The Cardinal Rules of CV Writing

Published: 8 November 2011

As a hardened CV reader I am often asked by job seekers what is the ideal format for a CV.  It will be quite clear to any recruiter that there is no such thing as a standard format for a CV and in any recruitment campaign a wide variety of CV formats with a great disparity of style and content will be submitted for scrutiny. 

To complicate things further, each market sector has its own preferences on the level of detail required.  CVs within academia will frequently run to tens of pages and list publications or research the writer has been involved in.  By contrast, your average commercial CV will be lighter in detail, limited to two or three pages, and would probably be deemed inadequate to the public sector hiring manager. 

There’s also the great debate about chronological vs functional or skills CVs.  Chronological CVs detail where you did what on a timeline usually starting with the most recent role.  Functional or skills CVs focus on the skills you have picked up over the course of your career – leadership, budgetary management, change management, etc – with only scant mention of where and when you employed these skills.  Each has its merits and different headhunters will have a preference for one or the other. 

However, it is becoming clear that there are a few cardinal rules that can be followed to ensure your CV is not immediately consigned to the filing tray under the desk.  Whilst some recruiters will argue for and against a particular CV format, the majority would wholeheartedly agree that the following list of CV gaffes are to be avoided no matter which role you are applying for.

Unnecessary personal details

In an effort to be open and obliging, job seekers often include more information about themselves than necessary.  Historically, it was certainly more commonplace to detail date of birth, marital status and more.  Nowadays, the only essential details are full name and contact information (including phone number, mobile, email and home address).  Do ensure, however, that you use a sensible, professional sounding email address rather than the comedy variety.  It is difficult to take ‘gazza’ or ‘littlemissmuffet’ seriously. 

Information about your family or home ownership are superfluous – certainly the maxim ‘less is more’ should have been applied to one recent CV which detailed the age, height and weight of all the job seeker’s children!   

On a serious note, however, age, race, religion, gender, sexual orientation or political affiliation should be avoided on a CV.  As well as being unnecessary, there is the potential that such information could leave the job seeker open to discrimination. If the hiring manager wants to know more they will need to ask.  The only exception to this is if divulging certain information is likely to help your application, as it is a specific desirable characteristic. 

The Dodgy Photograph

Please, please, please don’t do it!  There is definitely something slightly dubious about the inclusion of a photograph on a CV.  It seems to be offputting to even the most hardened recruiter.  Just remember, the objective of your CV is to sell your experience and skills, not your looks, so unless a photograph is requested leave it off.  You’re giving a prospective employer another (and inappropriate) means by which to judge you before even meeting you – and let’s face it who looks like their photograph anyway.  Allow your experience to speak for itself.

Irrelevant interests and pre-career jobs

The fact that you were president of the junior debating society at school, spent your gap year on a kibbutz, or are a regular attender at your local church may be fascinating to you, but will not advance you in your career search.  Unless you are a new graduate trying to find your first job, curtail your career history to your last 10-12 years of professional experience.  Detail any earlier experience as a one line summary with dates.

Salary Expectations

Why give a prospective employer another reason to reject you on paper?  Despite the fact that it’s difficult to discuss salary, this really is a subject best covered at interview.  Once committed to paper, salary seems to take on disproportionate importance in the hiring process.  If your salary is too low in relation to the role in question, the hiring manager is likely to reject you as too inexperienced – if too high, then you’ll be judged either overqualified or overpaid and it will be assumed that you are unlikely to take a drop.  At least face to face you will have the opportunity to discuss this properly and both sides can voice their views and feelings about salary in relation to the role.

Overuse of underlining, bold, CAPITALS and artistic fonts

Whilst the careful use of the bold key can highlight important points on a CV, the overuse of artistic fonts, underlining, capitals and diagrams can be annoying and will make a CV harder to read.  Hiring managers and headhunters know what they are looking for and don’t need a vast array ‘signposts’ to see their way to the information.  Keep signposting simple and your CV clear of clutter.

Lies, fabrication and gap filling

Statistics suggest that up to 50% of job applicants will ‘gild the lily’ on their CV, with around 10% overtly fabricating parts of their career history.  Common areas of fabrication include inflating the grade of a degree, or elevating your alma mater from Poly to University.  More flagrant stretching of the truth can include covering a gap in the CV or leaving off an unsuccessful period of employment.

However, with around 50% of employers saying that they would drop like a stone any candidate found lying about their career highlights, is it worth it?  These days, verifying qualifications and Googling a candidate’s background is absolutely ‘de rigueur’ and extremely easy.  Many organisations go one stage further and undertake full background checks.  When most headhunters are savvy enough to realise everyone is likely to have at least one skeleton in the cupboard, why try to lie about it? It is best to be open and represent yourself as candidly as you can even if you think the chances of discovery are low.

Reasons for leaving

Again, it’s all about representing yourself in the best possible light, so leave ‘reasons for leaving’ off the CV.  One recent CV detailed ‘long office hours’ as a reason for leaving an employer.  Whilst the long hours culture may have been difficult to live with, this admission is only going to say ‘shirker’ to any prospective employer.  It is likely that a reason for leaving will be covered in interview, but at least face to face this can be more sensitively handled and explained.  Don’t lie, but why rule yourself out at CV sifting stage by being unnecessarily candid. 

Management speak and jargon

Avoid acronyms and jargon associated with your sector.  It makes the CV hard to read and inaccessible to some hiring managers who may not be au fait with the technical aspects of the role you have fulfilled.  Keep statements punchy and short, and avoid the use of the first or third person.  The idea is to keep your audience interested and wanting more, rather than getting them lost in a sea of information they don’t need.  And finally, remember to run the spell checker.  There is nothing more disappointing than poor spelling and grammar in an otherwise good CV.

Mel Donkin - Head of Resourcing

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