How to write the perfect CV

Cake CV

By Kathryn Kendall, chief people officer

Writing a CV has, it seems, turned into something of a dark art. Over the course of my HR career I’ve heard rumours and theories about what makes the perfect CV. Cramming absolutely everything you’ve ever done onto no more than two sides of A4 paper is a must, it seems. As is including a section on your hobbies and interests to show the recruiter your ‘human’ side. I’ve seen job seekers almost in tears as they attempt to work out what will make their CV stand out from the crowd and make it to the recruiter’s desk rather than straight into the bin. Then along came LinkedIn, and with it, the argument of whether you actually need a separate CV at all.

The fact is, whatever recruiters might try to tell you, there is no magic formula when it comes to writing the perfect CV. Recruiters will all have their personal preferences about what they like to see, but, contrary to popular belief, there are actually no CV-writing ‘rules’ in the UK. Not even a rule that your CV has to be kept to two sides of paper. What there are, however, are some general guidelines that will ensure your CV gets a positive response wherever you send it. Here are some of my personal recommendations for how to nail that CV, every time.

Stand out
This one’s maybe a little controversial. There are a number of organisations who won’t accept anything other than a (two-sided) CV and standard format cover letter. If you’re applying for a role in one of these companies, you should stick to the format they’ve requested. At Benefex, though, we are a huge fan of ‘different’, and actively encourage our candidates to do something unusual to impress us. We’ve had all sorts: poems, videos and, perhaps most memorably, the recent ‘cake CV’, which went viral on social media. (Side note; we love cake.) The actual CV was ok but fairly standard, and may not have progressed further on its own. But the innovation of transferring highlights from the CV onto cupcakes immediately highlighted the candidate’s enthusiasm, and made us want to meet them. Sifting through large numbers of CV can be pretty dull, and if you’ve gone out of your way to brighten our day then you’ve maximised your chances of success before we’ve even so much as spoken.

Your aim when writing your CV should be to grab your reader’s attention long enough for them to want to read to the end. If your opening paragraph contains a number of typos, or doesn’t feature enough relevant information, that dream job could already be slipping through your fingers. Think about your CV from your reader’s perspective. What can you tell them that is going to make them immediately think you’re worth an interview? Make your proven achievements clear from the get-go. For example, if you’re applying for a sales role, ‘I have achieved more than 150% of my target sales in each of the last five years,’ is a great way to start your CV with a bang.

Getting personal
Never underestimate the power of a well-written cover letter. I have hired candidates whose CVs were pretty average, but whose cover letter really took the time to pull out their achievements, relate them back to the role, and make it clear they’d researched and understood the organisation they were applying to. Think you can get away with a ‘one-size-fits-all’ cover letter and simply copy and paste for each job you apply for? Think again. It is notable when candidates have taken the time to personalise their cover letter and actually read the advert – and will mean I probably spend at least twice as long reading their CV than I otherwise might have done.

Space it out
Here at Benefex we can receive over 100 applications for our roles on some days. That’s a lot of CVs to have to read through. You can make a recruiter’s life so much easier by making your CV easy on the eye. I’ll take a CV that exceeds the magic two-page quota but is nicely spaced out, over one which is exactly two pages but is a wall of cramped text.

When you have got over 100 CVs to read through in a day, you can also really help your reader draw out key information by summarising this. Bullet points are great as they’re far easier to read than a 10-line paragraph, and your eye is naturally drawn to them as you scroll down the page.

Proof read, proof read, proof read
If you do absolutely nothing else: please, please do this. I am a self-confessed spelling and grammar pedant (reads frantically back through this blog post to ensure she hasn’t missed any spelling errors!) and there is nothing more likely to make me dismiss a CV than realising the sender hasn’t even bothered to proof read it. Errors I’ve seen over the years include incorrect phone numbers (you can understand the issues this causes), incorrect dates (no, it’s not 2106) and, one candidate who even misspelled their own name. To exacerbate these errors, several of them were made by candidates who elsewhere described themselves as having ‘excellent attention to detail’… or, on one very memorable occasion, ‘excellent attention to detal’. Proof read it yourself, proof read it again, and then find as many willing friends and family members to proof read it again. And again. And again. Your CV is going to be one of the most important documents you ever write, and you only have one opportunity to make that first impression.

Be yourself
Finally, and possibly most importantly: be yourself. What works for one person won’t work for another, and all recruiters will have different preferences when it comes to CV etiquette. By all means take ideas and inspiration from other CVs you’ve seen, but the finished product needs to represent you and show off your experience and your achievements to the max. Don’t forget, you only get that one opportunity to make that first impression; ensure you make it a great one.