How to Write a Winning CV

Write the Winning CV
Other CV Tips
A person reading resumes in a professional environment receives many applications each day. He or she is pressed for time, short on sympathy, perpetually suspicious and quite likely to ignore any response that bores, confuses, annoys, or seeks to con him or her.

Your resume is your "marketing brochure" and your marketing efforts must be focussed on your target market, the resume reader. Their responses to your efforts are governed by four major principles:
  1. Address my needs and priorities, not your wishes and aspirations.
  2. Don't tax my patience.
  3. Don't tax my credulity.
  4. Give me the information I want - and only the information I want - in a sequence that lets me make the most accurate snap judgement about you.

While it's true that a potential employer should have some concerns about what will make you a happy employee, their primary priority is getting their needs met. They are paying the money and thinking in terms of what value the new employee brings for that money. Resumes and cover letters that carry on ad nauseam about the your needs and goals are a definite turnoff.

If there's nothing at the top of your "marketing brochure" that serves as a product description and you simply jump into "Professional Experience", the reader naturally will assume that you want to continue doing exactly what you did in your last job.

When confronted with a pile of resumes, a reader does not actually read them on the look through. He or she scans them extremely quickly, approximately 20 or 30 seconds per resume. It is during this initial scan that a pile is created that the reader will actual go back and read. The balance are ignored or throw away. Those that are selected for further reading are read through very quickly (possibly 2 minutes per resume).

Accordingly, the most blatant sin you can commit is to submit something that's physically hard to read. You can't make a reader's job harder than it already is and expect to enjoy their favour. So no single-spacing or full declarative sentences (not, "I wrote the plan," but "wrote plan."). No 3 millimetre margins and nothing longer than two pages (unless the subsequent pages are labelled "Addendum" and contain non-crucial information).

Give the reader lots of space. Modern desktop publishing software and word processing programmes offer distinct formatting cues to aid a reader's eyes in scanning the page. Use quality, light coloured paper and a printer that produces a quality image. Create a resume that, upon first glance, triggers an involuntary response in the reader's head: "Thank you, for understanding how tedious resume screening can be."

Unless you're working in a creative profession (public relations, advertising, graphic arts or writing government budgets), avoid stunts like brightly coloured paper, Olde Englishe type, diagonal formatting, tri-fold mailers, etc. They tend to suggest that you're trying to stand out by artificial means rather than your own merits.

A professional employment consultant has read a lot of resumes and has seen a broader spectrum of lies, puffery, distortions, clever omissions, and creative historical interpretations than you can possibly imagine. Their ability to detect questionable information is legendary.

Any of your unsupported praise is rarely automatically accepted as gospel. You say, "significantly enhanced productivity". What do you mean by significant? You say, "major program". By whose standards? Do not use adverbs and adjectives unless they describe something objectively measurable. At best, they simply don't register, they become "invisible words." At worst, they cause your resume to be ignored.

Use numbers because they are believed instinctively. If you say, "significantly increased sales, lowered costs and improved productivity," the response is generally sceptical, however, if you say, "increased division sales by 14% in seven months while decreasing costs 23%" it will be believed. After all these figures can be objectively measured and checked. The reader thinks, "You wouldn't dare lie to me about something I can easily verify."

Use past-tense verbs expressed in tight telegram-like phrases: "Managed department. Drafted five-year plan. Recruited all staff. Negotiated entire transaction." They are preferred because they describe what's already happened. In an employer's mind, there's no better proof of what you can do than the fact that you've done it before. "Negotiated sale of six multi-million Rand shopping centres in 2 years" is a lot better than "able to negotiate high price property transactions."

Incidentally, about 80% of a reader's time and effort is spent on the first page of the resume, the second page gets a fast glance, usually to check your educational background, find the year you graduated from university, subtract 21 from that year and get a rough idea of how old you are. That means if there's really important information on page two, you'd better find some way to highlight it. Generally there is no particular interest in the personal section found on many resumes, and no interest whatever in whether you like to read, take long walks, or play chess.

Omit any controversial activities or memberships ("enjoy crocodile wrestling and Madam and Eve fan club meetings"). You don't need to state that your health is excellent or "references upon request", since everyone had better be healthy and have references.

Resume readers don't like being told what to think. They want information laid out for them in a sequence that allows them to use their own judgement to size you up. That's why many of them report on an almost fanatical distaste for functional resumes, in which the writer omits or downplays his career chronology and instead attempts to create a menu of marketable qualities.

A good resume reader can deduce a lot from your career path - where you started, how long you stayed, whether you shifted roles or settings, how fast and often you were promoted and, perhaps most important, who has seen fit to employ you. You can view a resume reader's mind set as one that sees almost everything in terms of trust, the risk to him or her if he or she guesses wrong about you, the stakes, the job's responsibilities and your previous accomplishments.

Accordingly your resume must answer the following series of questions focused on who has previously trusted you with what:

  1. What's the product statement here? (What do you claim to be in terms of level, roles/functions and prior work settings?) This information is found in the profile, summary statement or objective.
  2. Who trusted you before? (Pick 'n Pay? Well, they're pretty demanding. If they thought you were worth hiring maybe I can, too. Uncle Joe's Corner Cafe? That doesn't tell me much.)
  3. How long have they trusted you? (If it's more than about three years, you must have been of some value to them or they would have fired you, right? Twenty years without a promotion? Not much ambition there.)
  4. What were the stakes? What was the biggest thing they trusted you with? This usually is reflected in your job title.
  5. What were your responsibilities? (Stop! Don't brag yet. Just give me a nice, objective job description to show me the nature and scope of your responsibilities.)
  6. Did you do anything with those responsibilities? ("Now, give me some examples - past tense- of all the marvellous things you've achieved.")
  7. Who trusted you before that? How long did they trust you? What were the stakes there? Responsibilities? Accomplishments? If there's a lot of jobs or you're going back more than 15 years, collapse the history into a category called "Earlier Experience."
  8. Where did you go to school?
  9. Anything else I need to get a full and accurate understanding of you and what you offer?

All this data should hang together, paint a picture and not raise alarming, unaddressed concerns (Why is the date of your university degree missing? Why is there a four year gap in your employment history?). Without an answer to these concerns, File 13 awaits.

One last point. The resume doesn't have to say everything. It's a screening tool, a brochure to help employers decide who's worth meeting in person. There will be time in the interview process to flesh out details, amplify strengths, and demonstrate your personal attributes. A resume is a suitcase; travel light and don't try to turn it into a steamer trunk. If you keep it lean, objective, orderly, and logical, it will be one of just a few resumes will welcomed.

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