They say the only certainties in life are death and taxes but as careers practitioners, we know that there is always one further symbol of inevitability to add to this list – the ubiquitous and oft-dreaded Curriculum Vitae or CV.
With a myriad of advice available online regarding the ideal structure, format and language needed to craft the 'perfect CV', people often seek CV advice as the panacea to all their employability concerns. Despite the obvious importance of digital portfolios and online professional networking tools like LinkedIn and academia.edu, careers practitioners acknowledge that for now, the traditional CV is still a mainstay of the job application process. With initiatives like the Careers and Enterprise Company, BBC Bitesize Careers and the National Employability Skills Initiative (NESi) helping to raise the profile of employability skills in schools and colleges and preparing young people for the world of work (something that has been a key focus area for university careers services for some time), we felt like there was no better time to create a series of articles where we will explore the origins of the humble CV, its evolution as a professional passport and what the future holds for one of the few documents everyone has to create as part of their career journey.
We start our series of articles by exploring the standard CV; examining some of the common tips and advice for individuals new to the CV, as well as a call to arms for adapting the way we approach CV-related conversations with our clients.
The ‘Standard’ CV – A tried and tested recruitment aid
Leonardo Da Vinci is often credited with having written the first CV – over 500 years ago – and so, as Dr. Jamie Mackay, Employment Expert for MAKEMEAVIDEOCV, rightly points out, “The CV has been around for an awfully long time and whilst there are some employers beginning to shy away from the CV, there are many more who do and will continue to accept it - particularly SMEs. Moreover, remember that in an increasingly globalised labour market, the CV is the one constant between prospective employees and potential employers”. Despite its unwavering status as a pillar of the job application process, even the ‘standard’ CV has various iterations to consider for prospective job hunters – these include the Chronological CV, focusing primarily on a candidate’s professional history; the Functional CV, detailing relevant transferable skills over experience for candidates with less professional experience; and the Combined CV, which blends together both the relevant skills and experience of the candidate to emphasise their suitability for the position they are applying for. This is of course before we even consider the variations encompassed by industry-specific and alternative/creative CVs, which we will cover in more detail in the next instalment in this series.
A rubric for success?
Given the relatively straightforward make-up of a CV, surely there must be a broad consensus on the components needed for a winning template? Notwithstanding the obvious importance of tailoring a CV to the sector and job role being applied for, what is often staggering is the sheer quantity of conflicting advice on what makes a CV stand out. This can range from articles and blogs on how to craft the ‘perfect CV’ to organisations offering free CV ‘health checks’ as a gateway to providing paid CV writing services to individuals keen for quick fixes.
Fortunately, amidst the “silver bullets”, there are a number of excellent evidence-based resources for careers practitioners and prospective CV authors to peruse. John Lees’ Knockout CV is a mainstay of many careers practitioners and job seekers, with tips and advice taken from the author’s experience working with numerous employers, recruiters and clients. Websites like Barclays Lifeskills and Prospects also offer valuable insights from professional partnerships and industry bodies like AGCAS and the CDI.
Although it is fair to say there is no template for the ‘perfect CV’, two AGCAS members, Ben Simkins (University of Keele) and Keren Coney (formerly University of Keele, now at Liverpool John Moores University), recently undertook a HECSU-funded research project to establish the components needed to build a comprehensive CV rubric. Their research, undertaken through semi-structured interviews with 41 UK-based graduate employers, explored the elements of CVs that regularly led to shortlisting and rejection. Although a number of the findings were relatively predictable (for example, the ‘two-page maximum rule’ and the importance of using keywords from job descriptions), slightly more surprising findings (employers preferring CVs written in the first person and a renewed focus on extra-curricular activities to distinguish candidates) prove that nothing in the world of CV writing should ever be taken for granted. This is supported by the collaboration between CV Library and StandOut CV, whose CV templates, aimed at job seekers of all ages, clearly demonstrate the necessity of taking a personalised approach to creating any CV.
Tinker (with), Tailor (it), Soldier (on)…but try not to Spy!
Tips and advice regarding CVs from employers, recruiters and careers practitioners are often welcomed by job seekers but this can on occasion lead to an over-reliance on external input, when crafting a CV is a uniquely personal exercise. Whether you are a first-time job seeker or career changer, your CV should reflect your professional identity, unique skill set and career objectives, from your personal profile through your education, skills and work experience, right down to your hobbies and interests. As careers practitioners, we often remind clients that there is no silver bullet when it comes to writing a CV – it is an incremental process that involves tinkering over time, tailoring to individual roles and taking on feedback from employers, recruiters, peers and line managers. As mentioned earlier in this article, although the temptation can often be to invest in online examples, ready-made templates and paid CV writing services when crafting your own CV, this is only a short-term fix and does not address the overarching purpose of the document. Simply put, the CV is a gateway to the next stage of any application process and should reflect the skills, personality and professional identity of the individual writing it. After all, if you are not the architect of the content of your own CV, how can you hope to reiterate and expand on its message authentically at a subsequent job interview?
Taking a 360° perspective – adapting the way we talk about CVs
With the above in mind, the concept of taking a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to CV advice seems absurd but yet this is often how job seekers view the process of CV checks, expressing consternation when receiving conflicting tips and advice from a myriad of sources. For this reason, it is helpful to consider different perspectives when taking advice on CV writing – while careers practitioners are often able to offer the benefit of their professional experience regarding the general structure, layout and content, academic staff may be able to provide kernels of wisdom from their own career, and recruiters and employers a current industry perspective and the knowledge of having evaluated numerous CVs. Utilising all of these sources of information and advice can help provide incremental and holistic feedback on a CV that will help the individual to develop this document over time, rather than focus on crafting the ‘perfect CV’ as a one-off exercise. Even for those of us who regularly provide clients with CV advice, we should not be afraid to say that we do not have all the answers and should encourage individuals to seek feedback from multiple sources to aid the long-term development of their CV writing skills.
While all of these discussion points are important to consider for an all-encompassing CV, increasingly there are some sectors of the labour market that welcome slightly different approaches. Future articles will take a closer look at specific CVs such as the one-page and academic CV, as well as industry-specific iterations and the eclectic world of alternative and creative CVs. This will lead us to examine how applicants are using innovative new methods to better emphasise their personalities to employers via their CVs, as well as some of the opportunities and potential pitfalls. We hope these articles stimulate further discussion on the subject of CVs, so please feel free to contact us on LinkedIn or post your comments below the article to share your thoughts!
A registered career development professional and member of the Career Development Institute (CDI) and Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services (AGCAS), Chris has previously worked for education institutions in secondary education, FE and HE as a Careers Leader, Careers Adviser, Functional Skills Tutor and Study Programme Coordinator.
Dr Jamie Mackay
With over 15 years' experience in higher education and the careers space, Jamie is proud to be a connector of people and opportunities. In this role, he is currently working with the HE and voluntary sectors to provide job seekers and career changers with a lucrative tool to make their job profiles stand out - and rehumanise the CV in the process. Jamie is also Skills Strategy Manager with the Enterprise M3 Local Enterprise Partnership.