resume advice / showcasing your best self
Updating your CV or LinkedIn is super tedious but necessary. I’m regularly asked by friends or former coworkers to review and give feedback on their latest resume as they set out searching for a new role. This is something I always enjoy doing, and a place where I feel I can offer experience and insight after having reviewed thousands of applications for dozens of different types of roles. Now, with a pandemic and another global economic downturn, I’m seeing more and more friends working to craft the perfect CV to get into the interview process for a new role.
There are a handful of tips that I find myself sharing almost every time - regardless of whether the person’s taking the next logical step in their already-established career, looking to change industry, or starting out on a new career path. I’m collating them here in the hope that they can help you, too.
What’s the point?
First thing’s first: your CV, LinkedIn or resume is the first thing that most prospective employers will see. It is, at best, a bare-bones summary of who you are, summarised into its pithiest form and condensed into a page or two. Your CV has to do a lot of heavy lifting with very little space. I mean, I’ve written journal entries about a single day that are longer than the CV that’s supposed to cover all my achievements from more than a decade of work.
This is where it helps to take a single-minded focus on the purpose of your resume: to get you through to the first round interview. Think of it like a movie trailer more than a catalogue. Show depth, or breadth; give highlights; make it clear that you are absolutely well-qualified and interesting enough to be skimmed from the pool and passed through to the first round.
As you’re composing or trimming, you should focus on what you need to show to achieve that goal of moving into a real conversation.
Focus on outcomes
The other notable way that your CV should focus on outcomes is in the content itself. Prioritise the ‘what’ over the ‘how’.
Businesses measure themselves through outcomes - revenue growth, daily active users, retention - and so the benefit that a new person brings is in the outcomes they deliver. Why else would they be hiring?
This is where you can shine above others. You can rewrite your experience as what you delivered, what you achieved, rather than how you spent your time or what your responsibilities were. For instance, rather than saying you were responsible for training, describe what kinds of training you ran and what impact that had on the business. If you’re managing customers’ success, what success did they see as a result?
Join the dots between what you were hired to do and what you actually achieved, so that your successes are clear and in context.
Put yourself in the place of a recruiter. They’re seeing up to a hundred candidates pass across their screen for this role. This means they’re likely skimming.
The easier you can make it for the person running application screens, the better your chances.
There are oft-quoted facts about how on average a CV gets seven seconds of actual review - regardless of how true this is, it’s likely that the person who first looks at your application doesn’t read the whole thing from start to finish in one go before making any decisions at all. They’re likely skimming first, before deciding whether to read on.
As with all purpose-oriented written communication, you’ll benefit by making it as easy as possible for your reader to get the information they need. So what information does the reviewer need to make a positive decision about your application?
In theory, they just need to know whether you meet the requirements listed on the job ad. In practice, there are likely a few other considerations that haven’t been articulated either internally or externally. However the job ad’s requirements list is the best place to start.
As I said, skimmability is key. This means bullet points, data, and leading each sentence with the powerful clause (the outcome) and following with the explanation. Prefer “here’s what I achieved, by doing XYZ” over “I did XYZ which resulted in this achievement”. For example, “increased offer-acceptance rate to >90% by changing hiring process and interviewer training”, rather than “overhauled our hiring process and trained interviewers so that we could get more offers accepted”.
Thinking again about the perspective of the recruiter, we want to make the relevant information stand out - which means ruthlessly discarding achievements that aren’t super relevant, things which you’ve done but don’t want to keep doing in future, and not dedicating space to roles from earlier in your career. One page is easier to skim than seven pages.
Personally, whenever I see a CV I take the same approach to reviewing it:
- job titles in reverse chronological order & dates
- education & qualifications
- personal statement or headline
- first clause of each bullet point (from top to bottom)
- any information in side bars or boxes
- and finally I read the rest of the content under the most recent role
This is how I draw out the career story. What story is yours telling?
Don’t be afraid of claiming credit or ownership of what you did. I’ve seen former colleagues downplay their role in a project, and your CV is really not the time for modesty. Obviously don’t lie or overstate, because you’ll need to back up what you’ve done at interview (and your references will need to corroborate!), but that doesn’t mean that you need to underplay your achievements.
Some companies run their first screen through an automated keyword-matcher. This means the very first review of your carefully hand-crafted resume might result in rejection, regardless of the amazing experience and skills that you’ve showcased.
Even where this isn’t the case, pattern-matching with lists of requirements and common terminology bolsters your chances due to the points I made above about empathy. The easier you can make it for the first reviewer to pick up on your relevance, the more likely you are to move forward, whether your reviewer is a human or an algorithm.
Go through the jobs that you’re looking at, and understand what the keywords are that relate to the jobs’ requirements. Are you using these? Can you rephrase so that you use these terms? Can you describe your experience so that it aligns with the specific, explicit criteria that have been set out?
If you’re in a heavy-jargon industry, this is where it can be helpful to add a ‘skills’ line that includes the tools and technologies, so that your actual experience isn’t buried in jargon.
Layout & design
There are two non-negotiables here: (1) your resume should be sent as a PDF; (2) it should be easy to read. Consider spacing, typeface, layout, sections, headings to make it both readable and skimmable. Think about the best way to emphasise key points.
Beyond that, the way you design your CV is down to your personal preferences, and preferences you can infer about the types of companies you want to work for.
On skimmability, it is worth considering what your reviewer will be expecting. The vast majority of resumes start with name, headline and contact details, then sometimes a professional statement, then take a reverse chronological order through relevant career history and end with education and any other information (languages, list of skills or certifications, hobbies, awards, references). That doesn’t mean you have to order your information this way, but in absence of any compelling reason to do otherwise, you might as well follow tradition here.
Mitigate their biases where you can
I hate that I have to advise this, as this really shouldn’t have any impact at all on the likelihood of your getting hired, but the sad truth is that it might. So. Avoid including information which is not strictly relevant. This includes your nationality (in most cases), your gender, marital status, your home address, how many kids you have, a picture of yourself.
In some cases, it may be worth noting that you have the right to work in the country where the jobs you’re applying are. Especially useful in a situation where the company can’t sponsor visas, doesn’t want to sponsor visas, or wants to make a quick hire. Even more useful if you’ve worked in other countries for more than one role. For example, if you studied in Canada and your last job was in Paris, it may give a recruiter pause when considering how likely it is that you can work in the UK. However if your last two jobs were in NYC, your recruiter will likely assume that you have the right to work there, so there’s no need to list your nationality.
What do these say about you? What do you want the recruiter to believe about you based on these?
On my latest CV, I listed a few interests for two reasons: 1. My resume is very data-oriented and analytical for a People person, so adding interests in the arts humanises me and makes me seem more like someone who might actually mean it when they self-describe as empathetic. 2. Layout: there’s a nice symmetry introduced when I add a small interests box to counterbalance the contact details box.
The first reason is the one I want to address here: if your interests show that you’re disciplined or competitive or learning new skills or otherwise a high-achiever, that’s great! For instance, if you compete in things or practice something at a high level, then it’s absolutely worth adding these into the picture of yourself that you’re painting for future employers. However, if your interests amount to going on holiday and hanging out with your friends, your future employer doesn’t need to hear about this, and these won’t add a plus point in your favour. (For the avoidance of doubt, going on holiday and having friends are both extremely legitimate ways to spend your time outside work, I strongly endorse doing both if you can!)
This is really not necessary on your resume. If you’re going to commute to an office location, maybe add the city. Otherwise a country code in front of your phone number will be sufficient information.
None of these influence how competent you are; however they often influence decisions that recruiters & hiring managers make at the application screen stage, when they’re skimming. For all the unconscious bias training workshops in the world, nothing’s better at avoiding this than simply not sharing extra information that allows people to act on these biases, wherever possible.
Tweak and repeat
Your resume should be a living document that you can adjust and pivot to emphasise different experience or skills for each role. Everyone who looks at it will provide a new perspective, and the more of these you can gather, the better.
I cannot overstate the importance of having someone else check over your CV for typos or confusing sentences. It’s ideal if you can sit with this person as they check, if they can talk you through how they’re skimming, so that you can optimise the way that you spend your redrafting time.
Keep it in perspective
If you’re not getting the output you want from your job search, it’s not your fault. It might be helpful to work with a recruitment agency - they know the market and they know what their clients are searching for, and a good recruiter will always be forthcoming with feedback. And don’t forget to call on your professional and personal network if they can help you find the right next move.
Your CV is a page or two that summarises what you’ve done in your career. That’s it. If you’re not getting through application screens, it doesn’t mean you’re unqualified or untalented or unemployable. It just means that people aren’t seeing what they want to see in this PDF. A lot of the time applying for jobs can feel like an impossible puzzle: a game where there are rules and scoring criteria, but everyone plays it differently and nobody can tell you what their rules are, what you scored or why. But for now, the game still exists, and a lot of us need to keep playing it to find our next job.
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