Keep it concise and compelling
1. Strategic Intent
Don’t start running until you are on the right path. You need clarity about what to focus on and what to discard. Strategy is about making choices.
First of all, dig for raw material in your own life. Brainstorm to unearth all kinds of skills and experiences. At this stage, look for breadth and do not dismiss any idea. Self-reflection is biased, so engage other people. Your friends can help you uncover ideas you may otherwise overlook. A seasoned colleague or an application coach can facilitate the thought process and give you an invaluable judgement.
Then, select the best material. Shift the focus from yourself to your target. Are you attuned to what it takes to get admitted? Go beyond an online search and reach out to insiders. Develop arguments to support each of your skills and substantiate each of your experiences. Test how sound your arguments are and refine them with knowledgeable people or your coach. This will lead you to a portfolio of arguments that you can develop convincingly.
Finally, craft a story. A good personal story is more inspiring than independent pieces. Find the thread that bespeaks your passions, character, and vision. Ensure that your story flows consistently and avoid redundancy. Extend that approach to any gaps or weaknesses in your profile by emphasizing the underlying motives for your actions. At last, spice up your story by exploring interests outside work. Wisely used, these can leave a favorable impression on CV assessors.
2. Grounded Confidence
Your application needs to convey the truth. That doesn’t mean you should state every truth. It means you should be honest and refrain from exaggeration. Only claim what you can reasonably defend.
On the one hand, overstatements eventually backfire. If you claim proficiency in a language, for instance, be prepared for an interview held in that language. Take your fair share of responsibility for results, neither less nor more. The argument for truth is that it always holds up under scrutiny. Resume screeners conduct thorough background checks, and interviewers will ask probing questions until they are completely reassured. Beware that any fault they suspect will count against your credibility.
On the other hand, understatement makes you look bland. When someone is reading through a pile of CVs, what impression will yours leave? If you are too modest in your claims, most likely your case will be forgotten. Bear in mind that all CVs are permeated by an optimism bias. Claims tend to err on the side of boldness, inflating the evaluation standards.
The art lies in finding a grounded confidence level. From there you avoid both the risky overstatement and the doomed understatement areas. To assess where you stand, do the following test: if your resume was displayed on the front page of the Financial Times, would you be comfortable defending it? If you have any doubts where to draw the line, ask a colleague or confidant to rate the credibility of your resume. Not only that, ask if it captures your unique traits and experiences as well. Purporting to be someone you are not is a waste of the person you are.
3. Sensible Structure
CVs assessors are pressed for time. Anticipating that, your resume needs to be easy to navigate and to work at different levels of detail. Does it reward both a 10-second skim-read and a five-minute examination?
Ask yourself whether your credentials are best represented in a chronological or functional structure presentation. The chronological presentation is the most common. It showcases a consistent record of employment and progression. The functional one highlights the most relevant skills. It can be effective for career changers, but risks diluting the sense of career progression.
Feature clearly demarcated sections. The first is ‘Contact Details’, at the top of the page. Skip any personal information such as marital status. You may include, floating on the right, a photo projecting a professional and confident aura. Below, feature your ‘Professional Experience’. State in descending chronology each role you had with a sentence that encapsulates your responsibility and three to five bullet points that assert your accomplishments. Next, insert the ‘Education’ section. State your degrees and any leadership or studies abroad, but do not list courses.
Optional sections can further enrich your resume. One is the ‘Summary’ of ‘Profile’. In a short paragraph, you can captivate your reader with a key message. It can be beneficial, but leave any jargon or repetition out. Another one is ‘Personal Interests’. You should only include if it reinforces your story or is unusual. References such as ‘Objective’ and ‘References’ are outdated.
4. Compelling Writing
Your CV should be concise and accurate. So aim for a straightforward style when you elaborate a point. Your end result should be a resume that values meaning over effect.
One temptation for many is to signal expertise through showy or overly technical words. Avoid self-assertive but generic words such as ‘goal-oriented’, ‘competent’, or ‘independent’. By themselves, these words are vague and tend to be disregarded. Don’t assume your assessor to be naive. Instead, let him or her draw the right conclusions based on the actual evidence you present.
On a related note, write with emphasis and precision. State <em>specifically</em> what you did, how you did it, and what impact you achieved. It is not enough to say you ‘assisted’ in a certain function. How did you assist? - by conducting research? - by creating reports? - by chairing meetings? Say it was the latter. You might phrase it as ‘Defined agenda for executive meetings and implemented new reports and voting procedures, tripling the number of decisions and decreasing time consumed by 25%’. What matters is the content of your experience, not the general shape.
The same principle holds in your record of employment. Unless your company is a household name, explain briefly what it does. If your former job title is not self-evident, elaborate briefly on your responsibilities. If a former project was more challenging because of, for instance, a tight budget, a skeptical team, or time-constraints, emphasise how you addressed them so that it counts in your favour.
5. Flawless Form
The form of your resume matters more than you may think. Too many gatekeepers are hypersensitive to orthographical slips and inconsistencies, so do not run the risk of being anything less than meticulous.
One thing to insist on is orthography. Do not take a hyphen for a dash. Know that native and proficient English-speakers bristle at seeing American and British spelling rolled into one confused hybrid. Be consistent in the use of single or double quotation marks, italicisation, hyphenation and capitalisation. Often the relevant rule is style-specific, so consult an online dictionary that offers that specificity.
At a visual level, refine your layout. Double-check your indenting, lists, sections, and spacing. The aesthetic quality of your layout will meet scrutinising eyes even before words are processed. The page needs to ‘breathe’ — without looking empty - and to be sensibly used from top to bottom - without overwhelming the eye with a barrage of details.
Stick to a traditional layout and fonts. That means a 9-12 font size against a white background. Be consistent in the use of different sizes, for example for the companies your worked for. Use bold, italic, or underline sparingly. Your CV needs to stand out by virtue of its content, not by its eye-catching form - so refrain from special 'visual' effects.
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