How to write an effective CV

There are a lot of ways to figure out how to write a great CV. You can jump onto google and read a bunch of free opinion pieces, blog posts (hi!), and LinkedIn articles but you'll quickly realise that there's an awful lot of conflicting advice amongst the free articles. That's mostly because the foundation that the majority of these pieces are written on are based on out of date 'best practices' coupled with the simple fact that a good CV is extremely subjective and circumstantial.

A quick caveat

I've been helping build teams for tech companies and startups around the UK for the past ten years or so. I’ve seen thousands of CVs over the years and I have a substantial amount of experience in filtering the good CVs from the bad. Despite that, there will still be an awful lot of industry experts who will dispute some of the claims and opinions in this piece, and maybe they are right! Just like everything in life, take my advice as just that; advice, not gospel.

Straight to the point

The first thing that should appear at the top of every CV is your full name and contact details. By contact details, I do not mean your full address. Your name, phone number, and email address are all that's required to ensure an interested employer can reach out. Alongside this, include all relevant links that will help the reader gain additional, relevant context on who you are. These might include your LinkedIn profile, your twitter handle, your GitHub profile (for developers), your Dribbble profile (for designers), and your own personal website (if you have one).

It's reasonably common across Europe for people to include a photo on their CV. Let me be explicitly clear when I say that you should avoid this practice when applying for jobs in the UK and Ireland. Aside from the fact that a photo immediately increases the odds of the readers decision being affected by subconscious bias, it adds absolutely zero value to your CV.

Summary/About Me

An opening paragraph can be enormously helpful but there are a few guidelines you should consider.

  • Speaking about yourself in the third person doesn't make you sound more professional. It's unnecessary and awkward to read.
  • Keep it short! If your summary/about me is more than a paragraph then it belongs in a cover letter, not on your CV.
  • Be clear about where your strengths lie and what you would like to do next. The more experience you gain, the more difficult it can be for the reader to understand what direction you want your career to take. Stipulating that (even if it's obvious) in your opening paragraph can be really helpful.
  • Make it personal. The best approach with a CV (admittedly not always feasible) is to tailor it to the vacancy you're applying for. Use the intro paragraph to explain why you think you're a great fit for that specific role.

Experience

This is where things get really subjective and highly dependant on your level of experience. If you're a recent university graduate, then lead with your education details before your experience details. More on that later.

The reality is that most hiring managers spend less than 30 seconds reviewing your CV before making a decision as to whether or not they want to continue with your application. It's for this reason alone that simplicity and clarity are the orders of the day in terms of structuring the experience section of your CV. For example:

Company Name
Date you joined - Date you left
Your Job Title
A sentence or two summarising your role at this company
* A bullet point about your biggest achievement or primary responsibility
* A bullet point about other achievements or responsibilities
* etc etc

If you've worked a lot of different roles over the years or your early experience is no longer relevant but does explain what you did when you left university for example, then you do not need to provide extensive information on those roles. In fact, just listing the company you worked for, the dates you worked there, and your job title is more than enough.

Freelancers/Contractors

One of the most common questions I hear is "How do I structure my CV if I've worked with lots of different companies or clients?"

First things first, follow the above format but the company name should be the name of the business you traded under as a freelancer or contractor. The dates should reflect when you first started contracting and when you finished. The job title should at least summarise the type of role you played on the majority of your clients projects.

Now, assuming you've worked with far too many companies to list on your CV, you should absolutely provide a short summary of the most significant work you did during your time as a freelancer or contractor. You then supplement that information by providing a more extensive list on a dedicated page of your personal website.

Example:

My Limited Company
January 2010 - June 2018
Software Engineer
Over the best part of 8 years, I worked with dozens of clients and teams on projects significantly differing in size and complexity. The following is a summary of some of the more significant work I undertook and you can find a full list of clients I worked with here: www.<yourwebsitegoeshere>.com/clients

CLIENT NAME #1
Duration in months or weeks
I was hired by CLIENT NAME to assist with <a summary of the project goes here>. During my time with them, I <insert a few lines about your key achievements here>.

CLIENT NAME #2
Duration in months or weeks
I was hired by CLIENT NAME to assist with <a summary of the project goes here>. During my time with them, I <insert a few lines about your key achievements here>.

CLIENT NAME #3
Duration in months or weeks
I was hired by CLIENT NAME to assist with <a summary of the project goes here>. During my time with them, I <insert a few lines about your key achievements here>.

Education

The harsh reality is that an accomplished academic background does provide you with a lot of advantages (note: the author is a University dropout). If you completed a degree, then you should absolutely list those details on your CV. The trickier question is "what do I put on my CV if I didn't go to University?".

Again, experience is your friend here. If you have at least a few years of work experience under your belt, you can solve this problem by simply not listing any educational details. In those scenarios, it's assumed you didn't attend or complete any third level education and that's not always implied to be a bad thing.

If you're at an early stage in your career or you're looking for your first job, then your educational details are a must, regardless of any third level education or qualifications.

Hobbies & Interests

Oh boy. What a minefield. There's almost no benefit to anyone in including hobbies and interests on your CV. Over the years I've seen people list an incredible variety of hobbies and interests, from falconry to extreme ironing and whilst they are always entertaining to read, the reality is it can all too often cause the reader to cast an unfair judgement. These days employers no longer look to your hobbies to see if you're a team player. Also, everyone enjoys swimming and reading so including those on your CV doesn't help anyone.
Say you enjoy attending church or participate in your local choir; a potential employer who holds particularly negative opinions about organised religion can and often will use that as an excuse to disregard your CV. Isn't that illegal? Absolutely. It's also impossible to prove that it happened so rather than take the risk, simply don't include hobbies and interests.

That being said, if you regularly participate in activities or groups that are directly relevant to the industry you are working in, then you should categorically include that information in place of hobbies and interests.

Format

Now that your CV is complete, save both a .doc version and a PDF version. Most agency recruiters require a .doc version of your CV so they can strip out identifying information and replace it with their terrible company logo. Almost all employers are happy to receive either a PDF or a .doc file. Personally I prefer to receive a PDF as the formatting on .doc files can go a bit wild if the reader doesn't open it with Microsoft Word.

Here's a little insider tip to finish up:
When saving your CV, include the name of the company you are applying to in the filename. For example: StevieBuckley-TransferWise.pdf
When I see a CV with my company name in the filename, I immediately assume this person put considered effort into applying for my job rather than just spamming a dozen different companies with the same CV.

Now that your CV looks like a work of art, pop over to https://honest.work/ and apply for your dream job today!

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