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Writing an Effective CV; a Brief Guide by Max Barclay :: job hunting advice ::
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Writing an Effective CV; a Brief Guide

Take a Step Back
Structure and Presentation
Make a Start
Important points
Further Reading

Introduction top

I have read a number of "Do It Yourself CV" books over the years, and one thing above all has struck me in the introductory pages. More often than not, the author begins by explaining what a minefield it can be to write your own CV, and goes on to say how much of a shame it is that there are so many so-called experts out there giving bad advice about writing CVs. Then they produce their own book full of their own opinions on the subject.

I'm not going to begin by rubbishing other authors. Indeed, I am grateful for the proliferation of differing opinions on the subject. It has enabled me to come to balanced conclusions about how to write an effective CV. My own opinions are based on what I have read about CV creation, CVs I have written for myself and others, and CVs that have been sent to me as a potential employer.

Instead of my asking you to trawl through many diverse ways to present your CV, it is my intention to give you an idea of what I believe to be a good format for most occasions. It is highly flexible and can be customised to suit the position you want to win. For a more in-depth examination of the structure and content of a CV, I have included a list of books at the end of this article, which I have found to be of use.

Take a Step Back top

The Latin "Curriculum Vitae" means: "The way your life has run". The French "Resume" means "Summary". Start with this in mind. The CV is a summary of YOUR working life, no one else's. Consider carefully what you will include in a CV and how it will look. Most people know roughly what a CV should contain, and that's enough for them. They throw everything they think might be vaguely relevant into it, often using someone else's CV as a guide. Your CV is your first impression. Make it a good one. The person charged with the task of selecting a short list of possible candidates has probably seen every line in the book. "I work well individually and as part of a team" is a very popular line. It has become almost as predictably present on the average CV as the dark lines left by a poor quality photocopy on cheap paper.

If you are responding to a recruitment advert, read it very carefully. Has it been thrown together in a hurry, or is it professionally designed? You can learn a lot about the advertiser by studying their adverts. Make sure you make careful note of exactly how to respond. Some specifically say "no CVs" and instead require an application form to be filled out. Others want your covering letter to be hand written. This will be time well spent, as it is often the case that a candidate is so pleased to find a recruitment advert that suits them that they forget to read the details and rush off a hastily prepared letter and CV, no matter what is required of them.

Find out as much about the company you are applying to as possible. Is this job really for you? The purpose of your CV is primarily to highlight your potential value to the company. It could also be used to provide material for an interview. If you are not confident that the job is right for you, it will be picked up very quickly.

Consider what experience you have that will help you do the job well. I have found that a good and fast way to find out about a company is to visit their web site (if it exists). There is often a wealth of information available, and possibly details about the person you are writing to. It is always helpful to be in possession of more information than you might need, particularly at the interview stage.

When writing, I try to think constantly of what the reader's reaction will be to what I write. Try to sell them what you think they want to buy. This does not mean to say that you should be untruthful; it means that you should tailor your CV to your audience. Make the most of the information relevant to them, but don't over-egg the pudding. If you give yourself more credit than you deserve, it will bite back if you get an interview when you are asked you to elaborate.

Structure and Presentation top

The layout of your CV should be concise, informative and easy to read, printed on good quality paper. If the reader has a pile of CVs to read, they don't want to spend more time than necessary poring through your reams of beautifully written prose. Use short sentences and don't go off at a tangent. Left justify your type (a style otherwise known as "ragged right") and use a serif font. Whichever font you use, decide on a style and stick with it throughout. There is nothing more off-putting than a document filled with different fonts, text sizes and colours.

Avoid gimmicks such as brightly coloured paper, or a CV folded into the shape of an aeroplane. They may provide a few moments of light relief for the reader, but it is generally accepted that it is the content that gets you the job, not your ability to be different. Recruitment is a serious business and should be treated as such. Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule, and the employer might specifically request an "off the wall" CV if it is relevant to a creative job. I can't remember the last time I saw such a request, however, and I work in the graphic design industry. As an employer of designers, I can confidently say that if I want to see a portfolio, I'll ask for a portfolio. I don't want to see it integrated with the CV. And while we're on the subject of ‘serious business', don't try to be funny. Avoid humour and over-familiarity.

Content top

CVs have been produced in many forms. There are two basic layouts I would like to mention here, and they both relate to CVs of a general nature. It is up to you to make it your own. In my opinion the traditional "Tombstone" format of CV is rather out of date and should be avoided. Its content reads something like this:

Telephone Number
Date of Birth
Place of Birth
Marital Status
Next of Kin
Driving License
National Insurance Number
Secondary Education
Higher Education
Professional Qualifications
Employment History (chronological)
Other (interests, achievements)

The following format I find follows a more concise structure. It's upon this version that the remainder of this article will focus:

Career profile
Career and achievements to date
Professional qualifications and training
Tertiary education
Secondary education
Personal information

As you can see, the latter arrangement omits various details, which are irrelevant to the average employer, such as "Next of Kin" and "Religion". If the position is likely to be particularly hazardous in nature, or if you might be working abroad, they may become salient. Only include details such as these if you are specifically asked to do so, or if you feel they will be relevant to the position. If you manage to fit all of the information onto a single side of A4, then so much the better. This doesn't mean you should use a tiny font with reduced leading. It means that you should be selective in what you say.

The main difference between the two approaches is that in the latter example, relevant work experience is brought to the fore. The reader will be presented with the information of interest straight off the bat. Education is, of course, very important, but actual work experience is always given more weight. If your employment history is left to the end, the reader has to crunch through everything else before they find the information that is instrumental in getting you to the next stage.

Make a Start top

Name, Address, Telephone, (e-mail address)
To begin with, your name and contact details should be laid out in a balanced block, either ranged left or centred. Avoid putting this information in more than one column unless you are confident that you can make it appear ordered and easy to read.

Career Profile
Spend some time preparing a brief career summary using 20 to 30 words. This should encapsulate your key skills, your attitude to work, your career aspirations and the experience you have gained thus far. Use short sentences. Be brief, concise and avoid clichés. Although this synopsis will be short, you should spend some time getting it just right. It will also help with the content of the remainder of your CV. All the information that follows in your CV should reinforce and complement your career summary. Avoid the use of the first person. Use the past tense, not the present.

Career and achievements to date
Your list of jobs should be listed (with dates of employment) in reverse chronological order. This ensures that the reader is presented with the most relevant information first. Once again, when describing what you did, the company you worked with and when, you should use short sentences and avoid the use of the first person. If possible, show your career path advancing towards a peak. For example, if you are applying for a graphic design position the reader would be impressed to see your previous jobs showing your job descriptions advance from Junior Designer to Project Manager to Creative Director. This shows that you are committed to your profession; you are progressing towards a clear goal.

If your career path shows that you have taken ‘career breaks' and jumped from one type of job to another, it could paint an unreliable picture. Always accentuate the positive in any situation. If you have taken a career break, highlight what you have learned and show that you are ready to return to work. Only mention salary if asked and don't mention reasons for leaving your job; leave those details for later. Don't include endless details about irrelevant junior positions and placements.

Focus on your achievements more than your responsibilities. What have your successes been? How did you succeed, and in what way did they benefit your employer? If you have had little or no job experience of relevance to the position for which you are applying, emphasise the experience you have gained from any relevant education you have received.

Education and training
Professional training should be listed at the top of this section, mainly because it is likely to be more relevant to the reader. Include dates and brief details of what was covered in the courses you took. Next list any higher education you received followed by secondary education, including the names of the school, college or university and dates of attendance. Include no more than two secondary schools, and, once again, don't go into endless detail about your exam results. Simply list them in a well-formatted way, showing the most relevant passes first. For example, if the position you are applying for is a scientific one, list scientific and mathematical disciplines first.

Personal information
In this brief section, don't go on endlessly about the specifics of your hobbies and interests. Create the impression of diversity. Balance your indoor interests with outdoor activities, and if they relate in some way to your work, so much the better. Add languages if relevant, and don't over exaggerate. If you have a full driving license, mention it if you think it will be relevant.

Important points top

Do not mention your health unless necessary; the employer will assume you are in good shape! Don't mention references unless specifically asked; it is assumed that the referees you put on your CV will give you a good reference, as it is likely you will have asked permission to include their names. Leave referees for later unless you are specifically asked for them.

Don't mention your current salary on your CV unless specifically asked. At this stage you are in a very weak bargaining position. The time to discuss salary is after you have been through the interview and you are offered a position, when your position is stronger. This is because you will have been selected for the position, and your new employers will know that they will have to go through the entire selection process from scratch if they don't hold on to you.

It may sound obvious, but check your spelling and grammar! Bad spelling usually indicates one of the following: the author can't spell, is too lazy to spell correctly, is inattentive to detail or simply doesn't care. Any one of these spells "rejection". I work in a business that demands good grammar and spelling from its designers. Our job involves not only graphic design skills, but also a working knowledge of proofreading and copy editing. Nevertheless, I estimate that only one in ten CVs sent to us is free of spelling and grammatical errors. Even when the CV is fine, if the covering letter contains even the slightest mistake it goes straight into the rejection pile. It's a waste of time to send a poorly prepared CV and covering letter.

For more detailed information about writing CVs and resumes, there are plenty of books and guides on the subject. I recommend that you study more than one, as every author has a slightly different view about what constitutes an effective document. Find a balance that is right for you and the position for which you are applying. The following books will give you a good start:

Further Reading top

The Straightforward CV
A useful little guide containing valuable advice about the creation of your CV from the moment you read the job advert. The book gives key points at the end of each chapter, enabling you to skim the book quickly to ensure you haven't missed anything important. Help also on creating the ideal introductory letter.

The Perfect CV: All you need to get it right first time

This author encourages creativity within your CV, to the point that you are entirely comfortable with it. The purpose of your CV is twofold: to highlight your value and to provide material for your interview. The advice is this book is grounded in these principles. 50 tips and strategies.

Readymade CVs

Basic CV creation advice. Contains useful templates of CVs for many different types of job, so you can pick one appropriate for you and customise it. There is also a section on using the Internet to send CVs and job hunt.

The Right Way to Write Your Own CV

What should you put in? What should you leave out? The book contains many full and partial CV templates tailored to specific jobs. It has helpful question & answer sections throughout.

© Copyright 2003 Max Barclay
Max Barclay is the editor of I NEED SOME He has worked as a graphic designer in the South of England for thirteen years, and is a Director of Tinstar Design Ltd.

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