A frustrating reality of the job search is that most of the applications you write will not be successful. Every posting you see on a job board will receive far more applications than a hiring manager could ever read, and employers simply can’t hire every candidate. For your CV to be the one that gets chosen, you must make sure it is flawless.
When employers are sorting through applications, the first CVs to be rejected are the ones with obvious, avoidable mistakes. To ensure that your CV makes the cut, you must be ruthless in identifying and eliminating all of these mistakes. With the help of the tips below, you will be able to find all of the red flags in your CV and fix them, vastly improving your chances of scoring an interview with your next job application.
This may seem too obvious to mention, but even in the age of word processors and spell-check hiring managers frequently receive resumes with spelling and grammar errors. For most employers, a spelling mistake will instantly disqualify an application. Even good spellers make mistakes now and then, and incorrect spelling is a risk you cannot take. Every position you apply to will have lots of competition, and you need to minimize the number of petty reasons your application could be rejected. “Any type of error is an easy excuse to pass on an applicant”, says Ashley Stahl at Forbes, and this includes errors as minor as misspellings. Even if you are sure that your CV is error-free, give it to a trusted friend for a spell-check.
Tailoring your CV to each position you apply to is integral to a successful job search. There is no such thing as a perfect CV, but there is such thing as a CV that is ideal for a specific position. An important aspect of this is keywords. Use the job posting to identify important phrases and key terms that you can use in your CV. “Terms particular to the job you want and the relevant skills you have should feature prominently on your resume”, advises Jeanne Sahadi in CNN Money. Utilizing the correct keywords will massively increase the chances that your CV is the one that gets chosen.
Besides featuring the right keywords, your job history and skills need to be showcased in a way that is directly applicable to the job you are applying to. If your experience does not relate obviously into the job posting, your CV should be customized to make it clear that your experience has prepared you for this job. As career advisor Liz Ryan writes in Forbes, “You can't send a resume that screams "Project Manager" in response to a job posting for an HR Generalist without customizing your resume to show the clear intersection points between the two jobs.” The skills you learn at one job may prepare you for the next, but you need to make that connection evident to the reader. Do this by emphasizing the “skills and qualities that are most relevant to this position and company” advises Kazim Ladimeji at Recruiter. The hiring manager needs to know exactly how your experience has prepared you to excel in the open position, they aren’t going to do that work themselves.
When describing your work experience, it is not enough to provide only a boring list of what your duties were in each position. If your CV reads like it could have been copied word for word from a job posting, it is not likely to impress a hiring manager. Your CV must depict your accomplishments, and there is no need to be modest. Hiring managers can’t be left to wonder if you were successful in previous roles, they “should be able to tell at first glance what you've accomplished (e.g., doubled sales, increased audience reach by 30%, negotiated the company's biggest deal, etc.)”, says Jeanne Sahadi. Results are more important than responsibilities.
Though the era of staying with a single company for decades has long since passed, there is still some risk in moving from job to job with only very short tenures. Managers are wary of candidates who appear flighty or easily bored, and will be reluctant to hire you if you look like you aren’t interested in staying in one position for long. As Forbes’ Stahl notes, “A company is looking to make an investment in you, and they are expecting the same investment in return.” You will be a more attractive candidate if you can convincingly convey that you are dedicated to the job at hand.
Exactly what constitutes job-hopping, however, is not what it once was. “This is still a red flag as changing jobs too often can still be seen as a sign of instability in an applicant, but the parameters have changed dramatically”, notes Recruiter’s Ladimeji. Whereas in decades past a two year stint at one company may have seemed too short, in today’s job market two years is a reasonable length of time. This may depend on your industry and experience level, however, so use your discretion.
Extended periods of unemployment are not attractive to hiring managers, unfair as that may seem. Some gaps are unavoidable, but if your CV shows extended lengths of time when you were not working your CV must indicate why. “Because an employment gap is either for positive or negative reasons, it will need an explanation for the potential employer”, says Susan M. Heathfield at The Balance. Taking time off for school, training, or even travel may look good to an employer, and medical or family-related issues can be valid reasons to move focus away from your career. If you can’t adequately explain your leave, however, employers may not be forgiving. Ideally you will be able to avoid lengthy gaps in your CV, but if you can’t, make sure the gaps are there for the right reasons.
When discovered, a lie on your CV will instantly disqualify you from consideration. Even if the lie seems innocuous, like fudging the start or end dates of previous positions, dishonesty on your CV will cause any hiring manager to distrust you. “Whether you’re telling a little white lie or a blatant fabrication, getting caught could amount to career sabotage—especially since today’s technology and social media environments make it easier to get caught.” says Monster contributor Dawn Papandrea. Employers can easily cross-reference your CV with your LinkedIn and other social media profiles, do a background check with past employers and academic institutions, and verify any skills you claim to have with relevant questions during the interview. Besides, even if you get away with it your deceit will hang over your head until it is exposed. Getting caught with a fake accreditation will be even worse ten years down the line, potentially costing you your job even then (as well as a reference). Honesty, as the old saying goes, is the best policy.
If you are still using the silly email address you made in high school, it’s time for a change. This is another piece of common CV advice that seems too obvious to bring up, but many job seekers are still using email addresses that are are inappropriate in a professional setting.
If it’s time for you to change your email address, “adopt an address that incorporates the name you use professionally on your resume and cover letter”, advises Lisa Vaas at The Ladders. There are very few reasons to use an email address that contains anything but your name. Using your name as an email address makes it obvious who it belongs to and is simple to remember. Using anything else is confusing and probably isn’t as cool-sounding as you think.
Your CV must make a good first impression, and the first thing a recruiter sees is the page as a whole, not the details of your career. Recruiters aren’t investigating your work experience line-by-line, they’re scanning it as quickly as they can to see if you stand out as a viable candidate. Even when your experience is perfect, if hiring managers can’t see that in the first few moments your application won’t make it into the next round.
This means that your CV must be formatted cleanly and in a way that is easy to read and understand. “The years that you worked at every job you held should be easily scannable”, advises Sahadi in CNN Money. A quick scan of your CV must give a comprehensible (and impressive) overview of your career path and the experiences you have gained.
Within each work history entry, your duties and achievements should be made very clear. The best way to do this is to use bullet points. “Bullets make it easier for employers to scan your resume quickly since they're intended to grab the reader's eye and lead it to the key points you want to make”, says Peter Vogt at Monster. When reading quickly, a recruiter can much better take in content that is formatted in differentiated bullets, rather than muddling through a long paragraph to find the important bits. Using bullet points and using them well is integral to an effective CV. Other tips include using consistent readable fonts, ensuring that there is enough whitespace to differentiate between sections, and ordering content so that more important details are at the top.
For more information on formatting your CV, you may want to check out VisualCV’s CV layout guide.
Hiring managers don’t have the time (or the desire) to read a detailed account of your entire work history. Your CV needs to showcase the relevant parts of your experience and skill set efficiently so the reader can get all the important information as quickly as possible. If significant details are buried in a too-long list or relegated to the third or fourth page of your CV, no one will ever read them. According to Ask a Manager’s Alison Green, “The longer your resume is, the less likely an employer is to see the parts you want them to see.” Your CV should be carefully curated, both in what parts of your work history you include and in how you present them. Focus on recent and relevant details and express key information as efficiently as possible. Your CV doesn’t need to be longer than two pages. In fact, if you are new to the workforce, it doesn’t need to be longer than one.
Similarly, there is no reason to pad your CV with unnecessary information. Students and job seekers in the early stages of their career may feel pressure to add irrelevant content in order to fill up a full page, but this is unnecessary. Employers know that students have limited work experience, and a brief but effective CV is preferable to a CV with padded, useless, or dishonest content.
No CV is perfect. In a tough job market, unemployment can be out of your control, and short tenures can be the only way to advance in some career tracks. Neither of these things have to result in automatic disqualification, but you need to account for why your CV has these problems. “The best applicants should be aware of these red flags and will make an attempt to explain these in the cover letter. A failure to do this is a clear red flag,” says Ladimeji at Recruiter. A red flag can become a yellow flag if adequately explained, and by explaining the known issues with your CV you can show that you are self-aware and conscious of your CV’s weaknesses. There is no such thing as the perfect candidate, so don’t worry if your CV has some issues. Just do your best to rectify the problems—proofread and edit your CV, format it to be clear and effective, emphasize what is most important to the role at hand, explain lengthy gaps—and your CV will stand out from the rest.
Community Success Manager & CV Writing Expert
Ben is a writer, customer success manager and CV writing expert with over 5 years of experience helping job-seekers create their best careers. He believes in the importance of a great resume summary and the power of coffee.
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