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If you’ve ever asked for feedback, you’ll realise everyone has their own (strong) opinions on what makes a great CV.
From my long experience helping clients write their CVs, I’m going to share some key principles I’ve learned.
What it’s all about?
Curriculum Vitae roughly translates from Latin as “the course of my life”. In modern times, it is a document used to tell your story and demonstrate your skills and experience.
Importantly, the CV is used to show you as the right fit for a particular opportunity and so is also a tool to persuade someone to consider hiring you for a particular role.
Your CV is a self-promotion manifesto that shows you in your absolute best light. Therefore, writing a killer CV takes time, effort and thought. It’s not something you can knock out in an hour.
So, with this in mind, here are the key principles and approaches you should follow as your write your killer CV:
1. This is your chance to tell your story on your terms
You have the whole “course of your life” to choose from, so you need to carefully select what is most important. First, decide what you want your CV to say about you.
A good exercise to start with is to write sentences starting with “I want to tell them that”. These should be specific and capture what is most important things about you:
I want to tell them that my strong analytical skills allow me to disaggregate a business challenge and identify clear and actionable solutions.
I want to tell them that I have a track record of implementing these solutions to improve supply chain systems and have saved my last employer over £5m per annum as a result.
By getting clear on what you want to tell, you start to map out the key content of your story.
2. Put your Best Stuff First
If you’ve managed a hiring process, how long did you spend on each CV in the pile? If you’re good you’ll say 15 minutes, if you’re honest it might be 15 seconds. CVs that don’t have an immediate impact tend to go on the reject pile.
I usually recommend a personal summary as a good way to put your best stuff first. This can take the form of one sentence that summarises you and your experience; one or two sentences that outline your 2 or 3 greatest successes so far; one sentence that says something interesting about you that makes you different (this could be what you are passionate about personally or professionally).
Taking this approach allows the reader to get an immediate summary of you, and a feel for who you are. If you put thought into this, they’ll want to know more.
3. Write from your reader’s perspective
Remember that the primary purpose of your CV is to persuade someone to move you on in the job process.
When you are writing, put yourself in the shoes of the reader of the CV. Ask yourself:
- What would I want to read in a CV to engage me?
- What skills and requirements would I be looking for in this CV?
- Which of my experiences would I find most compelling in demostrating these?
- What would I find the most interesting way to read about these experiences?
You have a limited number of words to build your case, so remember to make them all count in your mission to persuade and engage the reader.
4. Create your SAR (Situation, Action, Result) Stories
The best way to persuade the reader of your fit for the job is to pepper them with examples that show the right skills and knowledge.
Creating an SAR story allows you to succinctly illustrate your best examples. They have three parts:
- Situation – what was the situation or challenge that you faced? (what did you have to do? what was the opportunity or threat? who was involved? what was the timeline etc?)
- Action – what actions did you take to successfully overcome the challenge? (here you should focus on the specific things that you did and make sure they show a particular skill for example – “I negotiated 3 team members to address the challenge”, “I managed them over 3 weeks to hit the deadline”, “I liaised with the senior management team to report progress”.)
- Results – what specifically was the result? (this can be quantitative – “driving a 10% increase in sales” or qualitative – “winning a prize from an external body, great feedback from a client”.)
Ideally your SAR stories should come to be one bullet point that tells the whole story in a line of text.
“Led the set up of an accounting division in India – identified projects totaling 6,000 client hours for the Indian team in year 1 – exceeding targets by 100%”
Now create SAR stories that reflect your “I want to tell them” statements and that address the key job requirements and skills. These are your ammunition for a killer CV.
5. Mirror the job requirements in your story
This is where customising your CV to the job description really kicks in. A good job description tells you exactly what the organisation and the reviewer are looking for from the ideal candidate.
Typically, the order of the requirements will reflect their priority to the organisation. You don’t have to mirror the order exactly, however, it makes sense to reflect as many of the skills and requirements as possible in a similar order to the spec.
This is where you can also choose which SAR stories are the best fit for the role and what order to tell them in. You’ll have a killer story taking shape.
A good exercise is to go through your CV and find specific examples that address each job requirement and when you do, tick them off. If you get to the end of the CV and see lots of missing requirements, think about what you can do to fill the gaps.
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