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Career advice for job seekers

How to structure a CV 05/03/2013

Nothing is more daunting and confusing than writing a CV; speak to several experts and each will have a different opinion on how this should be done so here are some top tips.

How to structure a CV

Click to jump to section

  1. Choosing a CV structure
  2. Make your first impression count
  3. Your personal brochure
  4. A CV should...
  5. Personal profile
  6. Positive impact words
  7. Positive Results of your action or intervention
  8. What to/what not to include on your CV
  9. CV presentation
  10. Feel good about yourself

Choosing a CV structure

If one simply wishes to stay on the same ladder, a standard chronological CV is appropriate – listing working positions in reverse order and starting with the present, presumably most responsible and relevant, position first.

An alternative approach, should one wish to draw greater attention to previous relevant experience and achievements, or to transferable skills, would be a segmented CV format with headings listing functions, skills or projects. This would be appropriate in consultancy, for a more senior and general position calling for breadth of experience, or for a more substantial career change.

Functional: experience may be listed as marketing, production, HR, or finance etc.

Project-based: involvements and achievements are described starting with most recent and impressive, or biggest projects.

Skills-based: here, one lists skills, such as communication, influencing, organisational or people, or creativity or entrepreneurial flair, with details of achievements, which exemplify such strengths. Concrete examples and corroborative evidence may be drawn from both in and out of work to substantiate claims.

For a technical CV: a combination of these can be valuable and effective.

Make your first impression count

Structuring a CV can be a tedious process, but it is vital that one creates a word perfect, neat, readable, well organised and user-friendly document, which is unique, impressive, and which portrays the correct, most favourable message and image.

A CV conjures up a first impression for a potential employer, who is probably inundated with resumes, and who is looking for reasons to discard one’s application, rather than to select it, during the initial sort. One secretary explained how her brief from her boss had been to simply bin any CV’s, which came on cheap or coloured paper, had a photograph attached, or were more than two pages long.

Recruiters rarely hear about those brilliant applicants whom they may have deselected in this manner, so the practice continues.

Your personal brochure

Logical, marketing techniques should be applied to this self-marketing document. It should certainly be tailored toward the position for which one is applying (do not simply keep adding to that old CV from University days); it should highlight one’s features and benefits, and it should be something of one’s own, with which one is comfortable and confident.

This is one’s own personal brochure, so do not detail the bad points of the product, e.g. Do not mention that failed ‘A’ level, because an interviewer will focus on that and waste valuable time discussing the negative, rather than achievement. It is permissible to omit the negative, but a CV must not be a work of fiction.

A CV should...

• Highlight value and sell oneself

• Provide a structure for interview (both for oneself, in that one knows one’s selling points and strengths, and why one is a good match for the position, and also for the interviewer, who will employ it to devise interview prompts)

• Provide a written record of the interview (one will generally have discussed the achievements about which one has written).

Always begin with the most impressive. You may have only 60 seconds to put your message across to the recruiter, so you must, like a good novel, capture the reader’s attention and interest immediately. Leave any bad news to the end, e.g. mature age, and place it on the right hand side of the page. Personal details are not selling points, so leave those to the end too. Whatever one’s marital status, or the age of one’s children, someone could read something into it, so omit these altogether. Similarly, do not list referees; if needed, they will ask.

Personal profile

Start with a summary or personal profile in no more than 30 words, demonstrating skills, attitudes, knowledge and experience (SAKE), and career objective. This is one’s personal banner, conditioning the reader to anticipate positive and relevant information. What follows must justify this statement.

E.g. ‘Effective, ambitious and dynamic graduate engineer, with 4 yrs experience in International Consultancy. Wish now to utilise technical, people, influencing, communication and organisational skills in an in-house, project management role.’

Positive impact words

There is no need to write Curriculum Vitae on the document; the reader should be able to see what it is. Just head the page with a name in bold, with address and contact details in small type centred underneath.
Use positive impact, action words in the past tense. These sound more ‘punchy’. No Is, e.g. ‘Negotiated’ rather than ‘liaised’, and ‘controlled’ rather than ‘I am responsible for’. Where possible, avoid other passive/reactive words, such as supported, rejected, provided, prepared, maintained, or rectified, although these can have their place.

Action/past tense words create an image of a concrete achievement, something done, finished. In addition, rather than detailing ‘Experience’, write ‘Career Achievements to Date’, suggesting plenty more successes to come.

Positive Results of your action or intervention

When listing jobs, what you did, with whom, and when, list job title on the left, organisation (no address) centre, and then date. When describing achievements, think SAY (Situation, Action, Yield), or FAB (Feature, Analysis, Benefit). Do not simply state responsibilities. Provide evidence to quantify and demonstrate success, i.e. proof of your claims.

E.g. Assistant Production Manager Hobart Widgets May 2001- present

‘I was responsible for supervision of production process’, creates a far less favourable impression than: ‘Managed graduate team of four. Promoted twice in one year. Streamlined processes and procedures, resulting in 15% saving in costs, improved efficiency and quality, and 9% increase in output’.

Think. What was the positive result of your action or intervention? Have you ever been promoted, elected, or voted into a position of responsibility, in or out of work? Have you won any prizes or awards? What difference did you make? What demonstrates that you did a good job and really have the skills and abilities to which you make claim? Prioritise your achievements, to match the job specification, and to tell the potential employer what s/he wants to hear.

What to/what not to include on your CV

Only list recent positions, unless previous ones are particularly relevant. Even irrelevant or out-dated qualifications may be omitted. Dates for qualifications may work against you. Did you obtain your degree before the recruiter was even born? The art of a well structured CV is often what is left out, rather than included. Do not be too keen to include every detail.

Do not mention health, especially if poor. Sporting interests can imply an active, fit energetic constitution. Interests in general can create an image, e.g. Chess or Crossword Puzzles could conjure up logical, intelligent, precise, problem solver in the reader’s mind.

Captain of Rugby team could imply sociability or organisational skills etc. Rather than simply ‘Reading’, one can qualify, e.g. especially autobiographies of post-war entrepreneurs. Think of the different images one might have of a person interested in amateur dramatics, versus one listing train-spotting as a hobby. However, do ensure that you have some knowledge and experience of pursuits you do put down.

Reference to salary is also best avoided on a CV. Indeed, such discussions are best left as late as possible in negotiations – although, this may not be possible if a recruitment agency is involved.

CV presentation

Presentation of the document is obviously very important. Use plain white, good quality A4 paper (possibly a more daring pastel for advertising or marketing etc. positions).

The margin at the bottom should be larger than that at the top and sides, and blocks of script should be balanced centrally.

Right hand justification may possibly give the impression of a mass produced document, so it may be advisable to avoid this.

Remember also that a spellchecker will not necessarily pick up typo’s so thorough proof-reading is vital.

Feel good about yourself

Having gone through the assessment process and emphasised your strengths in the structure of a CV, you will no doubt find that your confidence increases. You should rediscover what a valuable contribution you have made in the past, and you should have clear evidence that you have a great deal to offer to a future employer. Writing that dreaded CV can make you feel really good about yourself.

If you have already sent a CV, but now feel that this does not do you justice, simply send another, saying that you are forwarding an up-dated version for their records.

Sherridan Hughes

Sherridan Hughes

I offer sound and practical career advice for individuals, and I undertake talent management work for organisations too.