A powerful CV is one of the most important documents you’ll ever need. In most cases it’s your first and only chance to impress potential employers and secure that job interview, so perfecting it is imperative. Unfortunately, many people fail to understand the basic principles of a strong CV, and come across in a bland or even bad light, despite being exemplary candidates.
All of these mistakes, however, are easy to avoid. To get the inside track we spoke to recruitment experts and careers coaches to find out what the most common mistakes people make on their CVs are – and how to fix them.
Make it legible
“Inconsistent and poor formatting is very common, and it’s a big turn-off – especially if you are looking for a job where you’ll be using Word,” says Rebecca Siciliano, managing director of London-based Tiger Recruitment. “This could include anything from inconsistent margins, random bullet points, unnecessary diagrams, text boxes or tables inserted for no reason.”
It sounds simple, but your CV is about you and your skills – not your self-proclaimed Microsoft Suite wizardry. Use columns and bullet points to neatly separate sections and under no circumstances should you use a pie chart to express your professional or personal qualities. You’ll simply look like a fool.
Don't attach a photo
We have our friends from across the pond, where this is common practice, to thank for this one. Many people think that attaching a photo to their CV will boost their appeal, making them stand out from the rest, but unfortunately you’ll only put your potential employer off. Keep it strictly professional, and if they like your CV, they’ll want to meet you in person so a photo is redundant.
Avoid poor structure
Hiring managers are often faced with hundreds of CVs for every position and if yours looks a mess, it will not only demonstrate a serious lack of care, but will likely go straight in the bin. “There are pretty much only two reasons you’re going to get hired: you can either help save somebody some time or help make somebody some money,” explains Alexa Shoen, CEO of #EntryLevelBoss. “The easiest way to prove it is to give cold, hard facts as often as possible in the form of numbers and figures.”
Siciliano also recommends staying far, far away from colours, crazy fonts or any form of illustration – CVs are not about creativity. Start with a (very) brief paragraph about yourself and then follow with your credentials. Offer up facts (hours saved, customers served, funds raised etc) to prove your skills and make sure your work history is in an easy-to-read, chronological order.
Don't forget to use spell check
“It sounds so obvious, but the volume of CVs with typos and grammatical errors is incredible, and all the more disappointing when the candidate states that ‘attention to detail’ is a core strength,” says Siciliano. This really goes without saying, if your spelling and grammar are poor, it will make you come across as sloppy and ambivalent to the job, and nobody’s going to hire that person. Also, adds Siciliano, “Don’t talk about yourself in the third person. You’re not the Queen!”
As a general rule a good CV should fill no more than one side of A4. It is not a memoir – rather you should be aiming to give a flavour of your professional self that entices employers to find out more.
“Your future employer simply wants to understand a few highlights, and why those highlights are relevant to them,” explains Shoen. “Remember that the people reading your CV are people, too – they may have had a bad day or missed a night’s sleep or have an important meeting coming up. They just want to scan and see the right points as quickly as possible. Write your CV with that in mind.”
Not tailoring your CV
“Your CV is not a permanent record of your accomplishments, and it’s not set in stone. It is in fact an ever-changing sales pitch, tailored to one specific employer at a time,” adds Shoen. “It would be a huge mistake to send two employers the same CV without tailoring it first to their own needs.”
Every job and every employer is different. The candidates that will stand out are those that have done their research, looked into a company’s values and what they need from a potential employee. Make sure your CV highlights that you offer those skills.
"Don’t talk about yourself in the third person. You’re not the Queen!"
Don’t lie on your CV, your potential employer will always find out. If you say you’re proficient at Excel but you’ve never used it, when you need to utilise it in your new position and fail, alarm bells will start ringing. Don’t forget you need to pass your probation period too.
But, cautions Shoen, don’t undersell yourself because your experience isn’t ‘official’ either. “I’ve seen so many people sell themselves short on their CV because their experience ‘wasn’t official’. Your potential employer cares about your experience – full stop. If you show leadership or management experience or whatever it is through something less-than-official, include it on your CV because you have that experience.”
Strike the right tone
Like a business email to your boss or a pitch to a potential client, a CV is a professional document and should be treated like one. This means no ‘Hi mate’ or ‘How ya doing’. Use proper forms of address and keep the tone polite but friendly. Avoid clichés (we all know your biggest flaw is not that you’re a perfectionist) and be confident without veering into arrogance. Don’t boast – if you hold particular skills then state them subtly. You’re far more likely to be called in for an interview that way.
Don't rely on your CV alone
Remember what we said about there being hundreds of applicants for every job? Even if you have the best CV in the world, standing out against such fierce competition is never going to be easy. Give yourself an edge by being more creative with your applications.
“You have a powerful tool available to you – social media – where you can reach out to people in the company you’re applying to and introduce yourself,” says Shoen. “Ask a question and build a rapport with a responsive employee. In a lot of cases, you’ll find you won’t even need a CV to get that next job.”
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