Two things before we begin our guide to improve your CV.
Firstly: this document is based on Juggle staff’s collective history in recruitment; we’ve got dozens of years of experience and in our time we’ve seen literally thousands of CVs. Because you can upload your CV to kick-off your Juggle profile we also see countless new ones every day.
Second, you might recall our blog article about some inventive CVs, the lessons they teach and what we would like to see from hiring documents in future. In that article we were fairly disparaging about CVs as a concept. We just don’t think a world where they’re a job-seeker’s primary tool is leading to the best outcomes. BUT, just like in that article, we’ll admit that CVs are – for now – what we have to work with, so we want them to be as effective as possible.
We’ve decided not to sit around and wait for something better to come along: we’re working on a “CV of the future” product right now. Watch this space.
In the meantime, however…
Keywords and the basic principles of a CV
You are the product. The employer is the buyer. Your CV is a SALES document: it might be the only advert for you that they ever see, so you better make sure it’s effective.
A good CV follows the same basic principles as any worthwhile advert. It needs to be compelling, concise and tailored to the audience.
Let’s begin with that final point. Four basic groups of people are going to read your CV:
- Line managers/team leaders
- HR and talent professionals
- Competent recruiters
- Incompetent recruiters
A good CV is going to have to hit all four of them (like any sales document, you absolutely need to account for incompetence, laziness and plain old time-pressure when creating a CV). The most efficient way of communicating with all these groups? Keywords.
Just as keywords are still the main element of job advert SEO, so are they the key principle of CV recognition. This applies both to the dreaded Applicant Tracking Systems – the tech that online job boards use to (hopefully) drag your CV out of the slush pile – and the more traditional matching that recruitment professionals do with their eyes.
In both cases the important thing is keeping the keywords relevant. A keyword is not just a “good” word. Words and phrases like “flexible”, “detail-oriented” and “superb multitasker” might sound great as generic additions to a CV, but unless the role in question specifically requires these attributes they’re so much chaff (to be honest, even if the role does require these attributes, these are still far too broad – you can find more exact and relevant keywords).
Ideally the keywords will be tailored to the specific role you’re applying for, but we appreciate that this isn’t always possible or even practical. Luckily the conventions of a CV lend themselves to surfacing valid keywords and we’ll talk about that in the next section.
One final point to remember: keywords can (and should) be incredibly diverse depending on sector and role. If you’ve got something you think is non-standard but you’re convinced is relevant then go for it – trust your experience. As an illustrative example we are proud to present a segment of the CV introduction from one of Juggle’s finance professionals (we’ve highlighted the keywords… and we asked their permission):
“Bringing my experience from two of the UK’s fastest growing startups with specific knowledge of finance, operations and investor relations, I have been consulting businesses in London, Amsterdam, Berlin, Zurich and Milan.
Here we’ve got skills (consulting), operational areas (finance, operations, investor relations), and a specific business type (fast-growth startups). For someone in finance the cities are also keywords (ATS software may match “finance” with “Zurich”, and a professional who knows anything about finance will recognise the word without thinking).
Structuring your CV
The “standard” CV is divided into four or five sections, and while the ordering of these sections might change, their inclusion has become standardised for a reason. We’ll go through them one-by-one.
When constructing your own CV, remember that it needs to be a compelling document. Start with your strongest elements, and order them honestly. If your academic qualifications are the most impressive thing you have to work with, start with that. If your skills set you apart make sure they’re obvious from the outset. This sounds like a basic point, but we’re constantly surprised by the number of CVs that appear to be saving the best for last. This tactic works for desserts, not job applications – your recruiter’s eyes will be straying before they’re halfway down the page.
Create a personal statement of three to five sentences (and no more) about… you. Your experience, your achievements, your aspirations. What you want, how you’ve gone about getting it so far and what you think the next step is for you.
People spend, on average, a measly 9 seconds glancing at CVs, so a compelling introduction is a boon for a number of reasons. It’s information-dense, in plain English so it’s simple to read quickly, and something that’s well-written will immediately stand out.
However. Your introduction should never be so generic that it’s not immediately clear why you’re applying for this specific role or in your chosen sector. The attributes will be top-level because there’s no room for anything else – that doesn’t mean those top-level attributes shouldn’t be carefully chosen.
Let’s look at another example from the Juggle professional we quoted earlier:
“Startup veteran for 10 years, including businesses rated the UK’s fastest growing. Startup strategic advisor with specialism in fast-growth forecasting, initial finance and operations function setup in SaaS, ecommerce, fintech and blockchain businesses. Proven team builder, creating an FP&A function from scratch and leading first hire to full CIMA qualification.”
In this information-dense introduction we’ve learned about the length of their experience, the type of businesses they’ve worked with (ie fast-growth ones, they doesn’t waste time mentioning others), several of their expert skills and one soft skill that’s illustrated with an impressive example.
As you can see, those few sentences are going to have to do a LOT of work, so cut out the waffle and weasel words wherever you can. Get them as short as is feasible, then take a break and tweak again. Share them with your peers to make sure they’re as concise and compelling as possible.
If you’re including an introduction of this sort it’s going to have to go at the top – anything else is just weird from a layout perspective. Both first person and third person are fine as long as you’re consistent. Although this is a formal document don’t be afraid to tailor your tone to the type of company or industry you’re working in. Contractions, for example, are more natural and engaging – if this is a skill you’ll need in your role (in communications, for example) then they’re a natural fit.
Juggle’s Copywriter considers the tone of his personal statement to be the most important part of his CV because it’s a demonstration of his actual skills. It’s concise, distinctive and a little provocative, but it seems to get the job done (at least it did with us). We’re not saying you should be casual – the casual is never compelling – only that the tone should be as tailored as the words.
We’d encourage you to think hard about this section. For many people it’s a requirement – tech workers, for example, absolutely have to demonstrate the languages they’re fluent in and the hard skills they’ve mastered. For others the actual skills they have are more diffuse, and are represented better by their experience and career achievements. In these cases the Skills section can be counterproductive, simply an area of the document that’s less punchy than the others.
Ask yourself these questions: 1. Are these hard skills (ie they can be defined and measured)? 2. Am I an expert at these? If the answer to one or both of these questions is “no” then consider removing the skill.
If you’ve decided you have enough expert, hard skills then list four or five (fewer is less impressive, more will dilute the impact of the section). The harder the skill, the easier it will be to be definite about your level of expertise; for softer skills try to use an illustrative example.
If you really think that your soft skills deserve a place in this section then we’re not going to argue. All we suggest is that they need to be compelling. “Business development – increased the user-base by over x%” is compelling skill. “Relationship management” is not.
If you’re well into your career your education section should be commensurately small. If you are just starting out then you’ll need to make more reference to it, but again, be honest about how compelling it is. A relevant Masters will always be impressive, but by your mid twenties no one will care about your GCSEs. A ‘C’ at A-level doesn’t add strength to your sales document – nix it or don’t mention the grade.
Let’s be honest, this is what people are going to skip to anyway. If you haven’t got an introduction on your CV we suggest starting with this. Here we suggest being rigid in your formatting, because you’re trying to cram lots of information into a tiny space.
Structure each entry like this:
- Date – Company Name – a very brief explanation of what the company is/does (eg 50-person VC-backed ecommerce startup) You’ll need that last part to give your reader some immediate context. You can’t rely on them recognising the firm or guessing from the name. If you’re applying for a “numbers role” then you might consider including revenue or turnover here.
- Job title
- One or two lines about what you were accountable for. These are the top-line, business-wide bits: what your job was FOR as opposed to what you did.
- No more than three key achievements key achievements relating to these accountabilities. Specifics, names, numbers, business impact. Back yourself up with hard data.
- No more than three key responsibilities. The most important elements of what you actually did day-to-day or week-to-week.
Because your level of responsibility has probably increased over time it makes sense to dedicate more space to your more recent positions. There’s no need to go a long way becak in your history (remember, keep it concise). After the most compelling roles or 5-6 years you can simply add “further history on request.”
This section is probably more important that most people realise (if nothing else, it’s simple to understand so is never ignored). This is your chance to inject some personality and to make your CV stand out.
We have only two suggestions here: don’t lie – it’s easy conversation, so it’s likely to come up in an interview, where you’ll look and feel like an idiot – and make them interesting.
This last part is less about picking generic “interesting” things (in the words of our Founder: “travel is table stakes”) and more about making your choices compelling in their own right. Obviously you’ll have to be aware of bias here, but honesty and diversity can be diverting regardless of subject. If you like to watch television this is perfectly acceptable – as long as you can write compellingly about why. An extreme example:
“I love modern Scandinavian TV dramas – anything starkly lit, narratively complex and a little bit morbid.”
Is much better than:
“I enjoy reading, cookery and world travel.”
Those interests are faultless, but the execution is vapid.
Final thoughts and suggestions
- Excellent English – this is a low bar and mistakes are likely to see your CV immediately discarded. Not everyone finds flawless written English easy. If you’re one of these people, check, double-check, and NEVER be the last person to proofread your own CV. The more eyes on it the better.
- Keep your formatting neat, text size large enough to be easy on the eyes and don’t mess about with fonts. Serif or non serif is up to you, but choose a safe, easily renderable font like Times or Calibri.
- No more than two pages. It’s not necessarily about all the extra reading; more than two pages indicates that you cannot or are unwilling to prioritise. Red flag.
- Should you use visuals or design-heavy templates? In our opinion these simply provide more areas for bias to creep in. The data is still unclear (and we’re prepared to change our mind), but for now we’d label them another variable you don’t need.
- Headshots – all of the above x100. Leave them out.