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CV Advice

It just so happens that over the last few weeks, I've been spending crazy amounts of time editing CVs. I didn't really think I was much of an expert on the subject until sitting down and finding just how easily it comes to me to tear one of these no doubt carefully constructed documents to shreds. I guess I took a bit for granted the idea that everyone possessed some basic level of knowledge about what to write in a CV, but having thought about it some more I've realised that I only have this knowledge because of the sheer number of them that I've read and the tiny number of them that I've read twice.

I think that probably, some people under-estimate the effect a CV has on your chances of getting a job. There's also a bit of a misunderstanding of what these potential employers will actually use your CV for, even amongst those who understand that it's really, really important to have a good CV.

So, before I get into applying you with generous serves of simple advice to make your CV awesome, let me try to explain what happens when an employer needs staff.

Basically this is what happens: you write an ad, you post it on some large job site like seek, then you come in the next morning with 50-100 extra emails than you'd normally get, all from applicants who want the job you're offering.

Now, the thing is, I've got 100 applicants, I need one. Reading a CV properly takes about half an hour, but I don't have 50 hours to read CVs. So what follows is a process where each one of those applications gets at most 30 seconds of consideration. This is just a short-listing process, to throw away the people who are just wrong for the job. To give you some idea of the brutality of this step, I generally go from 100 to 5 CVs in this step. I've read about other people who do this multi-stage thing, but it's not for me, and I don't think I'm uncommon in this regard (to be honest, some people make such a bad impression in their application that I don't even get as far as the CV).

There's a very important message in that: you need to make sure that all the reasons that I should hire you are completely obvious in a 30 second glance. I've read a lot of other pundits who have tried to prescribe what that information is, but I actually think that you've probably got a better idea of that than I do. I will say this: the section that will get most of my attention in those 30 seconds is your work history. I want to very quickly get a feel for what you've done. There's a few reasons for that, but mostly it's just the quickest way to get a feel for what you're capable of, and I do pay a little bit of attention to the general trajectory of your career to date. The thing that will most quickly endear you to me as an applicant is seeing some tangible experience listed, which very closely mirrors the work I want you to be doing. Having a short list of skills early on is a good here -- it will somewhat guide my reading of your work history.

So having got my list down to 5, that's when I'll start looking through your CV a bit more closely, trying to imagine you in my team. This is likely to be about 5 minutes per CV, and I'll have made a decision to interview or not at the end of that 5 minutes.

In the hour before your interview, I'll generally spend half an hour combing over every line, highlighting the bits that motivated me to bring you in for an interview, scribbling notes about things I want to ask about, and forming a map in my brain of how I want the interview to go. That's the third thing to remember.

Before moving on, I want to review those three purposes your CV needs to serve:

  1. The "elevator pitch" -- it needs to express enough in 30 seconds that I'll think about interviewing you. In this pass I'm trying to extract from your CV the stuff that you're good at, whether you're credible, and how can I tie you to the requirements of my job.
  2. To interview, or not to interview -- you passed the 30-second test, if I slow down and take a closer look, do I think you're a close enough match that I should spend some time talking to you? This is likely the part where I will google you, and flip through anything you've written, if it's easy enough to get to.
  3. What should I explore in the interview? -- to some extent this is the least important of the three because it's largely outside your control. If you keep it in the back of your mind though, you'll have some chance of influencing what questions you'll get asked. If you're not talented enough at CV writing to do that, no problem, but do remember that anything on your CV is fair game, so be prepared to talk about it.

Alright, I'll dive straight into sharing with everyone the advice I've been handing out. The point of the above snapshot into my world of recruiting is that keeping in mind the process, and the distinct types of scrutiny that your CV will be subject to, will help guide a lot of the decisions you make. The stuff that follows is just the basics, really, it's bland and generally applicable, and forms a sort of baseline standard.

Here goes:

  • The filename of your CV should be 'FirstnameLastnameCV.doc' -- employers get hundreds of these things, so you should make it as convenient as possible to find yours amongst the myriad that will be sitting on their filesystem. Also, while I sympathise with an affection for pdf, most recruiters have an affection for Microsoft Word and there's just no point fighting it.
  • Put complete contact details in. Anyone who's actually interested in hiring you will want to talk to you, so put a mobile phone number there at least. And, while it's absolutely racial discrimination, if you've got a slightly unusual name, putting a street address will put employers minds at rest that you are in fact an Australian resident and they don't have to worry about visas or whatever. It's just better to put it in there and not worry about missing jobs because of it. They won't letter bomb you.
  • In your employment history, in each of your jobs, each sentence needs to start with a verb that expresses what you did. Not just any verb! "worked" is a useless verb. I know you worked on stuff, that's why it's in your work history. Verbs like developed, managed, lead etc are the kinds of words you want to use. As an example, here's a line from a CV I read recently:
    Worked as a member of a small team of Engineers developing the XXX server in Felix.
    "Worked" is bad. The thing you did was "develop", but that's at the end of the sentence; it's too likely I'll miss it in the 30-second pass. The teamwork aspect is in there, but reading this, I don't get any idea of the scale of the team (small means many things to many people; saying "small" comes across as "so small that I'm embarassed to say"), and communicating that kind of detail will lend credibility to what you're saying, as well as make it more meangingful. Finally, the skill that this line should express to me, that you can write Felix code for server apps, is buried right at the end of the sentence. I would write that line like so:
    Developed server application in Felix for XXX project in a team of n people.
    Putting what you did at the start (developed), what it was you did that to next (a server application), and then other details, wrapping up with an objective statement about the team size. And remember: talk yourself up.
  • On layout: your CV will likely get mangled by recruiters, so you need to make it resistant to hack-and-slash reformatting. Use 'Times New Roman' as the font. The only possible exception to this is on headings, but make sure whatever you use is a font available on a default install of Windows. I suggest you eliminate any reliance on horizontal formatting. Make the body and the title of each section align to the left margin of your page. Put the job-titles in bold in your employment history so it's easy to navigate the document.
  • Eliminate redundancy, it really bothers people in a hurry. Saying 'Wrote unit tests...' is not sufficiently different to 'Wrote a regression test framework...'. I'm sure both are true, but you can get that into a single bullet point. Your aim is to get a chance to clarify that in the interview that you're hoping to get.
  • Make your sentences shorter. When you've got to read hundreds of these things, you really only pay attention to the first couple of words. Worse, you tend to stop reading bullet points toward the end, so put the most important stuff at the top of the list. Aiming for brevity will force you to prioritise important stuff.
  • It's good to list a team sport in your interests if you can, it suggests that you'll work well in a team.
  • Only put a 'career objective' section in if it's going to help you get this job. If you're just applying for the same kind of job you had before, it's probably not so important. The reader will know what kind of job you want, because that's what you're applying for. Stuff like '... further my experience in ... to pursue my primary professional interest of ass-kicking' or something is what you want to say here. I generally don't advise having such a section unless there's a good reason to explain why you're applying for what you're applying for. If you do have such a section, think very hard about what you want it to say. This is the first thing you're putting on your CV -- make it count.
  • Spell-check!
  • Punctuate correctly. Make correct use of apostrophes at least.

Finally, be prepared to have a few versions of your CV that highlight different aspects of yourself. Odds are that there'll be jobs that you're thoroughly qualified for, but this CV won't say that. If there's a job you really want, take the time to re-work your CV for that particular job. Aside from that, identify a few different focuses you're interested in and prepare CVs for each one. It'll mostly be re-ordering stuff and eliminating irrelevant sections, but it's worth doing.

Good luck! mail me if you've got any questions or suggestions.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on August 25, 2007 2:36 AM.

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