Always judge a book by its cover

When it comes to applying for jobs, everyone judges a book by its cover. Here’s how to stand out.

“Don’t judge a book by its cover”. Now there’s a curious notion. If I’m standing in a bookshop and I’m surrounded by books, how else am I supposed to decide? Literally shelves and shelves of beautifully designed and eye-catching options everywhere I look. Surely I have to pick up the books and read the covers, right? But where do I start, and how many do I look at before I make my decision?

Now let’s imagine I’m not in a bookshop at all. Let’s imagine instead that I’m sitting at my desk looking at an inbox full of candidate CVs for a job I’m hiring for. If I’m not allowed to judge a book (candidate) but its cover (CV) then I’m in trouble aren’t I?

So, how do you make yourself and your CV stand out? Follow these four simple steps and you’ll give yourself the best chance of being noticed. Will these steps get you hired? Of course not, you’ve still got to nail the interviews, duh! (luckily there’s a blog coming for that too).

Step 1 – Keep the CV simple and easy to read:

Your CV is your first impression, and just like in real life no one likes meeting a bore who dominates the conversation and just won’t stop talking. It’s the same when reviewing CVs – all a hiring manager or recruiter wants to know is that you have the professional experience, achievements, technical skills, and emotional intelligence required to slot into their company and make a success of the role on offer. Don’t ramble and don’t try to shoehorn every single skill you have into the description of your current job.

All you need is a simple profile paragraph that relates to the role (we’ll get to that in a minute), with a summary of your education and qualifications, and then straight into a list of roles, starting with the current one and going back from there.

Guide the reader with clear headings and bullet points under each section. Anything even remotely resembling a heavy block of text will just get ignored. Avoid industry or technical jargon – you never know how familiar your reader is with your industry. Don’t assume they will know what you know, and try to make it logical, concise and snappy.

Step 2 – Write a short profile paragraph for each different job application you make:

No one likes platitudes, and any half-decent recruiter can smell a cut-and-paste job at a thousand yards. Even if this is one of a dozen job applications you have made this week, you need to think like a hiring manager, not like a candidate. They want to know why you are applying for their role at their company. Read the spec, note the top 3 or 4 requirements that they have put on there, and make sure your profile paragraph summarises you and your experience in a way that is directly relevant to those requirements. Make is easy to join the dots and get yourself over that first hurdle.

These days most companies who use online recruitment portals or candidate agency coversheets will have a section on there titled “Why do you think this candidate is suited to this role”. It’s better your profile answers that question than relying on a third party to read through the CV and draw out the best examples for you. A ready-made and tailor-made profile can be dropped into that section to emphasise your direct relevance and increase your chances of being noticed and taken seriously (oh look, we’re back to the cover of a book analogy again).

Once you have a profile template then all you need to do it tweak it to fit each role. After all, you’re going to be applying for similar kinds of roles after all, aren’t you? Something like “I have XX years’ experience in XX type of roles, all within XX sectors. Particular strengths across (reference key spec requirements here) and looking for a role (sentence about this role) in a XX company (sentence about the specific sector/company/product/brand that you are applying to).

Step 3 – Write a brief summary of each role you have had, bullet-pointing key responsibilities and achievements underneath each one:

Here’s a useful test to give yourself: can you summarise in three points what you do in your current role, and in another three points how you have been successful in the role? This will stand you in good stead for fielding interview questions as well, but is also a very useful way to cut through a bloated and directionless CV and inject some punch and credibility into it.

It’s not about the length of the CV (of course a 30 year career will take longer to put down on paper than a 3 year career), it’s about touching on each role in a way that leaves the reader quickly understanding what was required of you and how you achieved this.

There shouldn’t be anything on there that you don’t feel reflects you in your best light and that you are not comfortable and confident talking about if asked. When it comes to an interview, your CV will be the main tool that the interviewer refers to when you meet. Having less on the CV means you can restrict it to those strong ‘interview-proof’ examples and cut out anything that may take an interview off on a tangent. Let’s face it, those tangents will always be spun as your fault when you get rejected for the role, so best avoid them altogether.

Your CV and the key information on should act as a guide for not only the internal recruiter who picks it up, but also for the interviewer who needs to fill an hour with useful conversation with you. So why not help them structure that hour with good, relevant and impactful detail.

Step 4 – Don’t lie or be evasive:

It’s much easier for someone to criticise something than to praise it (that’s why they’re called critics, not praisers!). If you have a gap in your employment then be honest about it. Don’t spin some elaborate web of deceit.

Sometimes life just happens and that’s okay. If you lost your last job, or struggled to find another one straight away after a maternity leave, or if you made a mistake in taking a role, and needed to leave quickly, then just say so. The worst thing is just to leave it blank. The person reading the CV will just fill in that blank with all kinds of negative suppositions and then move on to the next CV in the pile.

The appliance of science

And there you have it – nothing more, nothing less. There is no magic to putting together a CV, but there is a science behind it. It’s not a one-size-fits-all by any means, and some industries have their own particular requirements and expectations, but a lot of people can agonise to the point of stagnation over putting a CV together, particularly if they have not had to do one for many years. So take the stress out of it and follow this straight forward and proven method. Make your cover stand out and don’t get left on the shelf.

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