Writing a Great CV (Part 1) – What is a CV and how is it used?

CV is short for Curriculum Vitae, which is Latin for ‘course of life’; in the US it is normally called a résumé.  Whatever you call it, your CV is the single most important tool in your job search.  In most circumstances it is the first thing a potential employer sees, and it is nearly always the document they will refer to when they want to know more about you.  Despite this, most people don’t really understand what a CV is for, how it is used, or how best to use their CV to sell themselves to prospective employers. This guide we will take you through how to prepare, write and use your CV to maximise your chances of getting invited for interviews and, hopefully, getting the job you want.

Fuse Says… CVs or Application Forms?

Many people get confused about how CVs differ from application forms.  Some companies use application forms so they can be sure of exactly what information they will get from candidates which allows them to compare candidates as they have all provided the same details.  Application forms are often legally binding documents that become part of your contract of employment and therefore ask for information that may not be required until much later in the recruitment process.

CVs are very different and should not be modelled on an application form.  Your CV is a very personal document which you are using to sell yourself to prospective employers – you choose what information to provide and how to present it to portray yourself in the best possible light.  Extra information or legally required documentation comes later!

What is a CV really?

Most people would say something like “a standard document that outlines your career history”, or “a list of your qualifications and jobs”.  While both these are right, they miss the most important reason for having a CV:

“Your CV is an advert for you”

At the end of the day, that’s it.

Your CV is usually the first contact a potential employer has with you, the first document they see (plus a cover letter or email of course).  It is pretty much the only way they can make a judgement about whether you seem relevant enough to interview.

But they told me…

“The Jobcentre made me do it that way”, “My teacher told me to do it like this”, “My friend said this is how CV’s should be written”, “A recruitment consultant insisted I used their template”…

We have heard countless similar tales from people with CVs that are simply not working – their CVs are not selling their skills to prospective employers, and they’re not getting interviews.  The single most important thing to remember about your CV is there is no right or wrong!

There are no hard-and-fast rules

Start by forgetting everything you have been told about CVs – a CV is NOT a static document that must follow a set format, it is plain and simply an advert for you…  The only way to judge what CV is ‘right’ is whether it is getting you regular interviews – that is its purpose!  There are no set rules, no magic bullets; no one suggestion can be right for every different person’s CV.

Different sectors may have slightly different things they expect to see on a CV, there are guidelines of best practice about what to include and how to present it (which we explain throughout the Fuse Journey CV articles), but the core is, it’s an advert – an opportunity to sell your skills and potential to an employer, and it’s all about ‘what works for you!’…

If a CV is regularly getting you interviews, it’s working… If you’re applying for the right type of roles and yet you are not being offered interviews it’ is not doing its job – your CV should be your key to interviews! It’s as simple as that!

Of course there are guidelines, hints and tips that can be extremely useful to consider as you are developing your CV (and we will explore some of these below), but at the end of the day the only questions that matter are… “Does this document do a good job of selling me as a potential employee to a potential employer?” and “Has this document been getting me interviews?”  If the answer to either is no then there are only two options – either you’re applying for the wrong jobs, or your CV needs changing…  Whether you followed the what so-called ‘rules’ is irrelevant.

How Employers use CVs

One reason many people find CVs so difficult is they don’t truly understand how employers actually use CVs in the recruitment process.  This means they’re not clear on what to include or exclude, and how to present things in the best light.

The most important thing you need to do is put yourself in the shoes of the people reading your CV – think about what it says to them and how it makes them see you.  To do that it helps to know how they will be reading it!

Employer’s use CV’s for pretty much one reason only – to decide whether to bring someone in for an interview.  That’s it!  Ok, some recruitment agencies or bigger companies may keep people on file in case they’re useful later, but most of the time, it’s a simple Yes/No – does this person seem worth interviewing or not.

This means you shouldn’t leave out anything important!  People often think “maybe I should hold something back so I can bring it up during the interview”.  NO!  If you hold something back you might not GET the interview!

Who will actually be reading my CV?

This is impossible to know but important to think about.  In a small company, the person reading the CVs is probably the owner of the company.   In a big company it could be the manager who is recruiting or someone from the HR department who will create a short-list first.  In some companies a PA may do the first pass through to weed out the really inappropriate CVs to save time for their boss.

Why this is important is you can’t assume anything.  For example, if you’re applying for a technical job, you can’t assume the person reading your CV is technical – it could be a junior HR assistant!  Obviously you still need the techie stuff on there, but don’t assume it speaks for itself – explain it… SELL it!

Remember it’s an advert – you don’t know who will be reading a poster on the tube so you pitch it to a wide audience – do the same with your CV.  Make sure it’s easy to read, understand and above all, tells the reader why you’re so perfect for the job!

How do they decide who to interview?

Try to imagine you’re hiring someone.  You might only have 3-4 CVs on your desk, in which case you can probably afford to read each one in detail, think about each person, and work out whether they’re a good potential employee.

But now imagine you have a stack of 200 CVs and a busy day ahead of you…  Right or wrong, each of those CV’s is going to be lucky to get 30 seconds attention…  If the first page (or even half a page) doesn’t seem relevant it’s going straight in the bin!

So make sure all the best stuff is at the front, prominent and easy to read.

Don’t panic, there’s some good formatting tips in Section 4.

So what should you include?

Think like the employer!  What do they want to know about you?  Look at the job advert and try and make your CV read like the perfect person to do that job.  They’ve set the questions; show them that you are the answer!

Think positive and sell your uniqueness – if they’re reading a stack of 200 CVs you have to stand out.  For example:

  • If you think you might be competing against graduates – sell your real-world work and life experience.
  • If you haven’t had much experience, sell your enthusiasm, potential and willingness to learn.
  • If you have had lots of different jobs, sell your skills as an all-rounder who copes well with change and can pick up new tasks and skills quickly and easily.
  • Read some current vacancy adverts on a few jobsites to get a feel for what employers want and how they ask for it.
  • Read on for more specific tips on what to include.

But I hate writing my CV

Most people hate writing their own CV and see it as a chore.  With a bit of preparation and by following our step-by-step guide, it can be fun and exciting – after all how often do you get the chance to just write about yourself and make yourself sound as great as you know you are!  The steps below are a helpful way to go through the entire thinking and writing process, from start to finish.

1.      Prepare to write your CV
There is no sense just sitting at a PC and trying to write your CV in one go – that really is a hard job!  Instead, sit down somewhere you feel comfortable and just scribble down everything you can think of that might be relevant to a prospective employer – everything you have done and can do.  Take as long as you need – this brain-dump will become your source material to write your CV from.  Believe us it’s much easier to just write things down with no particular structure than to think “OK now I’m writing my CV”.  Try it!

2.      Your first Attempt
Now you’ve done the hard part – the thinking – it’s just a matter of putting it on paper in a way that makes sense to an employer.  This is where the guidelines and conventions of CVs are most relevant – what headings to include, what should go where etc.  In most cases it makes sense to group things under standard headings: Contact Details, Personal Statement, Skills, Employment, Education & Training, Interests & Hobbies and Additional Information.  If your background doesn’t fit neatly into these headings though, don’t worry – remember what we said at the start about this being an advert for you – so long as an employer can easily see what you have achieved before and what you are good at, that’s the main thing!  At this stage, just try and bring things together a bit more sensibly – build on the good stuff and lose things you don’t think are relevant.  This is your first draft – wasn’t so hard was it?

3.      Pulling it all Together
Now for the finishing touches.  You’ve got everything on paper, and arranged it  in a logical manner, but the chances are it’s too long or too short, and probably doesn’t look very good!  It’s time to expand on any skills/jobs/training that you can make more of, lose the extra paragraphs that don’t really say anything, and spend some time making it look a bit funkier and stand out from the crowd – but make sure you don’t go overboard, keep it professional!  Above all, check it for mistakes and get someone else to do the same as you will definitely have missed some!

Fuse Says… CV Writing Services…

Should I pay someone to write my CV for me?  In our view, this is very rarely a good idea.  Write it yourself but then if you want to give it that extra polish, it may well be worth sending your best effort to someone to make it that bit better, but only you know what you did and what you can do, so the first version just has to be yours..!

Carry on to read Part 2 of the complete CV guide – Preparing to write your CV