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Write a Damn Good CV: Use the rules of fiction to sell yourself on paper!

UCL Careers29 September 2015

As a seasoned Applications Adviser, I’ve seen countless CVs from students and graduates – some good, some bad. Who am I kidding? Mostly bad.

“What do bad CVs look like?”

Aimless. Poorly marketed. A document detailing work history; a list of roles or tasks performed under job titles, small fonts, perhaps a generic and often unnecessary career profile – and no personality. Verdict: just a record of characterless details unlikely to get the employer’s attention.

“So what’s a good CV?”

I hear you ask.

Let’s first understand the point of your CV!

The purpose of writing a CV is to get you to an interview. The CV is your marketing ploy to marry you to your dream job. It’s the professional representation of you, which demonstrates the value you’re going to offer to the company or organisation.

Think about a character in your favourite book. For example’s sake, let’s choose Harry Potter. Imagine the story taking a different turn – he never had that scar on his forehead, he was nobody’s ‘chosen one’. Not a great tale here then! Similarly your CV is a thrilling version of your story – you need to be the ‘hero’ they’re looking for.

Harry has a lightning bolt shaped scar as part of his personality trait that makes him special and stand out. What you’re essentially doing on your CV is re-presenting yourself as the character the employer is looking for.

To find out which personality traits to convey, look to the person specification outlined with the job’s description.

The Making of Harry Potter/Dave Catchpole/Flickr.com

The Making of Harry Potter- Creative Commons/Dave Catchpole/Flickr.com

Make sure the first page mirrors most of the essential skills and qualities they’re looking for

Damn good CVs are selected in a matter of seconds. On first glance show the employer that you’re their ‘chosen one’. Highlight those qualities preferably on the left hand side throughout the page; bolding, italicising or underlining are all good ideas. Bullet points down the page before key words are also quite effective.

Write out your work history in terms of relevance

A good story is a page-turner and begins with a bang. At this point you can choose to tease the employer with an overview of your ‘hero’ qualities and your experience in the same battlefield, but this must be credible and works well if you have a certain amount of years experience within that field.

Write what you have achieved backed up by facts and don’t bore the poor reader with generic features: ‘dynamic’, ‘hardworking’, ‘enthusiastic’ – these words are penned to the point of extinction and are meaningless without proof. A good idea is to bullet-point your main achievements being careful you’re always mirroring their person specification.

Create titles such as ‘Relevant Experience’ or be even more specific to the industry you’re applying: ‘Publishing Experience’, ‘Finance-related Experience’. This is followed by ‘Other (or Additional) experience’.

Show don’t tell

I love this element of fiction. It separates the bestsellers from the worstsellers.

In the case of CV writing, you could say ‘Sell don’t tell’. To sell yourself on paper means to present a professional version of yourself that proves you’re the ideal candidate. Write not only of the skills you’ll bring to the job but of the value you will add if hired.

The CV demonstrates not only that you can perform the job to a high standard but that you will deliver results as shown by your past experience.

In this sense employers don’t want to see a list of the tasks you performed in your previous experiences, they want to see what you achieved, to this end you could begin your bullet points with phrases such as ‘Raised customer satisfaction by…’ or ‘Supported 5 team members successfully by…’ even ‘Completed group project ahead of time…’ Compare that with ‘Involved customer service…’ ‘Working in a team to…’ and ‘Duties included managing a project and meeting deadlines’. Clearly the first lot of examples makes for an interesting story and presents a character worth putting your faith into.

Bestselling writers always think from the reader’s perspective

Put yourself in the employer’s shoes and imagine assessing the CV from their perspective. You know what the employer is looking for – the blue print of their hero is on the person specification. In a ten second glance does your CV portray this character? It doesn’t take long for a reader of fiction to move on to the next book if it’s devoid of interesting personalities.

Create suspense for the reader to turn to the next chapter

Let’s say the final section of your CV is the end of Chapter One. Chapter Two is the interview. For employers to further your application to the next stage, they need to feel that you’re a character worth investing in. We wouldn’t invest in Harry Potter if we didn’t think he had the ability to vanquish Voldemort. We put our trust in him because we were made aware of his perseverance and personality.

To conclude your CV with a heading such as ‘Interests and Activities’ is a good way to showcase your intention and character traits. After all, the employer wants to know if you’ll be a good fit into the team and it’s a great section to illustrate your values – hopefully these match the objectives of the company or organisation too.

Don’t just write Travelling, Playing football, Calligraphy, Photography. There’s no credibility here. Treat each passage, each sentence and word as a step in the ladder to your ideal destination. Like fiction, provide details and build a world that a reader believes in. For example, ‘Travel: extensively journeyed through South East Asia, recently visited Paris.’ Equally you could use this area to reflect again key attributes listed in the employer’s specification. ‘Meeting people from different backgrounds and cultures: travelled to South East Asia and Europe within the last year.’

If you play a sport write how often you train and for how long you’ve been playing, e.g. ‘3 years playing football, training twice weekly.’ The same goes for other hobbies and be specific about them explaining your interest, ‘Digital photography: undertaking an online course.’ This shows commitment and dedication—virtues in the workplace.

Are you commercially aware? What reflects this? Perhaps you’re subscribed to relevant newsletters, magazines and journals that show you’re keeping up-to-date with news and changes in the industry.

Aim for writing succinctly holding back just enough detail so the reader will want more.

Suspense is about engagement as it is about leaving an air of mystery. ‘There is definitely something about this person. I want to meet her face to face.’ Meeting you in person will solve that mystery.

All great books have that page-turning quality; all you must do is follow the rules of fiction!

Come and get your CV checked by one of our Application Advisers.

– Payal Patel, Application Adviser, UCL Careers