How compelling is your CV?

Published: 14 August 2014

The recent Guardian blog about how students are using thesaurus apps to disguise plagiarism with hilarious consequences brought to mind some of the clumsy writing I have come across in candidate CV’s.  Whilst admittedly there have not been any bloopers on the scale described in the blog, it is apparent that the necessarily self-promotional style of CV-writing is not something that comes easily to most of us.  I would hazard a guess that the creation and maintenance of a CV are tasks that are tackled with a feeling of dread.  Most of us go about our work, wanting to do a good job, wanting to be well-regarded but not necessarily analysing the detail of what we achieve;  at least, not on a regular basis. 

The end result is that CV’s are often re-hashed versions of previous, more junior documents or heavy-handed modifications of online templates.  Neither of which tend to be particularly compelling or accurate.  In an attempt to sound un-endingly upbeat and dynamic, they are crammed with bland adjectives that serve to dilute the quality content and threatening the ability of the document to enable its author to stand out amongst their contemporaries.  And this is where the connection with the Guardian article is made; the rush to create something eclipses the authenticity of what is produced. 

But enough of the negativity.  Whilst I often (frustratingly) see the sort of CV detailed above, I also come across some very considered, beautifully written documents.  Rather than maintain a diatribe on what is bad, allow me to outline some thoughts on CV development. 

The “summary” or “profile” paragraph

Even though it is effectively your opening gambit, this part of the CV is often a prize contender for use of bland adjectives.  For many CV-writers, the natural reaction appears to be to list a range of supposedly desirable personality traits (eg; self-starting, ambitious, diligent, commercial, empathetic) despite the fact that most of them are completely subjective.  A quick straw pole with colleagues in the office revealed that when there is a hyperbolic opening paragraph on a CV, we tend not to assimilate it very well.  Instead, we read the words and then quickly move on to find more evidence based elements within the document. 

So what are we looking for?  It’s quite simple really; a couple of sentences that impart the essence of your professional capabilities.  For example; “An MBA qualified, general management professional with significant experience of business turnaround in the private health sector. Has operated at Board level and held full P&L responsibility across a range of business activities.” 

Role descriptions

I can honestly say that I have never encountered a situation when a skills-based CV has been the best way for a candidate to present their credentials.  Therefore, my advice would always be to present information in reverse chronological order.  Most of the time, I can easily research the organisation that you work for.  What I want to know about is your personal role and responsibilities.  I need to understand the scale and influence.  What was the budget?  How many staff?  Who did you report into? Who was your peer group?  Similarly, I will be looking at the amount of time that you have spent in a role, so if it is a piece of short term consultancy then make that clear.  Finally and most importantly; what did you achieve?  The detail of what you actually delivered, in measurable terms is what really matters. 

The tone of this content should of course be up-beat and there is little point in hiding your light under a bushel in terms of awards, prizes and presentations.  But, exercise caution with regard to over-ebullient language.  As in the opening paragraph, too many enthusiastic adjectives can make the content seem a little trite and detract from actual achievements. 

Too fluffy?

There is a need for detail with reference to your professional achievements (see above), but the rest of the CV benefits from fairly conservative rationing of words.  Naturally the inclusion of qualifications is important, as is any training that might be pertinent to the role itself.  But a long list of every course you have ever taken? No.  Humorous accounts of your extra-curricular hobbies are also a big “no.” Unless they are particularly interesting such as performing Olympic level sports, or something that has particular social value such as being a School Governor.  Photographs are not recommended.  Neither are zany fonts.  The aim is to produce a professional and concise document and it is best to not allow a sudden burst of creative zeal to compromise this. 

The last word

You may wish to disregard everything written above.  At the end of the day, a CV is a highly personal document  and these aren’t rules; they are guidelines.  But, there is one thing that must never be disregarded; the need to check, check and recheck.  Spelling mistakes, grammatical errors and formatting glitches speak volumes about an individual’s ability to manage detail and effectively communicate.  All of the hyperbole in the world will not take away the doubt that is invited by mistakes so overlook editing at your peril!

Elizabeth James is a Consultant in the Education practice at Berwick Partners

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