How to create a standout CV

How to create a standout CV

The humble curriculum vitae has come a long way since Leonardo da Vinci reportedly prepared the first one more than 500 years ago.

Over the past decade or so, however, the CV has continued to evolve from a mere snapshot of our qualifications and past careers to a statement of personal branding. At the same time, the advent of artificial intelligence means that employers can use applicant tracking software (ATS) to wade through thousands of CVs and sort applicants without having to individually thumb through each page.

To make it through the first round of the application process and ensure that they stand out in subsequent stages, candidates need to understand more fully how the process works.

Beating the bots. Even the best candidates may have a difficult time breaking through to a human. A vast majority of jobs listed online today are built within an ATS system, enabling employers to screen candidates initially using algorithms based on keywords.

“If you don’t have the right keywords in your CV in the right places, you are not going to get through an initial screening process,” says Victoria McLean, founder and CEO of City CV, a London-based career consultancy that offers bespoke CVs and career coaching. “Some people can’t get any interviews because they haven’t done keywords. It’s about applying for a job and being found.”

Someone looking for a position as a controller in the pharmaceutical industry, for example, will need both pharmaceutical vocabulary and accounting keywords for the level at which he or she is applying, which in turn would be distinct from the keywords used in applying for a financial director position.

“You need to be mirroring the language that is in the job description, so that there is a match,” she adds, noting that prospective employees should think about the positioning of keywords as well as their inclusion.

CVs embedded in ATS systems will be scored, with double points given for the use of particular keywords and fewer points for generic terms such as “communication” and “teamwork,” McLean says. Candidates scoring less than 70% are unlikely to even get a reply to their applications.

When it comes to jobs in the financial sector, complicated formatting in CVs can also undermine a candidate’s success from the get-go. Some ATS systems can’t view any information within a table. Photos on CVs and other quirky design approaches can also be problematic, as the bots in automated systems are often unable to process borders or images.

Inserting links to the websites of previous employers can make things easier for prospective employers when they are reviewing CVs, according to Chris Burd, managing director of UK recruitment company Reel Ability. “People like to see someone has actually made the effort to put a link in,” he said.

The importance of differentiation. In addition to providing the markers to allow their CV to make it through the first stage of applications, prospective applicants need to make sure they stand out once human beings become involved in the next stage of the process.

Historically, candidates have copied and pasted their job specifications to CVs, McLean observes, which means that two people with the title of financial controller at the same company might have virtually identical CVs. Rather than listing their job responsibilities, candidates are better off describing the outcomes they have achieved or delivered.

“You may have project-managed a review of suppliers, but it is actually more interesting if you reduced costs by 25% across the board by a thorough review, explaining what you did and how,” McLean adds. “If you are in a finance role, it is all about making the business generate more money.”

Making it personal. Increasingly, the CV is no longer seen in isolation, so prospective job candidates need to be aware of their personal branding, especially online, according to Burd and McLean.

With many companies and recruiters using LinkedIn as their primary recruiting source, potential employees should assume that employers are checking out their LinkedIn profiles.

“People will look at your network to see how much gravitas you have in the market,” McLean says, noting that producing and sharing content on the networking site is also important. “The more you do that, the more you move up the ranking in LinkedIn. You can start to establish yourself as a bit of an expert in your niche.”

Andrea Chipman is a freelance writer based in the UK. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at