"I've asked several people for help with my CV, but I'm getting conflicting advice. What's the best way to make maximum impact?" Jonathan, Manchester.

No easy answers!

A quick look on Amazon reveals dozens of books dedicated to writing Power CVs, Impact Résumés and Winning Cover Letters. You can buy software to compile your CV or pay a CV-writing company. Many people have strong views on CVs. Are there 'rules'? Should your CV be one page or two? Printed on expensive paper? Include college jobs?

No wonder people find writing their CV so daunting. There is no one way, no de facto template. From the thousands of CVs that I have read, here are a few ideas that I have found to work.

What is a CV?

A curriculum vitae, or résumé, is a marketing tool. Its sales pitch is your skills and experience, achievements and accomplishments. Its goal is to win you an interview.

Getting started

Many jobs attract huge amounts of applicants. Two, even three, pages are fine - but your skills must be obvious with a quick scan of the top page. I call this the Two-Second Test - can I tell what you have to offer with just a quick glance? Key words need to be striking, avoid lengthy paragraphs, use bullet points with concise punchy sentences in plain language and beware jargon and abbreviations.

A few words on design

Stick to ordinary portrait single-sided A4 white paper with black ink. I have received all sorts - CVs on acetate, tracing paper, coloured inks, cut into shapes - and one printed on a large pink cushion! It might be creative and stand out, but employers and recruitment agencies will often want to photocopy or fax the CV.

You are likely to be submitting a CV by email - use a common format: MS Word, RTF or PDF (there are free PDF-makers on the web, like www.cutepdf.com). Sans serif fonts are easier to read, but make sure you use a standard machine font (Arial 11 works well for the body of the CV, clean lines and not too tiny) - if you use a special font, it might not be compatible on your recipient's machine. Avoid multiple typefaces and sizes. Put headings in bold, use italics where appropriate - white space and margins make it easier to read. Number your pages and include your name in the footer.

Contact details

Put your name in large letters at the top of the page (many people write 'Curriculum Vitae' across the top - we know what it is, what we need to know is who you are).

Make it as easy as possible for prospective employers to talk to you, so include your address, email, and mobile phone number. (If you are posting your CV on a website, then remember basic web security and just use an email address). I have left messages with many bemused relatives - so if you include your home phone, brief whoever is likely to answer. Take care with work numbers and emails.

You do not need any personal information such as date of birth, marital status, disabilities, health and details of parents or children. You might be asked for some of these details on an Equal Opportunities monitoring form, but this is separate from the selection process. There is no need to include a photograph unless it is requested, or if it is the norm in your industry (such as television presenters or newsreaders).

Mission Statement

An introductory paragraph summarising what you have to offer and where you see yourself going should be short and succinct. You could say something like "Business editor with experience of managing a multi-discipline team on award-winning consumer website, seeking to join a leading City magazine" or "Broadcast journalism graduate with work experience across a range of local and regional press, television and radio, seeking a role as a television reporter".

A good opening paragraph shows focus - and you can change it every time to suit the job or company that you are approaching.

Skills Table

Here is an idea I really like. Sum up all your core skills in one place. Use appropriate headings and bullet points and prioritise your strengths.

Have one heading for your core skills, for example journalism. Another for your value-added skills, such as project management. A third heading for software or technical skills, and another for anything that does not fit elsewhere.

Here is an example of how it could look:

Journalism
  • Reporting
  • Research
  • Interviewing
  • Sub-editing
  • Proofreading
Project Management
  • People management
  • Recruitment
  • Budgetary control
  • Tendering and proposal writing
Software
  • MS Word
  • MS Excel
  • Dreamweaver
  • MS FrontPage
  • Photoshop
Miscellaneous
  • Clean driving licence
  • French (fluent)
  • Spanish (spoken)
  • Teeline shorthand (100wpm)
Both employers and recruitment agencies may read your CV into a database, or you might submit it to an online search engine like Monster - these work by searching key words.

Career History

Use reverse chronology. State the months, years, name of company and job title:

May 2002 - current Bright Websites Limited
Web Editor
Briefly explain what the company does. Summarise your role, responsibilities and achievements in succinct bullet points. Avoiding "I" and "me" forces you to make each point start with a power word:
  • Edited leading monthly academic food journal and four annual supplements.
  • Managed team of four including a deputy editor, two reporters and administrator.
  • Achieved budget savings through partnership with sister publication and introducing new software.
If you do not know where to start, then get hold of your job description or appraisal documents for a list of key responsibilities. Be sure to make YOUR contribution and input clear.

Think about your achievements and successes. Why was this beneficial to the company? Think about when you have been at your best, and back up your statements with examples. If you have online work, include URLs.

You do not need to include reasons for leaving previous jobs - but do explain any gaps (like going to college, career breaks, maternity leave or travel).

Compress less relevant and older jobs. Only include school and college jobs where you think it demonstrates a useful skill, but do include any relevant work experience, like working on a local newspaper or hospital radio (see Making the Most of Work Experience). Compress periods of temping: "Jan-Dec 2004 Freelance work" - and then give details of the most relevant jobs and companies.

Detail statistics and figures that are important to your type of work. For example, sales jobs will be looking for your billing and targets - "achieved an average of 10% above targets".

I once asked an interviewee, who had casually mentioned "managing a team" on her CV, to tell me more. She told me that she managed 300 staff on multiple sites. This put her in a completely different league to her CV. However, do not give commercially sensitive information about your company - it will look careless and untrustworthy to your prospective employer.

Training

List any vocational and professional training, as well as any relevant professional memberships.

Education

In reverse chronology, list schools, colleges and qualifications. Grades are usually not important, especially if you have been working for a few years, unless you are using your CV to apply for a further course or graduate training programme.

Give brief relevant details of your courses. For example, if you have been on a journalism course, then it will be useful to list law, shorthand and any other vocational skills that you were taught.

Do not volunteer negative information - so no details on courses that you started but did not finish and do not list failed exams (believe me, people do!).

Hobbies & Interests

The perpetual "reading and swimming" on so many CVs, made listing hobbies unpopular. However, I say that they add colour and personality on what can be quite a mundane document. I have seen a few City journalists who included fire eating or magic amongst their interests!

Choose carefully - will your hobby be seen as interfering with your work? Are there any potential conflicts of interest? Charity and voluntary work might demonstrate relevant and transferable skills.

References

"Available on request" is often enough. It gives you the option to choose your most appropriate referees once you have been offered a job. If you do want to state them, then include two named individuals, their job titles and companies.

If you are recently out of school or college, include one non-academic referee. Make sure you have asked if they are happy to comment on you. It is a good idea to send them a copy of your CV.

The Covering Letter

Tell them why you are writing - is it in response to an advertisement? Say where you saw the advert and quote any reference number as well as the job title. Why are you interested? What can you do for the organisation? What are your strengths? Match the terminology used in the advert and job description.

Elaborate on your most relevant skills and experiences that are mentioned on your CV. Show enthusiasm for the company and the job - do some research by checking out their website and finding out as much as you can about them (see How to Prepare for that Crucial Interview). Demonstrate knowledge of their product, programme or publication. Keep your letter to about one A4 page.

Never, never, never come across as mass mailing. If you are writing speculatively, find an appropriate contact to address the letter to - check their website for contact details or just phone them and ask. I have received emailed CVs with dozens of names in the 'To' box, and I have also received cut-and-paste letters where they have forgotten to change my name after "Dear…" - it looks sloppy and unfocused.

Finally…

Here are some essentials to get the best out of your CV:
  • Print it off and make sure it looks good.
  • Spell check it.
  • Gets lots of feedback - show it to friends, family, trusted colleagues and people you network with. Ask recruitment consultants at employment agencies, and ask HR managers at companies you approach. Remember, they will all have different ideas, so getting a good mix will help you decide on what is most relevant and what works best for you.
  • Focus on achievement and success but never be tempted to bend the truth - everything should be accurate, honest and factual. Double-check dates and details. Anything on your CV might be raised at interview, and some companies use agencies that verify qualifications and other details.
  • Keep your CV alive. Most people update it only when they are seeking a new job, they add a few details, update a few others. Tinker with it all the time. It should be about the future and where you see yourself going.
An excellent CV requires effort, time, is focused on the future and is adapted through getting lots of feedback.

Daniell Morrisey is leading a CV and job interview clinic in London.
Click the link to find out more.

Ask Danny: To get your career questions answered by careers writer Daniell Morrisey simply post a comment to this article.

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