How to write a CV and covering letter that work

“You only get one chance to make a first impression”. It’s an old saying but true nonetheless and even moreso in the area of job applications WHERE YOU MAY ONLY HAVE 45 SECONDS !!!

Many people see writing a Curriculum Vitae (CV) and covering letter as something of an administrative chore but successful job seekers know that this is the first chance to gain the interest of their potential new employer.

Whilst your CV is very special and personal for you, an HR manager or employment agency will see hundreds and will look only at the ones that stand out, in fact, research has shown that most employers spend 45 seconds skimming applications before making up their initial list (BI business School). So when you are writing your CV there are a number of things you may want to think about;

Do your research – Read up on the company, its history and culture. Try and put yourself in the position of the recruiter and think about what they will look for.  Use this newly gained knowledge to temper the tone and style of your documents. After all, you wouldn’t write the same letter if you wanted to work for Google or your local County Council.

 Write a killer front-page – research has shown that recruiters scan the front pages of CVs and only look at the detail once they have trimmed down to a shorter list. Your front page needs to be easy to read and get to the point quickly with short and attractive summaries. There is nothing wrong with writing in bullet points or emphasising specific achievements but make sure it’s short and to the point.

Flexibility – companies and roles are all different. You may have expertise in a variety of areas and a number of roles in your background. Don’t write a general CV and expect it to fit all situations. Instead, tailor your work and emphasise the roles and responsibilities that the employer explicitly states they are looking for in the job description.

Be honest – history is littered with examples of people who have been a little too creative with their CVs so don’t fall into the same trap. With the advent of the internet it has become easier than ever for employers to check your background and with employment screening services such as it has become the norm amongst executive placements. Save yourself time, energy and embarrassment and tell the truth!

Sell the sizzle – having made the above point there’s no reason why you can’t a subtle technique to make sure your CV gives a good impression of the experience you have. Using proactive action words such as ‘Developed’, ‘Implemented’ and ‘Designed’ have been shown to increase success rates. Make sure you write about what you have achieved and how you have made a contribution to the firm rather than simply listing routine tasks that could have been done by anyone.

Format – when we think about CVs people generally picture a white A4 document on paper but sometimes you may need to think creatively.  There are many examples of CVs on Blogs, Youtube, Disc and even T-Shirts. Again it depends upon the organisation you are trying to impress but make sure you think about the practicalities, for example, a recruiter may be unable to use a file or web link due to their organisations IT policy.

 Often you will be asked to provide a covering letter with your CV, but even if the employer doesn’t explicitly ask, it is generally good form to provide one.

The covering letter also gives you a further chance to impress. But again you must remember that the recruiter will see these every day of the week. Yours will need to sparkle to stand out.

A good tip is to imagine you are answering the question “Why should I see you”? Keep this in mind at every point. As with your CV, you must keep it short and to the point, about half a page is optimal for the covering letter, and make sure you focus attention on the goal you want to achieve – you want to get in front of the recruiter to tell your story.

Write your covering letter on the same paper as your CV. Special stationery isn’t needed and can even hamper your application. Make sure you give at least the top two reasons why they would want to speak with you and give contact details clearly so that they can pick up the phone immediately!

Above all, it’s important to remember that the biggest reasons for rejection are poor spelling and grammar*. As a final step before sending them off, check both of your documents with care and if possible get someone else to read them over to ensure they make sense.

Good luck with your application!

*The Website Careerbuilder published a survey of reasons for rejection of CVs and covering letters. Top of the pile were spelling and grammatical errors (61%), Copying wording from the job ad (41%) and inappropriate email addresses(35%). Not including a list of skill was listed by 30% of managers followed by a CV being longer than 2 pages (22%) and printing on decorative paper  (20%). Other reasons given include listing tasks rather than achievements, including a photo on the CV and large, difficult to read text blocks.


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