To maximise your success, you will need to be prepared to edit your CV to target particular types of job, presenting the information that is pertinent to the employer in a concise and readable way, after all, your CV isn't your memoirs - it's a literary crowbar - a tool for prizing doors open!
Let's start with an anecdote from the author to demonstrate why this is so important: long ago in a previous career, I once had the pleasure of sitting opposite a hiring manager. One day a representative from HR came in asked the hiring manager if he had looked at a batch of CVs that HR had sent through. The hiring manager picked up a stack of paper about five inches thick and said "these?". The HR representative nodded. The hiring manager replied that he “didn't hire unlucky people” - "unlucky" in the sense that there wasn’t time to read their CVs - and dropped the stack into his wastepaper basket. This is not meant to make you curse managers, but on the contrary, to give you a flavour of the volume of CVs they are faced with.
If you have a PhD in chemistry (for example) then dedicating a full page to explaining your thesis might be just the ticket for a chemistry role; however, if you are applying for a non-chemistry role, then whilst the fact that you have a PhD will tell the reader something of your intellect and self-discipline, the technical details will likely not mean much to them. Keeping a CV focused is a task a good recruiter can assist you with.
Word or PDF?
Most CVs are created as Word or PDF documents; it doesn't really matter which, but sometimes PDFs created from other documents can look slightly "photocopied" when printed. Recruiters may on occasion need to flag up a problem in a CV to its author, and that is much easier to do using the review feature in Word. LaTeX is rarely used outside academia and should be converted to Word or PDF. LibreOffice or OpenOffice files can be opened in Word although their appearance may change slightly. Mac Pages documents should also be saved as Word documents.
Personal photos don't significantly help or hinder, but if you add one please ensure it looks presentable and professional.
Other photos such as images of products you've worked on can be quite informative, but bear in mind that the CV may become impractically large which may impact on your popularity with the recipient. The CV may also end up being printed and the photo may not print well.
Style and Grammar
Some CVs read like a good novel whereas others read like the footnotes to an Inland Revenue form. HR departments are very busy places so it's important to write in a style that's easy to read.
To some extent the readability of your CV will depend on your subject matter. If you are a System Administrator, for instance, your CV may be acronym-heavy, reflecting the large number of hardware and software systems that you are experienced in dealing with. That said, some things can help:
- If you have a spelling and grammar checker available then it's always a good idea to use it - at the very least it should highlight problems that need a second read through. Some common checkers then go on to propose fixes that are worse than the original, so be prepared to ignore their suggestions. It may sometimes seem that adding a few definite or indefinite articles or punctuation marks here or there to keep the grammar checker happy is a meaningless pursuit, but it can improve the flow of your writing and make it more likely that the reader will persevere.
- Try to keep the tense of your descriptions consistent. If you are describing a former role, then it shouldn't be in the present tense. Most CVs just grow over time, often without major revisions, so it's easy to add a new role and forget to correct the tense on the previous one.
- Given that some CVs can be hard to read, it can be tempting to highlight key phrases using bold or capitals to save the reader the trouble. This may work, but it can also be quite off-putting - like having someone SHOUT at you part-way through reading a long and intricate sentence.
- As this note relates to the UK technical job market, I would suggest using UK English spelling, and if you are British then it may also seem a little odd for you to use US spellings, but it doesn't matter so long as you are consistent.
- Try to be consistent with capitalisation. Job titles, course titles, publication titles, names of products etc. can be grey areas but random capitalisation isn't a great look.
- Check that acronyms have the correct capitalisation, for example MATLAB should be in capitals and NumPy in camel case. Explain any acronyms that can't be easily looked up on a search engine.
- A CV can lose visual impact if the formatting and indentation has gone awry. To minimize the chances of this it’s best not to rely on manually spacing, but rather to use the word processor’s features intended for the task.
Subtleties of Language
Bear in mind that some perfectly innocent phrases can carry a subtle negative undertone, for instance: "As part of my role, I had to ensure that all paperwork was completed promptly." It's purely a statement of fact, but in saying "I had to" you can make it sound like it was something of a chore which you may be loath to repeat in a future role.
On a CV it's always best to sound positive; to misquote Eminem slightly:
"No matter what you just been through
You gotta be on the up and up
And everything's gotta be all good!"
Another thing to bear in mind is how you describe your work. For instance it may be that everything you worked on is a collaborative effort, in which case that’s how it should be described, but on the other hand, if you have personal achievements and specialisms, then there’s nothing wrong with pointing this out in order to highlight your initiative and ability to work independently.
Emphasis and Level of Detail
It's rare to apply for a new job that's a carbon copy of one's current role, so inevitably you will wish to emphasis the parts of your experience that are relevant to the new company and de-emphasise the parts that aren't.
One way of accomplishing this is simply to describe the relevant parts in more detail and briefly note or even omit the rest. Don't feel compelled to list every achievement or responsibility - if something isn't going to help you get your next job then perhaps it shouldn't be taking up much space on the CV.
Another way to create emphasis is the ordering of bullets and sections. For instance, if you have worked at great companies but didn't shine academically, then put the most flattering section first.
Grammar, spelling, and style are absolutely vital for technical authors. The CV is the first and possibly final example of your work that the hiring manager will see, so ideally it needs to be linguistically sound, to read well, and to be concise. As you are being hired for your ability to create great documentation it's probably also best to avoid using layout templates, just in case your CV ends up as one of several near-clones arriving in the hiring manager's in-tray.
This should just be a brief summary of yourself; sometimes if you have very broad experience it can help glue the rest of the CV together and give the reader an idea of what you see as your core skill set, but other times it may be a bit superfluous and just risk repeating the same information. It can be quite nice to see a candidate's career aspirations and areas of interest listed here, but remember that these may need adjustment when applying for particular roles; for instance "aspiring to move into management" may not play well if you apply to a company where there is no scope for doing this.
Whilst the personal statement is an opportunity to sell yourself, it's probably best not to appear to be trying too hard; for instance starting with "I am an award-winning..." may lead the reader to suspect that not much has happened since that award was awarded. Starting with your number of years’ experience may be counterproductive, after all, it's the quality rather than the quantity of experience that counts.
There is a school of thought that holds that it is a bit too brash to say "I" - and in trying to avoid this we often see CV written in the third person: "John Doe is a hard-working and diligent engineer etc.". Please don't do this! This is subjective, but we find companies respond less well to this style, and it may be because some readers find the apparent compliments about John Doe to be less sincere (as he wrote them), whereas “I am a hard working and diligent engineer” is taken as a simple positive statement. (This may also be because after switching to the third person, the author of the CV takes the opportunity to lay it on quite thick.) Having said that, it's not brilliant to start every sentence with "I", so perhaps rephrase a little to avoid this.
Some companies will not be overly concerned with your academic grades so long as you have the relevant experience to convince them you can do the job. Other companies will expect top grades from very highly ranked universities.
The first person to see your CV may not have a technical background, and without an easy comparison between degree courses, may fall back on the only directly comparable exams. These will usually be your exams immediately before beginning university such as A-levels or Baccalaureate. Sometimes grades from overseas systems are hard to compare directly with A-level grades, but if the grades are strong it's still worth mentioning them.
If you are dealing with a recruiter, then it's always best to share your grades with them as the company may well ask and expect the information to be immediately at hand.
Occasionally, a CV is sent in which mentions having done a degree, and perhaps the subject, but doesn't mention the institution - needless to say this raises more questions than it answers.
Unless your degree subject is completely irrelevant to the job you are applying for it's probably worth going into a bit of detail, perhaps a brief description of your thesis, or final year project, exchange visits, or a few modules you excelled at. The intention here is to avoid the impression that you didn't engage with your subject beyond the minimum needed to achieve your grade, though this becomes less important when you have subsequent work experience.
If you graduated recently, then positions of responsibility and non-technical holiday jobs can help show you as a more sociable and mature individual, but it's best to avoid lengthy descriptions of these.
With some educational systems degree courses can take several years and in others, years can be repeated until a satisfactory mark is achieved. It is therefore worth stating when the course started and ended (month and year).
A separate section within the CV helps the reader to gain a quick understanding of the candidate's skills and therefore whether it is worth their reading further. It does not in itself give a good idea of the relative strength of each skill or the overall level of expertise.
Skillmeter-type graphics with bars to indicate levels of confidence can help slightly in some cases, but skills should be tied back to the education and work experience where they were gained. For instance, if the reader can see that you have excellent C++ because you spent six years as a software developer working on a computer-aided design tool with all code written in C++11, then it will carry more weight than just saying excellent C++ in your skills summary and then not mentioning it in the description of your experience.
Due to the fast-changing technology landscape and the fragile nature of human memory, most employers will only really be interested in the most recent ten years of your experience. Your current role (unless it was very short) should be described in the most detail, and earlier roles can increasingly be summarised as they fade from relevance, though they should not be omitted entirely, as this means the reader has no idea what your early career involved. This brevity will also help if you are someone with a long career and don't wish to look like your skills are centred on now-redundant technologies.
Gaps in employment histories usually need some explanation even if a brief note to say that you were travelling, looking after a sick relative etc. Simply leaving dates off a period of employment or just listing the year you started and finished rather than month and year will create the ambiguity needed to hide gaps, but is rather obvious and is likely to be viewed as an attempt to “paper over the cracks”.
Repetition should be avoided - at best it suggests that you haven't proof-read your CV. It can occur when each period of employment has subsections such as "responsibilities" and "achievements" where you may end up listing the same topic in both sections.
Some roles have common elements regardless of the company where you work - for instance, Test Engineers will often be required to enter test outcomes in a bug tracking system, and we often see CVs with similar text cut and pasted into the description for each post someone has held. In this circumstance, it may be preferable just to summarise the common parts of the role and spend more time describing any unique attributes, such as a description of what was being tested.
For long term contractors applying for permanent roles, it may prove a challenge to convince the Hiring Manager that you will stay put for long enough to justify the investment in training you up. There's not much that can be done about a long list of short-term roles, so the best approach here is likely to be to focus on your skills, and provide a personal statement or cover letter with a convincing reason why you are now interested in a permanent job.
A problem sometimes faced by postdoctoral students seeking to move into industry is that it's possible to sound too keen on your research. Companies hire only because they have to - they have work that has to be done and they need someone who is going to be engaged and interested enough to do it. It's therefore counterproductive to give the impression that you might prefer to be back in academia. For this reason, transitioning from academia to a commercial role becomes increasingly difficult with the number of postdocs completed.
Examples of Previous Work
Technical writers, web developers, and product designers will often need to supply some links to examples of their earlier work. It's worth checking periodically that these links are still live and that website you wanted to showcase isn’t up for sale or down for maintenance.
Hobbies, Interests, and Personal Projects
Hobby projects can be a very valuable addition to the CV, especially if you have limited commercial experience. There's nothing like evidence that you have spent your own free time on a subject to convince an employer that you are an enthusiastic candidate with the energy and drive to get things done. For software projects it's great if you can include a link to publicly accessible code repositories such as GitHub with a proviso that there is code there that's worth the viewing.
However, if your GitHub account is very sparse then it may do more harm than good to reference it, although the ideal solution is to write more code rather than remove the link from your CV. GitHub can highlight bad habits as well as good, so it's worth checking your code in incrementally as you add features and fix bugs. It gives a feeling of confidence to see a history of commits for a file with sensible check-in comments such as "fixed memory leak", "added scrollbar" etc. It's less good when the whole project has been added in a single commit as it's not obvious where the code came from or who wrote it.
Right to work is vital and is not something that can be gotten around. If you need sponsorship it is best to note it on your CV. Nationality is generally only important when applying to companies that will require a security clearance, but it is good to mention it along with any dual nationalities. It's also useful to know if you have a driving licence. Date of birth isn’t necessary and is best left off.
"References available on request" is the best option - it's mercifully rare, but it has been known for companies to approach referees even before interviewing, if their details are included. Nothing quite compares with the thrill of your current manager receiving a reference request for you even before you've heard back on your application!
Hopefully some of the thoughts discussed in this article will have been helpful. Every CV is different, and it’s difficult to cover every case. If you’re looking for specific advice on your CV with a view to making applications, contact ECM to discuss jobs we may be able to suggest to you, since CV review is just part of the service we offer our candidates.