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Construct A Top-Class CV: Part 2 – Structure & Content

by Mark Ellwood

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Welcome back to our series on constructing CVs. In our first instalment, we gave you a top-5 list of pointers on the overall impression that your CV should make when it lands in an inbox and is clicked on for the first time. 

 

In this post, we’ll take a broad look at the structure and content for the CV.

 

Structure/Content - The Three Main Challenges

 

  1. Order, Order: Perhaps the biggest challenge with getting a CV right is getting the structure right. Once your CV is opened, the reader is immediately looking for some clues as to how you’ve arranged the information (such as chronological order, reverse-chronological order, or skills-vs-experience style). If it’s not clear from just a few seconds of looking at the CV, the confusion that’s created can really kill the CV altogether

  2. Tri-Cornered Content. After structure, the next major challenge is the content itself. The trick is to use the magic triangle of skills-experience-achievements. Any CV that lacks one of these three essential content types falls short

  3. Space, The Final Frontier. The third challenge is to keep an eye on the space you are using. It’s tempting to list every single skill and achievement you picked up in each role, but the more you include at the top, the less space you have at the bottom (and remember our pointer from the last post about “2-pages good”). And don’t forget that there may be experience from positions you’ve held earlier in your career that are relevant for this application. So, this is where you need to be both prudent and judicious – picking what is important but also scrutinising the role requirements in the job advert

 

 

To help you navigate these treacherous waters, we’ve put together a Ten-Step Content Process. But do remember to treat this is a broad guide. It is by no means the only (or necessarily the ‘best’) way to go about constructing a CV. That really depends on the role for which you are applying. Rather, this is a way to understand what people are generally looking for when they open your CV.

 

Ten-Step Content Process

 

  1. Your name:  Let’s start with your name. This generally looks best in a slightly larger font (2 to 4 points larger than the rest maybe) and preferably on its own – there’s really no need to write ‘Curriculum Vitae’, ‘Resume’ or even ‘CV’ as this is already clear.  We’d also advise against letters after your name (MA, Ph.D.) – better to let your education record do the talking.  The exception to that is vocational certifications or charterships (CFA for example), where this can add weight to your profile from the start. If your degree is relevant (such as an accountancy degree), you can slip a mention of this into the opening statement, but only if it really sells you to the next role – remember the ‘first two paragraphs’ rule of selling yourself on the CV (see point 1 on our previous post). You might want to discuss this with your recruiter as well

  2. Personal Details: Where you live, mobile number, email address and visa situation (if relevant).  That’s all that is needed. It’s about how to contact you, the requirements for you to be employed and whether you can realistically make it to the office. It’s not about your music tastes or whether you own any pets. If you really want to write something like ‘Married, 2 kids’, that is up to you, but keep it to just those minimal details. If you are a foreigner but have residency, or a transferable employment visa, highlight this here (such as Permanent Resident in Singapore or TalentCorp pass in Malaysia)

  3. First Person: We’d generally recommend using the first person. Afterall, this is you writing about your experience. Third person can often come across as pretentious on your own CV – this isn’t someone else’s write up of your career for publication, and it isn’t a personal profile for a website. Rather, this is the best, but honest, version of you in your own words. However, try to avoid repeating “I…” (as in “I did this, I did that”).  You can get around this by delivering it in the No Person – “Managed the financial reporting”, “Managed a team of seven”. This has the added advantage of saving a bit of space

  4. Opening Paragraph: While the recruiter should be doing a sell on your behalf, having interviewed you properly, this can be a nice ‘way in’ to the CV and it can ‘frame’ the content in a particular way.  A short opening paragraph is usually received well, but it’s up to you. No more than two or three lines of text. Make it a good sell - if you’ve won any relevant awards, this is a very good place to mention it and attract attention immediately. But as much as possible, tailor this paragraph the role you are applying for rather than an all-encompassing ‘mission statement’

  5. Education:  List your highest qualification first, with dates you attended the establishment. If your results were very good – it is a good idea to mention them. If this is your first employment, you’ll want to list out your secondary education grades. If not, you can just list overall performance. Anything from your time in education that is relevant to your application should go in here – for example, some people like to include a one-liner on their dissertation topic, but only do this if it’s genuinely interesting to the prospective employer, and you’re prepared to talk about it at interview

  6. Employment: Get that experience, those skills and any achievements across. These sections are the most important on the CV – so give them most attention:

  • Write down the name of the employer, your job title and the dates (ideally including the month) that you were there. Write these down for each employment and write them in the same format every time to maintain consistency throughout the CV. We’d recommend listing employment from most recent first (reverse chronological order) as this puts the most recent, and most developed experience first. You want the viewer to be thinking “Yes, this is a good match for our job” rather than “I wonder when I’ll get to the relevant bits”

  • Give a nutshell description of the employer’s business and your role in it - and list the clients you worked on (if you had clients)

  • Write down the major responsibilities you had and activities you were involved in. In the case of consultancy work, try to relate these back to the clients at the same time (e.g. “helped devise a new auditing procedure for client X”) - therefore showing not just the skills, but also experience in their application

  • Include highlights and successes – successful projects, business wins, impressive media coverage, industry recognition and awards.  Mention team work, but try to get as much as possible across about what you, personally, achieved – this is the biggest sell on your CV. Any statistics really help to boost this section (e.g. “improved overall reporting efficiency of my department by over 30%”, “Doubled annual sales and improved customer feedback ratings by 20%”)

  • Repeat the above for each employer working backwards, reducing the amount of content each time (ideally, unless any previous roles are more relevant to your application).  Most space should be dedicated to your current role, least space to your first employment (as a general rule – see exceptions below)

  • Only list jobs that you’ve had since graduation or leaving school, everything else is irrelevant, unless it was some kind of industry related experience, in which case mention it very briefly

  1. Training, Skills, Languages: It’s a good time now to list any specific, relevant, formal training you’ve received. Maybe you went (or were sent) to a social media boot camp? Maybe you’ve attended courses on public speaking and presentation?  It all goes down here, as the icing on the cake.  Then list the IT skills you are fluent with. Talking of fluency, give any languages you are confident with and your level of fluency for verbal, written and reading – as some roles may place more emphasis on one of the three skill areas

  2. Interests: Your interests are good because they show you have a non-work side and can sometimes even be the starting point for an interview, especially if the interviewer shares your interest. But keep it short and sweet, not too whacky, not too mundane and describe them carefully.  So, for example, “Regular club squash player, enjoy learning the guitar and have a keen interest in botany” is fine, whereas “Enjoy socialising with friends” is a bit weak.  Who doesn’t enjoy socialising with friends? So, just write this section with care and attention. Of course, you might be a super fit pentathlon champion with several wins – in which case go ahead and put that in as well

  3. References: Always available upon request. If they can be contacted immediately, tell your recruiter, but don’t list on the CV

 

Structural Reminder: 2 Pages

 

The guidance above should help you to create a well presented and thought-out CV that flows well through your experience.  If you find it over-runs two pages, however, it’s time to start finding shorter ways of saying what you want to say. You can also play around with the page format.  Word usually has high default settings for the page margins, so you can decrease these and fit more text on the page.  Do try to get it on two pages though. You might also think about a smaller font size, although nothing below 10 point is advised - or it won’t be read without a magnifying glass. Also remember to use bullet points where possible instead of long-winded paragraphs.

 

Exceptions To The Rules:

 

  1. Last job not the most relevant: In this case, you’ll want to alter the amount of space you dedicate to a previous position and make it more prominent. If your current role is less relevant, make it as brief as possible

  2. A career in a different sector/function:  You may be making the jump across sectors or functions. This is only advisable if the job advert is open to other sector/functional expertise or if your recruiter has reliably informed you of this.  In this case, you need to spend some time finding all the transferable and relevant skills and experience from your previous career and highlighting these on the CV

  3. Early career: If this is your first or second job, your personality comes into play a lot more.  In these early CVs, you can mention more of your extra-curricular activities and those holiday jobs and work experiences that you had – and a line on what roles taught you

  4. Skills vs Experience style: This is where, instead of a chronological CV, you list out your skills and ability levels and experience separately, usually followed by a list of experiences in projects, followed by a very brief list of employments and dates in reverse chronological order. This is recommended for roles where the skills (such as computer programming skills and project experience for developers) are the MOST important thing in the application

 

Now you should be pretty much there with the CV, but in our third and final instalment, we’ll talk about some of the finer details of content - such as essential skills needed to progress in most roles.