in the header. I think the basic point stands though.

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