How to write a killer CV – 15 dos and don’ts

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Reading CVs and cover letters is like smoking cigarettes – one or two won’t harm you but constant exposure will.

Unfortunately, in my line of work – managing a small communication company and finding internships for American students in Brussels – I am exposed to more CVs than most would consider healthy.

This is not a dig at the quality of the candidates, who are often more skilled, more educated and more motivated than I am with their double masters, four to five languages and experience working in nine countries. It stems more from an honest desire to help talented people get the jobs they want without making basic mistakes. So here are 15 tips for writing a better CV, with apologies to all those anonymously quoted:

1. Don’t exaggerate too much

Everyone inflates themselves on job applications – but try not to pump too much hot air into your cover letter or CV. If you’ve flipped burgers at Mc Donalds for a few weeks, don’t turn that experience into one where you “cultivated a mutually respectful working environment among peers and customers by demonstrating leadership qualities such as multi-tasking, initiative-taking and thriving in a fast-paced environment.” Likewise, if your ‘management skills’ extend to being the lead singer of an unknown rock group and your ‘leadership positions’ were vice-president for fundraising at your sorority or spending a week on a church mission to help poor kids in Guatemala, you clearly don’t know much about management or leadership. Finally, if one of your skills really is the “ability to provide resolutions to conflicts,” send a letter to the Nobel Peace Prize award committee.

2. Apply for the right job

I recently got a cover letter for a job with my company from someone who was applying for work at an Italian telecoms firm. Another had valuable experience in delivering frozen bakery products in the far east of Russia but precious little in the media training field. One applicant even applied for my own job as managing director! Your skills should also bear some relation to the job you’re applying for. So even an experienced attorney is unlikely to get an interview for a junior communication post. Ditto if your only experience is running a student granola baking company or volunteering on an ostrich farm.

3. Apply to the right person

If no name is mentioned on the job ad, feel free to address your cover letter to Dear Sir/Madam. But if it is, please don’t write: ‘To Mr/Mrs Human Resources Manager’ or ‘To whom it may concern.’ Hirers are people and prefer to be addressed as people, not as job titles.

4. Don’t be pretentious 

You may think you are a thought leader, changemaker, transformation catalyst, political trendspotter or chief awesomeness officer but please keep this ego-inflating drivel to LinkedIn. On a CV it’s better if you can prove your amazingness by listing the things you’ve done that make you so amazing. Usually these are concrete skills rather than puffed up abstract nouns. Personally, I’d much prefer someone who speaks Dutch or knows InDesign than someone claiming to be an ideas architect.

5. No boastful marketing bullshit 

If you are “result-oriented, proactive self-starter” or an “analytical, insightful, and highly-disciplined problem solver” you are not unique. You are like every other candidate. And if you claim to think outside the box you’ve just proved you don’t.

6. Axe the jargon

Jargon is a form of linguistic cancer that needs to be surgically removed from any non-specialist text. So even if you can “leverage existing networks to expand reach and impact,” add value with your “strategic inputs, proven business skills and C-level network” or have a “proven track record in providing an exemplary level of service to a broad range of stakeholders,” it’s unlikely to find you a job.

7. Avoid vague, meaningless guff

Anyone can claim they will bring creativity, imagination, perseverance, discipline, honesty and ethical spirit to the job, have “natural negotiation and persuasion abilities” and be “committed to the ideals of excellence.” But few are – and even fewer can back these extravagant claims up with proof. Also, avoid vapid motivational quotes like “If someone offers you an amazing opportunity and you’re not sure you can do it, say yes – then learn how to do it later.” Not much use when you’re expected to hit the ground running in your new job. Finally, don’t boast about having attributes that not everybody will admire. “Pugnacious” is probably best avoided – unless you’re applying for a job as a boxing instructor.

8. Be confident, but not over-confident 

Having assured me she was the right candidate I was looking for, one recent applicant suggested a time slot she could squeeze me in for an interview. “30 minutes should do the trick.” It didn’t because the delete button got there first.

9. Show me you’re different…

If you list your ‘computer skills’ as “knowledge of Microsoft Office, Outlook, Firefox, Safari, Excel and Power Point,” I’ll assume you also know how to tie your shoelaces and boil a pan of water. And if you’re a student who boasts about knowing how to use “social media such as Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram” I’ll lump you together with the other two billion people who also know how to use at least one of these platforms.

10. …But be aware of cultural differences

In Belgium, where I live, it is important to mention your marital status on your CV – so don’t be surprised to see ‘single’ under a flattering photo of the applicant, their date of birth and the fact that they have a clean driving licence. All would be complete taboos in the United States, where what Europeans know as CVs are called resumes.

11. Edit thoroughly

If the application asks for native level English, don’t write “My English in on a native level” or “I speak fluently English, French is my mother tong.” And even if English is not your native tongue – or tong – there are no excuses for writing “I postulate in your company.” That just sounds rude. Finally, don’t leave track change on so prospective employees can see you changed ‘intermediate’ French to ‘fluent’.

12. Keep it short 

Unless you’re an award-winning polymath whose career has spanned decades and bridged continents, your CV should fit on two pages – or one page if you’re a student or recent graduate. Don’t test people’s patience by churning out 25 pages listing every conference and course ever attended – like one applicant did recently.

13. Be creative…

On standardised European CVs, applicants grade their written and spoken linguistic abilities as C2, B1 etc. If you’re like me, you can never remember if C is good or bad. So I was impressed when a recent applicant put “German: cup of tea and cake.” I can picture that level of German because it’s about the same as mine. I also chuckled when another applicant wrote: “90.000 HOURS – That’s the average amount of hours spent at work during a lifetime. I want to make these hours as worthwhile, challenging and fun as possible.”

14. …But not too much

Being creative is great – within limits. If a job ad asks for a cover letter but you reply that you didn’t write one because “all candidates usually write typical phrases about their motivation” you may be right. But you’re also missing an opportunity to show how you’re really different, as opposed to really superior.  Also, playing around with the format of CVs is fine, as long as this creates clarity rather than confusion. So that stop motion video CV with flow charts and funky music may win full marks for creativity but not such a good grade for clear communication. Likewise, too many pie charts, timelines, barcodes, infographics and design gizmos can end up looking messier than a toddler’s scribblings.

15. Tell me your interests – but not all of them

If someone applies for an internship or job with my company and says their interests are rugby or Czech literature they will get an interview because I happen to like rugby and Czech literature. But if you list one of your interests as pole dancing – yes, this happened – I will probably forward your CV to a local strip club.

Clear Europe runs courses on How To Write Clearly and offers copywriting services. 

About Gareth Harding

Gareth is the Managing Director of Clear Europe and head of the Missouri School of Journalism's Brussels Programme. He is a former journalist, speechwriter and political advisor.

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