CVs and Application Forms: Basic Advice

I’ve had the same conversation about CVs and jobhunting with two different people in the past month and a few more in the past year – so thought writing it down and putting it online might be useful – especially as most of the CV advice I’ve seen (with a single honourable exception) provides advice that will end up with yet another person with a decently presented and formatted CV that is destined for the bin.  So I’m going to more or less ignore the basics here and assume that everyone can lay things out (or ask for help) and knows what basic information to put on a CV (if not follow the links above).  And I’m going to do it based on the following one line summary:

Put yourself in the shoes of the person who is going to be reading your CV – and about a hundred others.

What is the purpose of a CV or Application Form?

To put things simply, a CV or application form has one purpose.  It is intended to make a potential employer want to interview you.  Nothing more, nothing less.  Which means every part of the CV should be pointed at at least one of three things:

  • Making the interviewer think “This person can do the job well”
  • Making the interviewer think “This person can go beyond the job”
  • Making the interviewer go “Oooh! I want to interview this person.”

I’ll get back to each in turn but there are some important points first:

  • Your CV is a highlight reel
  • Show, don’t tell
  • Don’t bore the reader

Your CV is a highlight reel.  It is meant to present you in the best possible truthful light, which means that anything easy and obvious counts against you.  If your CV says as a receptionist you answered the phone the reader is going to assume that’s the best possible light and so you didn’t do anything more interesting than answering the phone.  If you had to deal with abusive and bereaved people on the phone that’s worth putting, but the reader won’t know this unless you say so.  So be explicit.

Show, don’t tell – standard writing advice.  Anyone can say they are conscientious, organised, good at timekeeping, and much more waffle besides.  Which means that it (and at least 90% of personal statements on CVs) are going to be treated as almost meaningless and so a complete waste of space.  Say how you are organised and how this can be checked.  Say that you literally have never been late in two years (assuming you haven’t) rather than just “good timekeeping”.  If you are outstanding at something, give examples – and the examples should show the challenges you faced and otherwise contribute to the highlights.

Don’t bore the reader.  Even middle managers and people who work in Human Resources are human – and when one has a CV to go through, they probably have a hundred.  A boring or hard to read CV will be binned.  That said, so will one with inappropriate humour or that otherwise looks unprofessional.  A good CV or application form should tease and make the reader interested.

So how do you make your CV sell you?

This person can do the job well: Unless you are giving a speculative CV the job advert should say what is wanted.  What an interviewer normally wants is someone who’s done every aspect of a job before – so show you have.  Then show (don’t tell) how you’ve done it well.  If they want a C# programmer, give some programming projects you’ve done.  People want to see you can do what they are asking for.

This person can go beyond the job:  It’s another point of adding value.  Do you have really useful skills that aren’t directly part of the job?  Are you an analyst who can communicate?  Do you have strong excel skills?  Can you organise a conference?  This is the point of putting hobbies on your CV.  No one cares if you’re a member of the football team.  But if you organised a football tour you can possibly also organise big things for your employer.  It makes you stand out.  If you didn’t, of course, it isn’t a highlight so you don’t include it.

Making the interviewer go ‘Ooohhh!’:  If someone only interviews you to hear what stories you have to tell they are still interviewing you and you are down to the final six or so.  I used to put experiences from my gap year down – it got me at least one interview in its own right and probably contributed to others.  Not bad for two lines.  If you have something outstanding put it in – going through CVs is boring, and most of the entertainment comes from really bad applications.

The Easy Way – Job Application Forms

An NHS job comes with a person specification (you can find examples on the NHS Jobs website) – and the person specification is divided into sections like “Education / Qualifications”, “Previous experience”, “Skills/Knowledge/ Ability”, and “Additional Information” (just picking one at random).

The person reading the application form will probably have at least fifty other applications to read for the job, and last time I did it was around a hundred and fifty.  No one can remember that many applicants, and they have better things to do than take detailed notes.  So they have a scoring system – which is literally most of the points on the person spec lifted out and marked out of two.  Two for meeting that point on the person spec, one for partially meeting it.  At the end they add up the scores and interview the top half dozen or so.

So how do you apply for an NHS job?  Me, I’m utterly brazen.  I make it easy for the person going through the piles of forms to see how I meet the specifications; my personal statement starts off with a paragraph about why I want that job – and then literally uses each of the sections on the person specification as a heading, and goes through each point on the person specification in order to show how I meet it.

This makes things very easy for the would-be interviewers to give me points, and shows I’m not someone who’ll waste their time or make them hunt for useful information.  They tell me very simply what they want to see, and I show them it incredibly clearly.  It’s as simple as that.  And it works.

And if I need an ulterior motive for this, I interview as well as apply for jobs.  If people start giving me job applications like this, it is going to save me a lot of time and frustration.

To Sum Up

  • Put yourself in the shoes of a someone reading your CV
  • Make each point raised on your CV a highlight to help sell yourself
  • If responding to an advert, it will tell you what it wants.  Give them precisely that (and then some more)
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