This article focuses on the use of language in a CV and how best to ensure you select those words which will open doors, rather than have them slammed shut after the first line.
CVs should rarely be more than two sides long; for some occupations and circumstances one side is the norm. An employer may have only 30 seconds to read each CV, so your choice of words has to be as precise as possible and your phrases and sentences punchy and economical. Think poet as opposed to a ‘blockbuster’ novelist.
Be precise: choose your words carefully
- Employers take certain skills and attributes as a given, so avoid ‘I like working with people’, ‘meet deadlines’ ‘enjoy a challenge’, unless you’re going to provide some really relevant examples.
- Be wary of using ‘heightened’ over–the–top language such as ‘incredibly person-focussed’, ‘ruthlessly target –driven’, ‘fabulously dynamic’, unless you follow-up with equally impressive evidence
- Stuck for words? – ask colleagues and friends to describe your attributes, then ask for two pieces of evidence to support their views.
Context is important
Advice on CVs can focus on the importance of ‘doing’ or ‘action’ words (e.g. ‘launched’, ‘delivered’, ‘lead’, ‘motivated’). These are useful, set a tone, and might help an employer looking for words which reflect the job description. But they are not enough on their own; they need to be backed up. Here is a selection of examples from real CVs I’ve seen as a careers consultant and recruiter with my reactions:
Liaised with… could mean had a cup of coffee and a chat, or built and developed a long-lasting relationship with a difficult colleague or client.
Dealt with correspondence…opened the occasional letter or read, analysed and prepared a response to complaints.
Observed…. sat in on the odd meeting or observed a colleague’s teaching, gave feedback and helped them develop an action plan to improve their delivery.
Responsible for a team of 20……met your team once a year at the Christmas social or did you guide them through a major re-structure and successfully implement a new strategy in the face of fierce resistance.
Don’t use 50 words when 20 will do, especially on a CV.
- avoid using ‘I’ : it can get repetitive and naturally leads to longer sentences.
- use phrases and bullet points rather than long, flowing sentences – save these for your covering letter.
- edit, edit, edit, then proof-read and then give your CV and a red pen to a friend.
A word about punctuation: I recently met a very busy and somewhat harassed senior manager at a world-famous UK university and she was short listing candidates for a £40k a year job from 70 applications. ‘I don’t envy you that task’ I said. ‘No problem,’ she replied, ‘my first sift weeds out those who can’t use apostrophes’.
Do different employers look for different things in a CV?
An advertising agency once had a cake delivered; the CV was written in the icing. A bit extreme, but more likely to be read (rather than just eaten) by a creative industry employer than a law or accountancy firm looking for evidence of clarity and lack of ambiguity. So, think about the job you’re applying for and the kind of written expression and style you think would be appropriate.