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Key errors in CV writing

Posted in: Applying for jobs, CV writing.

Published 18 March 2012 by Heidi Nicholson

I wish I were teaching grandma to suck eggs. However, the evidence I see before me too often confirms that in pointing out the simplest of things about CV writing and what can go wrong when you put pen to paper may also be the most useful subject for this blog. Much of what follows has been said time and again but in the name of spreading the word to the greater good of anyone seeking out ideas for what makes a good CV, I'll add my voice to the crowd.

I know it's a crowd as one of my key sources for this blog is a discussion on LinkedIn where the originator asks for people's top five reasons for rejecting a résumé  at first glance. Here is a selection of the most common answers.

1.    Poor spelling and grammar. This came top with everyone who commented and you really have no excuse for these. For spelling make sure that your spell-checker is set correctly (i.e. if you are in the UK make sure it is on UK not US English); proofread the CV and proofread it again, remembering that if the word is just wrong, not misspelt, the spell checker won't pick up your error; and get someone else to read it too. The opinions of a third party will also help with the grammar. If you know you are particularly weak in this area, it is well worth getting help.

2.    Untailored CVs. The people commenting on the discussion cited errors such as people giving objectives which did not match at all with the job being advertised and others remarked that people left in the wrong job title when stating what kind of job they were seeking. In the computer age, there is absolutely no excuse for not making at least the basic tweaks and changes required to align your CV with the job you're applying for.

3.    An accumulation of skills. One of the people who made this comment said that in this case "it’s doubtful they really have any". Don’t put skills on your CV if they cannot be borne out by the evidence you present. We see a lot of CVs where people claim to have all manner of skills but it's not evident how they acquired them, neither from what they have achieved nor from the kind of career they have had. One of the favourites of the moment is "good communicator", which is stated so frequently that it must be one of the buzz phrases of the moment. If people cannot see evidence for a skill, then it is largely meaningless.

4.    Transferrable skills. David’s already written about this at length (see "Are you Big in Japan?") and people frequently tell us that they consider they have "good transferrable skills" for one role or another. If you really have, you need to make the effort to demonstrate how your skills map onto the new role. Saying your skills are transferrable is not enough: without evidence it is likely to come over as patronising (remember that the person reading the CV may have spent many years acquiring the expertise to do the job you're applying for); and, if the reader can't see it, they may just think you're not making the effort to answer the stated requirements for the role.

5.    Fancy CVs. These come in many forms. People complained of over-formatted CVs which were "too busy" and so difficult to follow. Others mentioned odd attempts at originality – such as composing the CV as a poem.

For all we've said these are the basics, we're also only too well aware that they're not always easy to get right. Talking to someone about what to do and how to hit the mark can often help. This is what we do all the time. However you tackle this, if your CV isn't getting the results that you want, start by taking a long hard look at it to make sure that you've at least got the basics right.

Heidi Nicholson


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