Four new rules for writing your CV

While perfection is impossible, there are simple ways to improve your career prospects

YOU’LL never have a perfect CV. Should it fit on a single page, include a list of objectives, should you tell a potential employer why you have gaps in your employment history? These are contentious issues, even among recruiters. And given the number of apparently unbreakable rules there are (many contradictory), even if your CV is perfectly acceptable, no doubt someone will find something wrong with it. But among the 209m results for CVs a cursory Google search will throw up, a few clearish rules crop up. Here are four of the fresher ones:

One of the problems with CVs, says Harvard Business Review contributor David Silverman, is that many applicants fear to say anything that could get them rejected, so end up saying nothing at all. And while they’ll likely follow standardised metrics, recruiters will also have their own CV pet hates.

Silverman thinks “the best you can do is try to achieve the maximum content with minimum peculiarity.” Some of his advice is obvious: keep it short, no typos, use verbs that mean something (“managed” rather “worked on”). But also avoid mistakes like including too much detail for jobs you did years ago. One trick is to imagine you’re writing the CV of your firm’s chief executive. Would you say you attended this meeting, managed that committee? Probably not. Clarity is best: you ran the company.

For Robert Half director Matt Weston, technology is a “double-edged sword.” While it’s easier to source and apply for jobs, employers will also use IT to shortlist applicants, “often without laying eyes on the CV.” How can you deal with this? One unfortunate consequence will be the renewed necessity of fleshing out your CV with attractive keyword clich├ęs. But step away from the physical CV, and technology-driven recruitment isn’t necessarily so depressing. Hays, the recruiter, began reinventing its IT back in 2008, and has since integrated its platform with LinkedIn. It can now, for example, offer jobs based on users’ behaviour on the site – if you update your profile, or adjust your skills, you’re more likely to be thinking about a career move. This could be a handy trick for getting your digital CV noticed.

Even if you’ve crafted a CV perfect for London, it could be inappropriate for that job opening in Hong Kong. While you should be careful to avoid generalisations – and to choose just two examples – Tom O’Neil, author of Selling Yourself to Employers, notes that Japanese CVs tend to start with name, age and gender, while Greek employers typically prefer more detail. O’Neil’s solution, however, is to ignore the peculiarities of national culture, and focus on quantifiable achievements that mean something anywhere.

But Vicky Gordon, leadership coach and author of Rewrite Your Invisible Resume, thinks all this attention on physical CVs misses something much more important. Your “invisible” CV – opinions your colleagues hold about you as a co-worker or leader – is “as visible as your written resume to everyone but you,” she says. And the result is that minor shortcomings can become major issues that affect your career prospects, because you incorrectly analyse their effects.

She cites an executive who, having difficulty delegating, failed to get his work done. The result was that colleagues found him untrustworthy and questioned his integrity. The solution? First, Gordon says, ask for more than just “perfunctory annual performance reviews”. But more important, she argues, is solving the right problem. For that executive, it wasn’t about telling everyone how trustworthy he actually was. He just needed to put in place better processes to mitigate against his natural tendencies. His colleagues could then become his strongest advocates.

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