Tailoring Your CV

When you apply for a job, you normally send two documents to the employer:

The CV that you submit with any application is a version of your master CV, tailored for the role that you’re applying for.

What Is A CV?

‘CV’ is short for curriculum vitæ. It is a Latin expression that (according to Wikipedia) roughly means course of [my] life.

A CV is a record of your career and employment to date. It is a summary, and it is written as a list. It is the nature of a CV to be very terse. It’s extremely hard to get across your strengths for a role in a CV, although in this chapter I’ll show you that there are things that you can do to help. CVs are there mostly to tell employers what you have done. That isn’t the same as telling an employer what you can do.

A covering letter, on the other hand, is a letter from you to the employer, to tell the employer exactly why you are the right person for the job. You should always include a covering letter with your CV when you apply for a job. Together, they can be a powerful tool to persuade an employer that he should interview you for a role.

If you don’t have one already, the first thing that you need to do is to create your master CV.

Start With Your Master CV

Your master CV is the CV that you’re going to maintain throughout your career.

I started mine nearly 20 years ago, and I’m constantly updating it as my career progresses. It contains everything I’ve ever done: each role I’ve held, each project that I’ve worked on, each skill that I’ve used, each industry award that my work has won. It also contains my education details. My master CV is a complete record. Nothing ever gets deleted from it.

If you’re just starting out in your career, then at first your master CV will be quite short. You should take that as a big hint that you need to be doing much more than just your university course if you are to compete in the job market! As you do more, your CV will grow naturally, giving you more experience to show an employer as you move from role to role in the industry.

Never worry about your master CV being too long. You never include your master CV in a job application, so there is no problem with your master CV growing to a dozen or more pages as your career progresses. It is your tailored CV that you send to any employer.

Tailor Your CV For Each Role

Whenever you apply for a role, make a copy of your master CV. Tailor this copy for the role, by editing it down to the things that matter for the role. If you’ve already written your covering letter, then the process of planning your covering letter has left you with a list of the things that the employer is looking for. Take that list, and use it to guide you in tailoring your CV.

Make sure that your current name and contact details are at the front of the CV. Don’t assume that the employer can find these details from your covering letter; covering letter and CV may get separated.

A CV normally runs in reverse chronological order; newest stuff at the top, older stuff further down. But when you tailor your CV for a role, sometimes the newest stuff isn’t the most relevant, and you need to mention the older stuff first. A good way to do that is to add a ‘Summary’ section at the top that mentions your most relevant experience.

For every computing job that you’ve had to date (such as your industrial placement year), your master CV will have list of the skills that you used during each job. On your tailored CV, edit the list of skills, and move the skills that are most relevant to the role you are applying for to the front of the list.

If you’ve had jobs to date which weren’t in the computing industry, you should include a summary of them on your tailored CV. Make sure to highlight any transferable skills from those jobs, especially where you’ve held any positions of responsibility. Employers normally prefer people who can demonstrate that they don’t need managing from one minute to the next.

Don’t forget that any computer societies or open-source projects that you’ve been involved in might be very relevant to your prospective employer. They should already be on your master CV, but it’s easy to forget to add them. Make sure they go onto your tailored CV too.

Your tailored CV should be as long as it needs to be, and no longer. If you have a lot of relevant experience to include in your tailored CV, then it doesn’t matter if your tailored CV is more than two pages long. Most employers prefer a complete CV over one that has been artificially crammed into two pages. It’s much more important that your covering letter fits inside two pages.

Professional Presentation

The very first thing that an employer will notice is the presentation of your CV: how you have laid it out, the size and type of font that you have used, and how you have used colour. Your choices here can put an employer in a positive frame of mind before he starts reading. Equally, terrible choices can result in your CV going in the bin without being read.

Microsoft Word and competing packages come with CV templates that you can create your CV from. You should use one of these templates unless you happen to be a talented and experienced document designer. These templates are tried and trusted, and they avoid all of the layout mistakes that you might otherwise make.

Funky fonts are a bad idea. The Comic Sans font is a terrible idea. Fonts that imitate handwriting are too. You’re creating a professional document. It needs to use fonts that are considered acceptable in such documents.

Employers expect you to use one of the standard sans-serif fonts such as Arial or Helvetica, or one of the standard serif fonts such as Times New Roman. These are fonts that are installed on every computer in the world. Don’t underestimate how horrible a document can look if you decide to use a font that the employer doesn’t have on his computer.

Font size is important too. A general rule is to use 10pt or 12pt fonts for your paragraphs. Anything smaller than 10pt can be very hard to read, and anything larger than 12pt makes it look like you don’t have enough content to fill the page.

You may have been asked to use double-line spacing for the documents you’ve submitted during your university course. This isn’t common practice outside academia, so it’s a good idea to use normal or 1.5 line spacing at the most.

Use as little colour as possible. Black and white might be boring, but not everyone has colour printers in their office, and most colours don’t survive being photocopied. It would be a shame for an otherwise excellent CV to end up in the bin because the employer couldn’t make out what you’d written.

If you are submitting a printed copy of your CV, consider use 100 gsm paper. Standard printer and photocopier paper is 80 gsm, and often doesn’t feel nice in the hand. 100 gsm paper is a little heavier, and often has a slightly fibrous feel that is more enjoyable to touch. It also isn’t as glossy as 80 gsm paper, which makes it look better too.

Personal Details

Make sure that your name and contact details (email address and/or telephone number) are at the very top of your CV. Your CV may get separated from your covering letter; you cannot rely on an employer having both to hand when he reviews your application. If you don’t provide your details, then the employer has no way of getting in touch if he wishes to interview you.

It’s routine for recruitment agencies to remove contact details from CVs before forwarding them on to employers, to prevent employers trying to cut out the middleman. Don’t use that as an excuse to leave your details off yourself; one day you might be applying directly for a role and forget to put the details back on!

Things Employers Don’t Want To See

When you’re just starting out into the industry, your CV can look awfully thin. Even so, a thin CV is much better than some of the things that people do to try and pad out their CV and fill up all that empty paper.

Never ever lie on your CV. You might get away with it, and even get the job, but if the employer ever finds out that you’ve lied on your CV, you will probably get the sack. Perhaps the best example of this in recent times is Scott Thompson, former CEO of internet giant Yahoo! He was found to have lied about his qualifications on his CV, and was very publicly fired from his job as a result.

Make sure that there are no chronological gaps on your CV. When an employer is reading a CV, and he sees a period of time that there’s no information about, he normally doesn’t like this. He’ll be wondering what you did during this time period. Were you unemployed? Were you in jail? Why is there a gap? If you make it through to interview, he will ask you about any gaps. However, he is more likely to simply bin your CV and move on to the next applicant.

Be careful at calling yourself an expert in any subject. As a rough guide, an expert is someone who has written a definitive book on a subject, or who has presented a relevant talk at a conference, or who has made an important and relevant contribution to a major open-source project. The pitfall here is that most people at the start of their careers suffer from meta-ignorance; they don’t realise how much more there is to know about a subject. You can be an expert at a young age, but if you put that down on your CV, then your CV must make it clear why you are an expert.

Don’t list skills in the summary of your CV unless they also appear elsewhere in your CV. An employer wants to know what you’ve done with each skill that you state that you have, where you did it, and when. If an employer cannot find this information on your CV, he’s normally left to conclude that you’re overstating your skills to say the least.

Don’t list all of your university modules and their scores. Most employers will have studied at a different university, if they have a degree at all. Your course module names won’t mean much to them, and you’d be surprised at just how hard it is for an employer to find out the details about each module from the Internet. The chances are that the employer simply won’t bother looking as a result. Equally, unless you’ve got great scores, you don’t want to list the individual scores for each module.

The Internet, email, the Windows desktop and Microsoft Office don’t need to appear on your CV. Employers expect you to know what the Internet is, and how to use email and Microsoft Office on a Windows PC. These are considered basic skills these days that everyone will have. If you have any additional skills over and above general word-processing (e.g. log file analysis using pivot tables) then these are worth mentioning.

Don’t waste a lot of space on your A level results. In the computing industry, it’s widely expected that your A levels are mainly a stepping stone to getting into university. If you have a degree, most employers won’t care about your A level results at all. The main exception is if you’re applying for research-heavy post or some other role where very strong maths skills are required. My advice is to simply list your A level subjects and scores on a single line. There’s no need to omit them completely.

You probably don’t need to mention your GCSE results at all. As with A levels, GCSEs are seen mostly as a stepping stone to further education. If you do mention them, my advice is to simply say something like ‘10 GCSEs, 7 A* and 3 As’ or something like that.

Finally, more and more employers will bin a CV that contains no computing experience outside of what you’ve studied at school and at university. It’s very difficult for a university course alone to bring you up to the minimum standard that you need to hold down even a junior programmer’s job these days, and many university courses teach research subjects that are difficult to apply in your average firm. Even practical courses specifically geared for industry aren’t enough, because through your course alone you simply won’t have clocked up enough programming hours.

In this day and age of opportunity, there really is no excuse for submitting a CV that contains no outside computing experience at all. You need to be doing way more than just your coursework if you want to be ready to join the computing industry after you graduate. I’ll expand on this a lot more in Part 2 of this book.

What About Interests and Hobbies?

It’s the done thing to include a short section listing your interests and hobbies. Don’t leave it out, and keep it brief.

You may have personal interests that are relevant to your prospective employer. Positions of responsibility (e.g. martial arts instructor, scout leader, and so on) are worth making prominent on the page. Do they make a difference between getting an interview and not? I can’t say for certain either way, but they certainly can’t harm your application.

Unusual hobbies are worth including too. For example, earlier this year, I received a CV that listed ‘experimental baking’ in the hobbies section. I’ve no idea what ‘experimental baking’ is, but it caught my eye, and it made me go back and re-read the CV a second time. It told me that there was something different about that application, that he or she was an individual.

What About References?

Some job adverts will state how many references are required. If it is not mentioned, then most employers expect you to provide two references. One will normally be your last employer. The other is normally another previous employer, or a character reference (such as your university tutor).

When it comes to including references on your CV, you can do one of two things:

  • You can provide full contact details for each referee on your CV, or
  • You can simply state ‘References available on request.’

It’s quite common to go with the second option, and later on in your career it’s definitely a good thing to do. Why? Well, most employers will not contact your referees without asking you first, but some employers will. It can be a bit awkward if this happens before you’ve left your current job, especially if you don’t get the job that you’ve applied for.

If you do include contact details for your referees, make sure that the details are accurate. Most job offers are subject to satisfactory references. If you’ve provided out-of-date contact details, then the employer may ask you to correct them, but often the employer won’t realise that the contact details are wrong. This can cost you a job that you’ve got in the bag.

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