How to write a CV and cover letter

Writing your CV or resume is more than simply cutting and pasting excerpts from your linked in profile and I have a couple of very strong ideas on the subject. I, by the way, use the both terms interchangeably.

The resume, in the first place needs to be relatively short and ideally one page long. An exception is academic positions which are much longer. For me, the resume is like a flyer for a Hunan style restaurant which offers an all you can eat buffet. It might give a small map to help you find it and the phone number. The purpose of the flyer is to get you to walk over to the restaurant and look at the menu.

The primary purpose of a the document is to get a potential employer to pick up the phone and invite you for an interview. As such it should be short and clear and talk about your accomplishments. People love to see numbers in the small blurbs that go under each of your major positions and these should be laid out in reverse chronological order. 

The vertical space which each job or phase takes up should be used as a sign of relative importance for the job at hand. 

People often mistakenly give the most space to the most recent position or the one for which they worked the most time. I suggest adding a line or two to your experience that is most relevant for the position at hand.

The text under each position should be upbeat and use positive verbs to describe your accomplishments such as built, created, or sold. It does, however, also need to be factual and properly reflect your role in achieving specific targets. Imagine that a recruiter would call your old boss and ask if what the resume says is true. If he or she would say yes, then your language is fine.

The idea is not to explain everything you did but to allow someone to use your CV to decide if they want to call you and then to guide them in conducting an interview with you. You only need to provide enough detail for them to understand what you were doing so they can ask their questions. 

Academic qualifications and other skills such as languages should be listed in a separate section at the bottom of the page. My own view is that your personal goals and objectives should be described in a cover letter as you will probably explain your goals differently to different potential employers.

Cover letters should also be no longer than a page and simply cover the following topics: 

  • Why you are writing i.e, as a follow up to call or in response to an add placed on such and such a date.
  • What makes you qualified for the position in the most basic sense
  • Why are you interested or even passionate about the opportunity and company
  • How are you available to be connected, meet, etc.

Another point is that if you are looking at different types of opportunities then you should  write a different CV and cover letter for each. What’s critical here is that although two CV’s might have a different focus, they can not contradict each other! The facts are the facts and one can not allow documents with different dates or facts circulating in cyberspace.It also amazes me that people put information on their CV’s which is simply not true. Not only do people exaggerate their accomplishments or their personal role in events but will even give themselves degrees they do not have or claim to be fluent in languages that they barely understand. These days such things are easy to check.

In some cases, it might be interesting to provide a list of projects or clients. I suggest adding such details in additional pages so as not to interrupt the flow of the CV itself. For creative types, the project appendix could be done in a more creative style.

The last point on CV’s is that the more experienced people are it seems that their CV’s get simpler. Experienced managers often have a section titled “Early Career” which allows them to collapse 20 years of experience in to two or three lines.

Published by Mike R

I am a professor at IESE Business School and lecture on strategy, sustainability and geo-politics.

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