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Career Coaching: How to create a “Right-Sized” CV

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by Impactpool

What is the perfect length of a CV? In this article, Impactpool's career coach Veronika Ambertson give her expert tips on how to create the optimal CV.
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Is your CV five pages long, and that’s after you cut out as much detail as you think you possibly can? Or you managed to reduce your CV to a one-pager but wonder if it says anything about your experience at all in the end?

It is easy to fall into one or the other category and it is indeed a skill to succinctly include sufficient detail to clearly and accurately convey your past accomplishments without having a CV that is way too long.

With too scant a CV, you risk being overlooked because it appears you don’t have what is required. With too extensive a CV, you risk being overlooked because the gems of your professional profile get buried in the “noise” of the non-value adding words around them.

What is too long anyway? And what is “sufficient detail”?

Well, as frustrating as it is, there is no universal answer to how long a CV “should” be, as it very much depends on your background and accomplishments. Still, as a general guideline, the less experience, the shorter the CV is expected to be, while with more experience, a longer CV can be justified.

For me as a recruiter, I need sufficient detail to determine your qualifications, without having to read through a lot of text that doesn’t add any valuable information about you. The objective, therefore, is to clearly, accurately and succinctly convey your past accomplishments.

I don’t need to know every single detail about every single job you have had. The CV is meant to qualify you for the job you’re applying for. The interview will allow you to expand on your experience and competencies.

In other words, convey as much as possible, in as few words as possible while making sure your CV is an easy-to-read attention-grabber.

Sounds easy enough, right? Well, I know it isn’t.

Let’s look at what usually gets in the way of a “right-sized” CV

Quite often, a lengthy CV has fallen into the “narrative” trap, meaning you convey your work history in a story-telling format. Here are some clues that your CV may be in a narrative form:

  • Experience is written in paragraphs, often using long, complex sentences.
  • Frequent use of pronouns, such as starting sentences with “I”, or describing things with “my” or “our”.
  • Frequent use of auxiliary (helping) verbs, such as one form or another of “be”, “do” or “have” (”I was...”, “we had...”, etc)
  • Frequent use of transition phrases (such as “when”, “thereafter”, “following”, “furthermore”, and “during”).

Sometimes, people think they’re not story-telling if they use bullets. However, it is quite possible to be in a narrative mode when using bullets, if you still include a lot of lengthy descriptions, pronouns, auxiliary verbs or transition phrases. Simply adding a bullet at the beginning of a sentence does not necessarily make it a “bullet point”.

On the other hand, in a quest to write a short CV, there is a risk of not including enough detail. The CV becomes more or less a list that is rather lifeless and doesn’t give enough information for the recruiter to accurately determine your experience. Merely stating tasks and responsibilities does not give the recruiter a well-rounded picture of your experiences and competencies.

So how DO you include “just enough” information in your CV?

First of all, consider the space on your CV as a scarce resource and highly priced real estate, making it necessary for every sentence or piece of information to justify the space it will occupy - it has to add valuable information to earn its place.

The key is to exclude redundant information and wording like the ones specified above and include information that adds value, such as indicating scope and complexity.

Here are a few tips if you struggle to reduce a lengthy CV:

  • Use bullets.
  • Remove or reduce the use of pronouns, auxiliary verbs, and transition phrases.
  • Remove non-value adding descriptions and buzz-words.
  • Start each bullet with an action verb or other value-adding words.

If you struggle with too scant a CV, make sure to include highly descriptive details:

  • Add size and scope (of teams, budgets, fund-raising efforts, projects, events, responsibilities, etc)
  • Add time aspect (such as the time frame within which a specific result was achieved)
  • Add specific stakeholders (such as internal/external, government, beneficiaries, team members, etc)
  • Add result/impact (What was the end result? Who and how many were impacted? In what way?)

Let me provide you with a hypothetical (but realistic) example.

Too wordy and nondescript:

“During my time as Project Manager in [Somewhere location], I successfully lead a large team to implement [such-and-such-lengthy-and-often-nondescript-name] project, while at the same time working in close collaboration with multiple stakeholders.”

Too scant:

  • “Team leader”

Descriptive and relevant:

  • “Led team of 11 engineers and 2 assistants to implement $3.5 million clean water project, which reduced contamination-related health issues by 93% in 5 villages.
  • Collaborated with the community and government representatives to create political goodwill and obtain necessary permits.”

As you can see, the final version is even a little longer than the first “wordy” one. This can happen, but not always. Still, you can see that each element of the last example has justified its space because it adds valuable information that paints a clear picture of the work and accomplishment.

Therefore, the question to ask is not necessarily how long a CV should be, but rather if you have clearly, accurately and succinctly conveyed your professional profile. As long as you convey information that is relevant to me as a recruiter, I’ll keep reading.

Now, give your CV another review.

If you get stuck, or would like a second pair of eyes on it, I, along with the other Impactpool coaches, stand ready to help. 

- By Veronika Ambertson

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