How to Write a CV that isn’t Crap

Somewhere hidden in this article there is a heartwarming sentence that will make you feel sparkly and happy, but exactly where, well… that’s a secret. You’ll just have to read the article one sentence at a time until you find it. I don’t feel proud of using this sort of underhand tactic to make people read my stuff, but it’s just that this particular article is all about how to write a CV, and that’s not a subject known for its natural magnetism. That sentence though; you’re going to love it; I just know you are!

One reason that people find the subject of CVs so boring, though, is because they fundamentally don’t understand what a CV is. A good CV is an extremely powerful document that can open all sorts of doors for you, doors that lead to rooms of opportunity. In those rooms of opportunity are big parcels of better pay, chairs of challenge and a sideboard of success. Please don’t read the last two sentences and think I’m suggesting you litter your CV with overwrought metaphors; I’m really not. I just got overexcited thinking about what a great CV can do for you, and then my mind wondered on to the following paragraphs in which I show you how easy it is to write one.

Have you noticed how businesses are now obsessed with stories? You certainly will have if you work in marketing. Some years ago, after the internet had become massive, and social media had fully taken hold, companies realised that they needed to be communicating with their potential customers all the time. They got Twitter accounts and twat tweeted about special offers and slogans and stuff, but nobody cared. They quickly realised that the only way to communicate something memorable is to tell a story. Allow me to illustrate my point with this sociological chart:

Hmm…interesting. So much information, it’s almost difficult to know what to do with it. I’ve already scribbled all over it with green pen; maybe some blue? 🤔

If you carefully study this chart, you’ll spend a lifetime and still have no idea what it means. I certainly don’t know what it means. OK, presumably, there are some people who could get some information out of this. But they’re sociologists, and they look at this stuff because it’s their job; you have to pay them to do it. The problem with this sort of chart is that it doesn’t tell a story. Oh, I bet there are lots of stories hidden within it, but you’d have to find them, translate them into words and then tell the story. There are many, many ways to convey information, and they all have their strengths, but unequivocally, by far, the best way to transfer meaning into the brain of a human being is by telling a story. And your CV — if you want to convey the meaning that you are a fantastic choice for this job — should tell a story. 

And before we continue, don’t confuse ‘information’ with ‘meaning’. Most of the CVs I see make this mistake. Information is just patterns that represent something. ‘Meaning’, in this context, is information that connects with a human’s consciousness and subconscious and says something…meaningful to them. If you read something that makes you think, ‘Yeah, so what?’, you’re reading information that has no meaning to you. The vast majority of CVs are like this. And a recruiter who’s reading these CVs, if sufficiently motivated, can get the information they need. It’ll be boring and hard work, but they can do it. After all, like the scientists who have to make sense of that thing above, it’s their job. But do you really want the recruiter who’s reading your CV to be bored, and to feel like it’s a chore? No, of course you don’t. So your CV has to be easy to read, meaningful and, above all, it should tell a story. The story is called Why This Job and I are Perfect for Each Other.

Made for each other, which is good, as they’re obviously very unpopular.

Of course, your CV has to follow a relatively conventional format, a format that doesn’t just exist for the sake of formality, but to enable the poor sod who has to read these things to quickly find the information they need. But within that format there is the scope to tell your story.

The biggest mistake people make, by far, is in the Career Summary section. Most people just describe what they had to do in their previous jobs. I mean, so what? What were your achievements? How did you accomplish them? Living in utter peace in a warm house, with unlimited free food, and lots of places to hide, my cats are probably some of the happiest beings on Earth. There you go; I hope you enjoyed that! Here are some more of the most important things to bear in mind when writing your CV:

  • Make sure that, in the intro text for each job, you write about how it was a crucial step towards the role you’re applying for; this is how you turn your CV into a story. What skills did you learn? Think especially of the skills you’ll need in the target job.
  • Another mistake many people make is stuffing their CV with keywords to get it past the ATS. Yes, your CV should contain keywords, but they should form a natural part of the structure, not just be thrown in willy-nilly. If your CV is hard to read, people are less likely to read it. And as we CV writers often say at industry gatherings, ‘Unread is dead’*.
  • Your summary, the paragraph at the top of the CV should also describe who you are in a way that is enticing and memorable. Think carefully about the type of person the recruiters need, the sort of person who could solve your new line-manager’s problem, and try to write yourself as that person.

Following these tips will make your CV more successful, and that will make you more successful. Of course, you can always get a pro to do it for you; that way you’ll have a fantastic document that’s worthy of your accomplishments, without going through countless rewrites and uncertainty. But there is no reason at all to be sending off boring, barely intelligible CVs and hoping for the best.

I leave you with a recent example, written by Your Humble Servant, to help give you an idea of what you should be aiming for. 

If you’ve enjoyed this article, come over to LinkedIn and Facebook and say hello!

*If there are industry gatherings for us, I never I get invited to them; I just made that phrase up. Sadly, you’re reading this disclaimer, but I don’t expect most people to.

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