Writing a great CV

One of the most frequent conversations Prism has with candidates is around CV advice and feedback and it is clearly a very vexing topic. This is not helped of course by the sheer weight of information and diverse advice available from multiple sources. If you ask five different recruiters, you’ll probably end up with five different views!  Even paying for CV help or outplacement/career coaching firms is no guarantee of a good result and at Prism, we’ve seen some shocking examples of wasted money.

You may think writing a CV is straightforward, but mediocre CVs are the norm and don’t do an applicant justice.

Perhaps there’s too much advice, so many applicants find it very difficult to see the wood for the trees.

The key to writing a good CV is to understand how candidates are selected for an interview, either by an executive search consultant or an employer. A useful approach is to put yourself in the position of someone reviewing your CV.

Always remember that the primary purpose of a CV is the get you an interview.

Contents

Apply the Seven Second Rule to your CV

Can someone favourably assess your relevant experience, career history, qualifications and strengths within seven seconds of opening it?

Some CV reviewers make an initial decision very quickly and research suggests this can be seven seconds.

That sounds appalling, disrespectful and probably confirms your worst fears but alas people are very, very time-pressured. The line manager is struggling to review some CVs between client meetings; the recruiter (internal OR external) may have 30 minutes to review 50 (80? 100?) advertisement, applicants. However, when as many as 95% of candidates don’t meet the “essential” applicant criteria, CV reviewers may feel they have little choice but to be brutal.

At Prism, in a busy week, a consultant can be receiving 400 CVs or more.

For better or worse, a decision is made very quickly whether to consider a candidate based on a swift initial review of their CV. The assessor will not read every word in this scan, or indeed ever. They might have hundreds of applicants’ CVs to consider. It is therefore important to keep this in mind and to present information in an effective and accessible way.

The Seven Second basics

We will expand on the specifics of what to put in your CV in a later section, but the overall format should be driven by the need to present yourself effectively and make a good impact so that you don’t fall at the first hurdle:

1) The CV should definitely be under four pages. Ideally between two and three.

2) Avoid poor format, tiny font size, confusing layout, big blocks of dense text or, conversely, overuse of bullet points.

3) Ensure there are job-relevant keywords and phrases placed to catch the eye (but not in bold or capitals). Assume a human will read your CV, but be aware that this might not be the case, and that software may be used which looks for certain keywords.

4) Employers, dates, roles and whether your past consulting roles were contract or perm need to be crystal clear. Unknown firm? Explain what they do. Avoid anything confusing: concurrent roles? A gap? Weird or unhelpful job titles? DON’T fib but make it simpler if possible.

5) The last five to seven years of your CV will be critical in determining whether you get to the next stage. Is it easy to see what jobs you have held and why you are suitable? If the role requires sales experience does this stand out? Similarly, if leadership is essential does the CV say you have led people, and how many? If depth in transforming customer service in banking is needed is that clear?

6) Do not assume your persuasive cover letter will be read: it certainly won’t be if you fail the Seven Second CV test. All relevant information must be on the CV.

7) For the same reason don’t put key information in densely packed “summary” or “introduction” sections of your CV. The reviewer will want to easily see what you’ve done and when and will immediately look at the Employment History section. Therefore all key information needs to be here. Other parts of your CV may never be read.

8) Typos? Check, check, and check again. Do not rely on spell-check. It may not alert you to misuse of form and from, or Principal and Principle, formally and formerly. If possible, ask someone else to read it: a fresh pair of eyes can often help. NB Word by default doesn’t check capitals, as often used in section headings!

9) Don’t forget LinkedIn:  most people WILL look you up on LinkedIn if they are potentially interested in you and will make up their mind one way or the other depending on what they find. In particular, it must be broadly similar to your CV!

How long should a CV be?

There is a lot of nonsense on the internet about CV length.  We know from experience that there are strongly held opinions but that it’s probably a minority of applicants who get it right. We canvassed colleagues recently regarding their CV “hobby horses” and overlong CVs were towards the top of the list. The worst we have seen recently was 30 pages!

Self-evidently an applicant needs to include enough information to demonstrate both their relevant experience and their background and career. Too short and vital information might be omitted: too long and such information will be hard to spot and the reviewer may not even try. Keep in mind the Seven Second rule and the objective of making a good first impression.

What does a long CV tell the reader about the candidate?

CV length is sometimes seen as a clue to the character and long CVs can be thought to indicate a verbose candidate or one who lacks emotional intelligence. Certainly, such a CV makes it much more difficult for the reviewer to pick out the key points amongst a mass of other information.

In the US CVs are very short. However, in other countries, excruciating detail seems to be the norm so it’s important to factor in the prevailing preferences where you reside.

It also partly depends on where you are in your career. In the first few years, one or two pages should suffice.

Also important is what sort of career you’re in. In mainstream line roles even people far on in their careers might be fine with two pages, or at most three.

For management consultants or people in project-based and /or client-facing roles it is acceptable, indeed essential, to have slightly longer CVs to enable the reader to get the measure of your experience. This needs to enable the reviewer to assess clients, projects and capabilities. Project examples are essential: indeed a chronology of some recent assignments can be an excellent idea.

The “Goldilocks CV”: not too little, not too much!

Report writing skills and the ability to make an impression on time-poor board members are rather important in management consultants! So listing assignments is not an invitation to copy and paste every project you’ve ever done.

Often problems arise because a candidate updates a CV with the latest job or assignment but fails to edit earlier roles and projects so the CV gets longer and longer.

Sometimes an applicant seems to view the CV as a definitive statement of everything they have ever done. There may be a place for such a document but this is not in a job application.

Occasionally I’ve seen a CV where it’s apparent that the person has pasted their job description!

The perfect length

For experienced consultants a CV length of two pages might be too short, three pages is probably spot on and four pages are just about OK. No longer, as more than 3 pages can be daunting to the reader.

CV Visual layout – the basics

  • Avoid large blocks of text
  • Make sure your style and content is readable by use of bullet points or short paragraphs
  • Avoid acronyms as these can confuse and annoy the reader
  • Ensure your font is consistent throughout the document. It is surprising how often CVs contain multiple fonts. Many candidates update an old CV to include the latest employer without reviewing the previous version and checking the font. This can be a factor in over-long CVs.
  • Use a modern font such as Arial or Calibri but perhaps not Times New Roman or anything quirky
  • Company logos and complicated boxes or creative layout often get lost or stripped out when a CV is uploaded to a recruitment system. In extreme cases, they can render the CV impossible to read, so Prism doesn’t advise including these.

Content of the CV

1. Name, contact details and introduction

Keep this simple, with a telephone number, email address and approximate location. If you think your location may be negative with a recruiter (if you are not within commuting distance of the job you’ve applied for, for example), leave it off. That, in turn, may raise a question mark but allows you a foot in the door in order to enable you to explain your flexibility.

2. Career Summary

Include a ‘Career Summary’ or key skills at the front of the CV if you wish but limit this to a maximum of 25-30% of the page.  The career summary is common on a CV but a note of caution: don’t assume people will read it, so don’t include anything in this section which is not readily viewable in the rest of the CV. It is a myth that recruiters first read the career summary. Some might, but it is seen as primarily a ‘marketing’ section and unlike a candidate’s career as seen in “employment history” there is less consistent presentation across applicants.

3. Employment history

This is the meat of the CV.  The layout is important to make the key information stand out. List jobs in reverse chronological order. Where you have had multiple roles with the same employer use an overall heading/dates then, below, your jobs within that employer also with dates which will show career progression. If the employer is not well known or is a niche in focus, then a short one or two-line introduction to the company should be included.

For each job a summary to clarify the role is helpful as job titles are not consistent across different employers. A short paragraph will suffice.

Add several key achievements in each job, ideally in bullet point format.

Also, list key projects/clients/assignments:

  • major clients you have worked on: you don’t need to name them but do need to describe them.
  • the nature of the role or assignment and results delivered
  • your role on the project

A maximum of 4 -6 lines on each project and a maximum of about 6 projects per role.

Try and avoid overlapping dates if at all possible as this can be very confusing for the reader.  Also, make sure you check your dates: errors make a bad impression and could be viewed with suspicion.

Make sure past roles are in the past tense.

4. Balance of information- how much to include

Your most recent employer and jobs should take up most space on your CV because your recent career is of most interest to a prospective employer.  As a rough rule of thumb, the most recent third of your career should account for up to two-thirds of the employment section. For the more experienced candidate, be aware that much detail of experience and roles more than 10-12 years ago is of limited relevance to a CV reviewer. If you find you are producing a CV which is much longer than 3 pages it may be that you are updating an old CV by adding on more recent jobs, but not reducing the amount of information on earlier roles. Don’t forget to review and edit the information on your early career.

The guidelines in the “employment history” section above will only be relevant for the most recent roles as otherwise, the CV would become very long indeed!

Subject to the observation re-tailoring, below, ensure that each job section broadly reflects the balance of your time in the role: if 30% of a job is concerned with business development and sales then that should be reflected on the CV

5. Academic and other qualifications

When they are good, put them in, if not, don’t! Always include tertiary and major work-related qualifications, especially if you are aware they are sought after skills. If you have a 1st or 2.1 degrees, say so!

If you are concerned that recruiters may be deterred by your age, remove degree dates and qualifications (and also consider omitting jobs before a certain period: a CV must be truthful but there is no obligation to list every single role). The Equality Acts, of course, make it unlawful for employers to discriminate against job applicants because of age but it would be naïve to pretend it doesn’t happen, so make it difficult for people to do so!

6. Interim and freelance work

Make clear any roles which are interim or there is a danger someone will misconstrue this as “job-hopping”. If you run your own business as a freelancer you should list assignments under an overall header which makes clear you are self-employed.

7. Career Gaps

A CV should not be inaccurate or misleading but that doesn’t mean you have to draw the reader’s attention to gaps if, for example, they reflect a period of job searching following redundancy. A helpful device here might be to use whole years rather than months when listing employment dates so gaps of a few months are less obvious. Also if you have recently left a job don’t be tempted to leave your CV stating “20xx to date”. When an employer/recruiter finds out at best they will think you are sloppy and at worst that you were trying to mislead them. In any event, being available for interview and employment at short notice can be an advantage so it’s best to be open.

8. Tailoring your CV

It is sensible to tailor your CV to specific job applications by for example mentioning and highlighting specific projects, skills and experience. This should be in your recent jobs and any introductory or summary sections. It is however both wrong and unwise to exaggerate or misrepresent your experience.

9. Extra-curricular: hobbies, interests, family…

This is not essential but if included should be short. It is surprising, perhaps, how often an employer picks up on this section of a CV.  It can have real value but the key consideration is unambiguous: “does this information make me more or less attractive to an employer?”  Therefore only include points that may enhance your employability:  obvious examples might include team sports, significant achievements, school governor etc. Unusual is probably fine:  quirky is not! Best steer clear of anything too solitary.  Perhaps also avoid “dad/mum to two fantastic kids” and anything similarly cheesy/bragging.

The relevance of keywords in your CV

Increasingly employers and some recruiters are using their applicant management systems to screen applicants for suitability based on keywords and phrases.

This sounds daunting but needn’t be because a human being does the same thing!

Make sure that your CV contains the skills the job requires ideally by ensuring that the specific words and phrases are clear and obvious in the CV. Some repetition is fine if it is logical and natural but stuffing the CV with keywords is definitely not a good idea. A sophisticated system might spot it and even if it doesn’t the human who reads your CV will smell a rat!

This is a big topic in its own right and how you can use keywords effectively and their importance to your job search is explained in our blog ‘Why Keywords are crucial for your job search’ and looks at their relevance for CVs, Linkedin and job boards.

Pitfalls to avoid and common errors

  • Management consultancy CVs sometimes pull out projects and put these in a separate section, but Prism doesn’t advise this approach. Recruiters want to know when the experience was gained and this presentation does not provide that information.
  • Don’t list too many ‘Key Skills’. Any more than 5 are just ‘skills’!
  • Use spell check (it’s surprising how many people don’t) but also always proofread several times as spell check can’t always be trusted. Common errors that get past spell-check are “form” and “from”, “Principle” and “Principal”, “formerly” and “formally”. Ideally, get someone else to do so too: it’s easy to become word blind on a document you have read many times. If you make mistakes employers will assume you lack attention to detail and are careless. If you can’t get your CV right you won’t get a client report right.  Beware capitals: spell check often ignores capitalised words.
  • Your CV should be consistent with your LinkedIn profile (dates, job titles etc.) as invariably the latter WILL be looked at. But the CV can be tailored and LinkedIn shouldn’t just be an online version of your CV.

Accuracy and honesty in your CV

Management consulting job candidates should ensure that their CVs are accurate. Lying on a CV is not uncommon and the only plausible explanation is that people believe it doesn’t really matter and is generally acceptable. It is important to appreciate that it is actually a fraud, a criminal offence. More specifically “dishonestly making false representation to make gain”.

In some case perhaps the gamble is getting away with it:

  1. Lots of employers and recruiters have databases that go back for many years.
  2. People have long memories and it’s a small world
  3. Some reference checking is two recent employers, but much is a LOT more searching
  4. It is illegal: as well as being fired an employee could be sued for breach of contract, misrepresentation and fraud.
  5. If a CV is different from LinkedIn that can be a red flag to an employer. Also, if a candidate has no LinkedIn profile or a very edited one that is almost always a concern too

So unlikely to be worth the risk

The CV is of course a marketing document. It is entirely acceptable to present oneself in the best light. It is sensible to highlight one’s positive characteristics and experience and avoid drawing attention to less helpful aspects. To alter dates or fabricate employment experience is a bad idea. Everything on your CV should bear detailed scrutiny either during interview or reference checking.

You should put time and effort into optimising your CV to ensure it showcases your skills and experience and is tailored to the roles for which you are applying ….. without the need to fabricate!

We have more articles on our website to help with your job search and advice on preparing for an interview and answering classic interview questions.

Subscribe to our blog

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.