Writing a CV or resumé

Writing about yourself should be one of the easiest bits of writing you’ll ever be called upon to produce. You are, after all, one of the greatest experts in the world on this particular topic. (Three other contenders for that accolade are your mother, your lover and your therapist – not necessarily in that order.)

But writing about ourselves isn’t easy at all. That’s because we know so much about the subject – and the part that each life episode played in turning us into who we are today – that we struggle to reduce all that information to just a few paragraphs (or even a few pages). Undoubtedly, the passage in this website that I found the most testing was the Author page (except for the first and last sentences, which were really easy!). I sometimes think it would be much less painful to write an autobiography than a really good CV, although I have never actually attempted the first of those.

For many of us, writing a CV is the first time we experience the demands of writing about ourselves to people who don’t know us. And it’s the first time we realise that it’s not going to be as easy as we might have thought. (A quick word to any readers from North America: I’m going to use the term “CV” in the way that you use “resumé” – a short document to accompany a job application, not a detailed listing of all your academic credentials.)

Everything in your CV needs to make sense to a total stranger. It must also form part of a narrative that makes you look attractive to the employer you want to work for. The goal is to:

  • make a strong first impression
  • tell the story of your career
  • include a flavour of your life outside work
  • … and all in a form that’s easy to read.

First impressions

An article I read some years ago claimed that recruiters typically read a CV for 20 to 30 seconds before making an initial decision whether to reject the candidate or not. If that were true, job applicants would face a real challenge to get noticed. But it’s probably not true. Current research suggests that it’s even worse than that. Six or seven seconds may be all that a CV gets on a first reading.

It’s a truly frightening statistic and one which has reinforced my long-held belief that the primary goal for a CV must always be to scream out at the reader right away:

I’m someone you want to meet

The CV also needs to provide enough information to satisfy the requirement for honesty and to plant the seeds for a fruitful conversation if you get invited for an interview. But everything that goes into the CV must reinforce the initial impression that the recruiter should want to meet you and nothing must diminish or undermine that message.

I think everyone knows that a CV needs to include a section on all your previous jobs, with the newest jobs first and the oldest jobs last. But nowadays, with those first six seconds in mind, it’s quite common for a CV to start with some form of “overview” or “profile” to convey how it is that you match for what the recruiter is looking for. That way, before the reader even gets to the individual job histories, they can see your key skills, strengths, personal qualities summarised in as few words as possible.

You are also going to want to highlight your most relevant accomplishments. So you need to decide what they are. Then ask yourself this question: did those accomplishments all happen in your most recent job?

If the answer to that is “yes”, you can move straight on to the first job summary. But if the major achievements of your career stretch back over several of your past jobs, you need to do something to highlight them near the top of the CV so that they all get noticed. Describe those successes in a few bullet points immediately after the “profile” paragraph. Don’t leave the recruiter to read deep into the CV in order to spot the successes or else your CV may not survive the six-second cull.

Tell the story of your career

CVs are inevitably full of facts. But unless those facts stand out as inherently interesting they won’t be memorable. And you do want to be memorable, don’t you? 

Here is someone’s job description that you probably won’t remember very long:

Data reconfiguration and statistical factoring
Part of a two-person team that prepares the month-end management reports for the company’s six departments. If my colleague is absent, I cover his work, also.

Let’s try to make it more memorable:

Data reconfiguration and statistical factoring

  • Part of a two-person team which prepares the month-end management reports
  • Recently, when my colleague was away due to illness, I delivered twice my usual allocation of reports to a group of very grateful department heads. I made this possible by contacting each of the department heads in advance to agree dates when their data would be with me and individual deadlines by which they needed their report.

STARs may be good, but RATS could be better

That second bullet point looks deceptively simple, but a lot more thought went into it than you might imagine. I started with the well-known S-T-A-R model for describing work achievements:

Situation you were in
Task you were assigned
Actions you took
Result

Applying the S-T-A-R model to our candidate from data reconfiguration and statistical factoring (), I wrote this (I have marked-up the text with the letters S-T-A-R to show how the story follows the model):

[S] Normally, I am required to prepare the month-end management reports for half of our company’s departments. Recently, my colleague who does the other half was unexpectedly away due to illness. [T] My boss told me that I would have to do all the reports. [A] I contacted each of the department heads to agree with them dates by which their specific data would be with me and to ask them for deadlines by which their specific department really needed its reports to be ready. [R] All the department heads expressed their gratitude to me for coordinating with them ahead of time and, with the resulting co-operation on all sides, I got the month-end statistics back to them in time.

That’s much too long-winded for a CV and not the least bit interesting. We can do much better than that by subverting the S-T-A-R model. (It never ceases to amaze me that the model is described in a way that doesn’t bring out its best attributes, which is ironic, given that the model is supposed to help its users bring out their best attributes.)

Once you have worked out the S-T-A-R you want to write about, you then need to change the sequence of those four letters to make your achievements stand out. There are a number of different ways to do that, but we’ll start with the easiest – starting with the result. In fact, let’s reverse all four of the letters and re-write the story as R-A-T-S:

[R] Recently, I managed to deliver twice my usual allocation of departmental month-end management reports and won the gratitude of all the department heads for the way I worked with them. [A] I achieved this by contacting each of the department heads in advance to agree dates when their data could be with me and to ask for deadlines by which their department needed its report to be ready. [T] My boss had asked me to prepare all the departmental reports, instead of half as usual, because [S] my colleague was unexpectedly away due to illness.

This way around, the achievement really stands out (“delivered twice my usual allocation”). What recruiter  isn’t going to want to read on to find out how you did it? Notice, too, how the lengthy “Situation” hasn’t just been relegated to the end of the story, it has also been reduced from two sentences to less than one.

But we can do even better than that. Do we need to write out the “Task” explicitly (“My boss asked me to prepare all the reports”). If you know the candidate did twice the number when the colleague was away, do you really need to know they were asked to do that? Isn’t that obvious? For the final version, we can omit the “Task” and leave the “Situation” to emerge in passing, rather than spelling it out. And that’s how I arrived at the version I used above:

Recently, when my colleague was away due to illness, I delivered twice my usual allocation of reports to a group of very grateful department heads. I made this possible by contacting each of the department heads in advance to agree dates when their data would be with me and individual deadlines by which they needed their report.

Much of the time, the little scenarios you want to use in your CV can be made more interesting – and also shorter (remember those six seconds!) – if you write them up in the form “I achieved [Result] by taking [Action].” Include as little of the Task and the Situation as is truly needed to make the story comprehensible. Here are some examples where the Situation and the Task don’t need stating at all:

Brand marketing
Established my firm as a leading website developer by creating a distinctive image for our business, coupled with a quality reputation.

Quality assurance
Wrote a departmental handbook that identifies the critical success factors for our work and sets out a blueprint for colleagues to achieve high-quality results every time.

Team management
Developing successful project teams so that “together everyone achieves more”, by establishing roles and setting individual targets for team members within the overall project objective.

People development
Acquired a reputation as a counsellor of colleagues in difficulty by developing the skills and maturity of people working for me through programmes of ongoing coaching and counselling.

Is it a Task, an Objective or an Aspiration?

Not every achievement at work is the result of being assigned a Task. You may have set yourself an Objective (or an Aspiration – see below). If that’s the case, it may well change the way you should tell the story in order to get the best out of it.

Let’s look at an  example to see why and how, starting with the story written out in the form of the S-T-A-R model (or S-O-A-R, since I’m calling the second element an Objective):

[S] My employer was making significant losses on a product line because one of its manufacturing plants was out of commission. A number of redundancies were planned (including my own), which [O] I desperately wanted to avoid. [A] So I urgently undertook research into a key supplier’s cost structure, from which we identified a series of favourable negotiating positions that enabled us [R] to reduce the losses to a tolerable level until the suspended plant came back on stream. As a direct result, the redundancy program was revoked.

We could rewrite this scenario in the form “I achieved [Result] by taking [Action],” but look what happens if we do:

Assisted my employer to reduce significant losses and cancel a redundancy program by enabling the company to understand a key supplier’s cost structure and identify a series of favourable negotiating positions.

It’s short and it looks impressive. But by focussing merely on the Action and the Result, the story lacks any sense of initiative demonstrated by the employee who found a way to reduce losses that the employer had thought were unavoidable. In the context of a job application, that initiative is almost certainly at least as important as the Action and probably more so.

Let’s re-write the scenario, starting with some words which emphasise the initiative. We can do that by highlighting the employer’s decision to sack some staff and the writer’s desire to avoid that happening:

[S] Faced with redundancy because the company was making significant losses, I undertook [A] research into a key supplier’s cost structure, from which I identified a series of favourable negotiating positions that [R] enabled my employer to reduce the losses and cancel its redundancy program.

I don’t think it’s necessary to spell out that the writer’s Objective was “to avoid redundancy”. It’s pretty obvious from the S-A-R, what the unstated O was. But note how, in this instance, a brief reference to the threatening Situation, right before the action, makes the initiative really stand out. Note also that we don’t need to include anything about manufacturing plant being temporarily out of commission. Our aim is to tell a story about the writer avoiding redundancy, not to provide an explanation of what tipped the employer into loss-making territory in the first place.  

In general, you should aim to say as little about the company as you need to in order to highlight your own achievements, not theirs. So, for example, if the company has experienced tremendous success during your time with them, there’s no point in mentioning it unless you can do so in a way which looks good for you. If, for example, you were a major contributor to the company growing, or the growth going on around you made your job more difficult, you can enhance your CV by making that stand out. But just stating that you have worked for a company that experienced growth is unlikely to enhance your own standing in the eyes of a recruiter.

Finally, let’s take a look at Aspirations. In this context, I think of an Aspiration as pushing the challenge one step further than an Objective. An Aspiration is a goal that might not be achievable. Having the Aspiration shows that you are willing to aim high. Failing to achieve it would be disappointing, but not a sign of inferior work or incompetence. To see the difference, consider the following three descriptions of the same event:

Task:             To carry out a hip-resurfacing operation on the patient
Objective:   To enable the patient to carry out everyday tasks without pain
Aspiration: To have the patient return to playing sport

The actions are the same in all three cases: the ball and socket of the hip joint are going to be covered with metal. But the stakes get progressively higher with each description of the action. If the surgeon doesn’t deliver the Objective (elimination of pain), the operation would be regarded as a failure and the surgeon is unlikely to want to boast about it as an achievement. But the Aspiration is different: it involves something more than merely delivering an acceptable outcome. Here is an underlying story, set out in an expanded S-O-A-A-R format:  

[S] My patient faced having to retire from sport because the pain from his damaged hip was too great. He came to me for surgery which should [Objective] enable him to carry out everyday tasks without pain, but might end his career and even his chance of playing sport for fun. I said I would, however, try [Aspiration] to get him back to playing at his current level. I carried out [Action] an innovative hip-resurfacing operation which resulted [R] in the patient being pain-free and returning to his professional career less than six months later, with the chance of returning to the international arena a distinct possibility.

For this scenario, one could return to the format “I achieved [Result] by taking [Action].” But that risks making it sound like a routine operation. if we want to bring out the aspirational nature of the project, I would prefer this alternative formulation:

[Aspiration] Attempted to enable my patient to return to playing professional sport at the highest level following serious injury. [Result] Achieved his return to professional sport in under six months – with the chance of returning to the international arena a distinct possibility – by [Action] carrying out an innovative hip-resurfacing operation, for which the outcome would normally be [Objective] little more than the patient regaining the ability to carry-out everyday tasks without pain.

The various examples above show the S-T-A-R model being ordered in five different sequences. Mathematically, there are 24 different ways one can experiment with ordering the four letters S-T-A-R (and no less than 120 ways if you include both an Aspiration and an Objective!). I haven’t tried them all  and you shouldn’t need to either. Just focus on one essential rule: figure out what you most want the story to highlight and then choose a sequence which, first, gives that aspect the great prominence and, thereafter, provides just enough explanation for the story to make sense, but don’t waste the recruiter’s time with any unnecessary extra information.    

Hobbies and non-work items

Many people like to include some of their hobbies and non-work interests in a CV. But I’m not sure people put enough thought into why – or how – to do it. The two questions to ask yourself are: (1) what do those hobbies say about me? and (2) how should I describe them so that they strengthen the message I want my CV to convey?

If you’re applying for a role in which teamwork is crucial and you play a lot of team sport, it hardly needs saying that you can enhance your application by mentioning that fact. But you do need to mention that you play the sports that you list, not just that you “enjoy” them, which could just mean that you like watching them on TV.

Similarly, if you’re applying for a job as a software engineer and your hobbies include playing chess and solving puzzles, it makes sense to refer to that in your CV because it sends a message that you relish the challenge of overcoming intellectual obstacles; you’re not someone who can only follow precedent.

But what if it’s the other way around? If you’re applying for a software engineer role and your main hobby is football, is any purpose served by mentioning it? Possibly not. Unless … well, unless perhaps you’re a student of football tactics or maybe you are constantly devising new free kick strategies for your team. Now that would be worth spelling out in your CV. Try to find a reason to explain how the hobby helps to paint the overall picture of you, even if it’s just by way of an exception: “I find it hugely relaxing for just 90 minutes a week not to be thinking about how to solve a problem.”

If you have been Chair of an organisation – even one related to your hobby – it says something about your leadership skills. So you’ll almost certainly want to include that. But watch out for unintentionally negative messages. If you served as Chair and Finance Director at the same time, what is that saying? You may think it shows your hard work and devotion to the cause. But a recruiter may just interpret it as indicating that the organisation is very small – which undermines the leadership message. It’s probably better just to say you were the Chair (if you want to highlight leadership) or the Treasurer (if you want to highlight finance).

Take care, also, not to send out a negative message by describing your hobbies inappropriately. If you list a dozen hobbies, it could easily give the impression that you struggle to maintain focus – or maybe that you are prone to exaggeration. If the long list of hobbies is genuine, try to find a neat way to tie them into something positive – like this, for example:

I volunteer at the local youth club, where I’m responsible for the kids’ sport. That means, currently, I have to show an interest in football, rugby, cricket, darts, tennis, table tennis, basketball, billiards and snooker.

Presentation

I’ve always been told that it’s best to keep a CV to two pages (three at the most – and only one at the very start of your career) and I’ve never seen any reason to doubt that advice. Recruiters don’t want to  know your whole life history at the CV stage (or ever!). They just want enough information to decide whether to interview you and – if they do want to – what particular aspects of your life and career to ask you about. The more detail you force into the CV, the greater the danger that the recruiter will skim-read … which means they could so easily skim over the nuggets you especially want them to notice.

Make it easy for the recruiter to find the key highlights in your CV. Use headings to make sure the Summary and Major Accomplishments stand out. And leave plenty of white space on the page. Most people know by now that they should never, ever reduce the font size in order to squeeze loads of content into the number of pages they have decided to submit. It’s just as true for the page margins and the spacing between the lines. If the lines are too wide across the page, or too close together, to make an easy read, those crucial words may get missed.

Squeezing extra words onto a page where they don’t naturally fit is like speaking faster at the end of a presentation. If the material is important enough that you want the recruiter to take it on board it, why would you ever present it in a way that can’t easily – or comfortably – be read?

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