Write a passable CV/resume

Some CVs are absolutely terrible. Here’s what I’ve learnt about making mine and others’ passable. That means, good enough for an interview.

Yes I use ‘CV’ because I’m from the UK.

Summary of this guidance

  • Someone reading your CV should quickly understand that what you’ve done in the past makes you likely to help them achieve their business goals.
  • Bad CVs take ages to understand - they have large blocks of jargon-heavy text. They focus on activities rather than added value.

Two purposes of a CV

  1. Purpose 1: Qualifies you as worthy of a phone screen
  • When you submit an application the person who receives your CV wants to understand whether to invest a 30 minute phone call in you.
  • This means: does a glance at the experiences and skills make it obvious that you could do the job well? If your experiences don’t make it blatant that you’ve already delivered what they need delivering, and your skills don’t show you delivered it the right way, then it’s harder to see you’ll get to interview.
  • I don’t believe you need to give them a comprehensive view of your employment and education. It’s not a background check. Just make sure the employers on there match is also on your LinkedIn.
  • This first stage is sometimes performed by a computer. So make sure you include keywords that match the job spec.
  1. Purpose 2: Used to guide an interview and build a narrative
  • For phone and in-person interviews the interviewer will have your CV in front of them. They will use it to structure their thinking about you.
  • Sometimes it will be printed out and covered annotations, circles around important points and question marks around points the interviewer wants to drill into. Give them space to do this. Leave margins on all four edges and between the sections.
  • Other times the interviewer will be opening it as an attachment to an email from HR, just as you begin speaking. So make sure it it’s easy to follow. Give them hooks. It should be easy to attach what you’re speaking about to a place on the page.

Three characteristics of a good CV

  1. Fast to skim
  • Clear information hierarchy is essential. Think about a good factual website. People shouldn’t need to read the blocks of text to know what the section refers to.
  • Specifically, each project for an employer/organisation that you mention should have its own space which separates it from other projects. Generally this means bold text and/or a heading.
  • Visually-appealing CVs shared on design websites look beautiful and minimalist. And they’re hard to parse. Make it easy to understand, not beautiful.
  • If someone can’t glance at your CV and see X jobs with Y projects at each within three seconds, then it’s not fast enough to parse.
  1. Impact-driven
  • Lead every item with what you’ve achieved for the business. Then show that you achieved it using the skills your interviewer is looking for.
  • Bad CVs focus on activities. They talk about ‘completing’ tasks, ‘organising’ projects and ‘liasing’ with other people.
  • Instead, show that you improved real business outcomes. Instead of showing that you did the activities, show the effect that you doing them had.
  • Normally the outcome should translate to revenue up or costs down. (Customer satisfaction, launching strategic projects, keeping team members’ morale high all eventually map to revenue up or costs down.) Otherwise, why would the interviewer care?
  1. Numbers everywhere
  • Impact should almost always be demonstrated by a number. Ideally, a percentage change.
  • Many recruiters and interviewers skim CVs for numbers only, so use digits where possible.
  • Even if you can’t put a number to the impact, you still need to express how it moved the business further towards achieving its goals.
  1. Relevant to tickboxes
  • Avoid filler. An item might seem important to you, but if it doesn’t help someone tick a box on the job description next to your name then it’s not relevant and probably filler.
  • Anything without a tangible impact or skill probably isn’t relevant. Education below university level isn’t relevant. Casual work and summer jobs aren’t relevant, unless they obviously are (i.e. in the same industry). Anything that makes you a good person but not necessarily better at the job isn’t relevant (but you can include one, to show that you’re not a cyborg).

Specific layout guidance:

  • One page should be the default. Only stretch to two if you have so many years’ experience that
  • Sans serif font.
  • Black and white, and be careful with grey.
  • One-liners under a name to quickly explain yourself and each employer can be useful.
  • These points can be ignored if you have a really good reason to do so.

Process tips

  • Share your CV with other people. Give them two minutes (yes, time it) to read it then ask them first to explain your employers and projects back to you, and second tell you what impacts you made.

  • Keep old versions. Just make sure your versioning system is clear so that you don’t accidentally send someone the wrong one.

  • Expect rejection. People will ignore your application or say they have received a high volume of applications, even if you’re a good fit for the role. There are lots of potential reasons for this unrelated to your suitability.

  • Don’t overdo the tailoring. It’s a tradeoff between quantity and quality. Most CV guidance tells you to go for quality and tailor your CV to the company, presumably because it makes CVs sound like a fine art. The reality is that employers look at your CV for companies and projects that are a good fit for them. A clearly-explained series of projects with measurable impacts doesn’t become bad because it’s not ‘tailored’. And you’ll get rejected from so many there’s no point in limiting yourself.

  • Caveat

    • This is only what I’ve learnt makes a good CV. Maybe other people have hacked a better approach. More importantly I don’t have data about what works, only advice and anecdotes.