The art of the killer CV

Ever wondered why your peers seem to get interviews as soon as their CV goes out of the door, while yours languishes for weeks, months even, before getting a response?

Cast your mind back to your school days. Did they teach you to put all your personal details first, then education, followed by employment in chronological order, other information/interests, and, let’s not forget, your two referees? It’s time to throw that book out the window. The rules have changed.

Your CV is your personal sales tool, so it should do exactly that. The average reader spends 10 seconds looking over your resume before making a decision to read on or discard, so you need to hit them with the most important information first.

Keep your name and contact details at the top, but don’t worry about any further personal details at this stage. Next you should include a short profile or a few lines highlighting your key skills – as a brief synopsis – which should entice prospective employers to read on.

For recent graduates and very-newly qualifieds (those with up to two or three years’ post-graduate experience), your education should come next, as it is probably still an important selling point over your peers. But for most accountants, the next section should be your employment history, starting with your most recent position. What you did 15 years ago may bear little relevance to the work you are doing now, so hit them with the most relevant (recent) experience first.

How do you deal with potentially awkward gaps on your CV? If you spent a year travelling – tell them. It is actually a good talking point – you will probably have learnt something from it, and at least they can see what you have been doing for a year rather than leaving them to guess (did he/she spend a year at her majesty’s pleasure?) If you took time out to bring up children, tell them this too. At least they might think you’ve got maternity leave out the way.

Dealing with periods of unemployment is a little more tricky. If you did any temporary or contract work while job hunting, put this down. If not, try to show that you used your time productively. But be honest, as you may need to back this up if questioned.

After your employment history, you should list your professional qualifications, education and awards – again, in reverse chronological order. I recommend a separate section on systems experience for most accountants, even up to finance director level, but if this isn’t one of your selling points, don’t bother. Exclude anything that doesn’t benefit you.

Rather than list job tasks, use your CV to demonstrate how your personal skills, experience, and achievements translate into real benefits for your prospective company.

In the personal details/further information section, you will probably want to include your nationality, maybe your marital status, and possibly your age. If you think any of these could go against you, leave them off. Remember, however, that some employers look for maturity and stability, which many feel goes hand in hand with age.

Interests and hobbies can be mentioned briefly in the personal details section. But if you feel they add something different to your CV, make more of them in a separate section if room allows. Just remember not to exceed the ideal CV length of two pages, or three at most. Including ‘socialising’ or ‘going to the pub’ in an interests section is a mistake. The rule is, if it doesn’t add to your CV, don’t include it at all.

Religious or political beliefs are fine to include when applying for a job requiring someone of a particular religious denomination or political bias, but they are better left off unless you are certain that the recipient of the CV will be broadminded or have the same beliefs as you.

Don’t include referees unless they are specifically requested. This is just a waste of space. Keep these names back so that when you are asked for them, you know the company is interested in you. It should also prompt you to put in a timely call to remind your referees of how well you worked together, before the potential employer calls them.

These guidelines offer a fair amount of scope for variation, but there are some things you should avoid at all costs.

Don’t include a photograph unless asked. Avoid fancy paper, coloured ink, arty fonts or folders to send the CV in. It needs to stand out for being clear, clean, concise, well laid out and well written. Simply looking different will make it stand out, but not for the right reasons, and the chances are it will be filed in the bin.

Don’t rely on recruitment agencies, consultancies or headhunters to check your CV: they are too busy finding the jobs and setting up interviews. And remember, Only those with the best CV get an interview. If the firm recruiting has several agencies working to put candidates’ forward, you really need to stand out with a CV that hits the mark, and quickly.

But making an impression doesn’t mean overcomplicating matters. Keep it simple, rely on your CV to do the work it is meant to do. If you get it right, you’ll have your pick of interviews, and hopefully jobs too.

Julie Harding is director of Career Matters

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