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10 steps to writing the perfect CV

A modern, professional CV needs to be more of a business case than a list of past jobs. Career expert Victoria McLean, founder of CityCV.co.uk, outlines your 10 essential action points to make your CV stand out.

Let me start by saying there is no such thing as “the perfect CV”. Writing CVs is a subjective process, about which industry professionals frequently disagree. But I’ve used the title above for a reason: it’s a popular keyword phrase that people use when looking for advice on CVs.

You should apply similar thinking when writing your CV. You need to make it easy for people to find you, and you need to make an impact. Here are my top 10 recommendations for crafting a CV that will help you stand out from the competition…

1. Use keywords

A bit like the headline I’ve written above, start by using the right keywords to get past the Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS). The days of recruiters manually sifting through piles of CVs to find the right candidate are long gone. Now, when you submit your CV, it’s likely the first reader won’t be a human.

Instead, recruiters use ATS software to upload relevant information from your CV and create shortlists from the thousands of candidates they have on their databases. The software runs algorithms that require candidates to use standard CV templates and titles with good keywords. It’s like SEO for CVs: if yours isn’t set up correctly, a recruiter won’t even set eyes on it.

The software needs to easily find your personal details, employers, job titles, dates of employment, qualifications, training, skills and achievements. It can do this if you use logical layouts and the kind of CV templates widely used by your specific industry. Most importantly, your CV needs to be full of repetitions of relevant industry keywords and phrases.

Getting it right isn’t straightforward. For example, did you know that most systems struggle to extract text from Word tables? So, do your research. Look at job descriptions and online jobsites to identify the most relevant keywords for your sector and position – then make a list of your key skills.

2. Follow a plan

Make sure you understand what your strengths are, and how they relate to the roles for which you are applying. Your CV shouldn’t simply be your job history with a list of responsibilities. Identify your competencies and achievements, then think of ways you can illustrate them.

3. Show don’t tell

This applies particularly to softer skills such as communication, leadership and work ethic. Stating that you have “excellent communication skills” or are a “good team player” sounds empty and boastful. However, if you can demonstrate these attributes through describing your achievements and success stories, then you have a convincing business case.

4. Write a great profile

This short summary section at the top of your CV is a make-or-break element. Recruiters decide whether to read on or not based on this. Take some time to figure out answers to key questions such as: What is your Unique Selling Point? What sets you apart from the competition? What are you most proud of in your career?

5. Tell your story

Use strong, active verbs to outline your professional experience in two distinct sections. First, an overview of what you were hired to do and your career trajectory. Think scope, scale and context. Next, write between four and eight bulleted achievements. Think about how you added value to your employer. Remember to include specific values or percentages if you can.

6. Keep education succinct

Only mention courses you completed successfully. Make sure professional training and development is relevant and succinct. If something didn’t work out, you dropped out or failed a course, don’t include it.

7. Show some personality but keep it relevant

It’s great if you can differentiate your CV with unusual or high achieving activities. For example, voluntary work shows commitment and a well-rounded personality; running a marathon shows stamina and determination. But, it’s best to avoid passive or hard to quantify activities such as socialising or watching films.

8. Adapt your CV to specific roles

Read the job advertisement or specification carefully. Make sure you cover the candidate essentials and desirables criteria in your summary section and throughout your CV. Write down all the main outcomes you need to see on the CV. Examples might be hard skills or industry-specific jargon identified by keywords, as well as softer skills such as teamwork, leadership or communication.

9. Avoid clichés

A compelling CV is a delicate balance between professional language and a natural, conversational tone that doesn’t descend into cliché. Avoid toe-curling, hackneyed industry jargon. Some of the worst offenders, such as ‘results oriented professional’ or ‘solution-focussed’ are still cropping up on too many CVs.

10. Check, check and check again

It’s imperative there are no typos. Research shows that up to 97% of hiring managers will reject CVs if they see just two. They see these types of mistakes as a clear indicator of the quality of work you’d do if you got the job. There is no margin for error.

Victoria McLean, founder of CityCV.co.uk

Originally published in Economia, August 2017.