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Planning Retirement Online

A Guide to Job Searching in Later Life

Part 3 - Winning CVs

Most people, when asked the question 'What is the objective of a curriculum vitae?' tend to respond that it is to “get the job”. The fact that this is not the case – rather that the objective is to get to an interview – may seem a minor issue, but is, in fact, important. What it means is that you do NOT need to fill the CV with a great level of detail about your previous jobs – this can all be tabled at the interview – but can produce a brief selling document that makes the reader WANT to call you in for interview to find out more. In our fifties, with over 30 years of work history behind us, the challenge of getting this history across in less than 7 pages may seem daunting. You should, however, aim for two pages, absolute maximum three, selling your key features rather than the detail.

Now imagine yourself as the hiring manager who has advertised a position and received two hundred CV’s in response. What do you do? Read through every one of the 200 picking out those most closely matching your requirements to produce a short list? Probably not! I would suggest that you are far more likely to make a first pass on a “selecting out” basis – anything giving the slightest excuse for rejection is binned, just to get the detailed reading down to a manageable level. Any sight of a spelling mistake, poor layout, coffee stains, more than 2 pages etc and you are in the bin.

A lengthy way, perhaps of making what are probably the two most important single messages regarding CV’s – length and presentation.

This section looks at a number of areas affecting how 'winning' your CV can become - presentation, structure, content, and some advisory 'don’ts'. Before diving in, however, I would make a request. You may read this site, you may read CV books, you may listen to network contents – all of us have useful things to say based on experience. But, at the end of the day, your CV is your collateral, it has to be expressed in a way that you are comfortable with and can speak to at interview. So listen to us all and then decide what you want to do, ignoring everybody if their advice does not fit your need. Every employer will have a slightly different view of what they want to see anyway, so there is no one right way of producing a successful one. Remember, though, that the only chance of you getting an interview is (probably) your CV.

Principles:

Neatness and appearance

Ensure that your CV is word-processed, single sided, on good quality white or cream paper. Ideally two, maximum 3 pages.
Make the document easy on the eye, with plenty of white space, regular spacing, constant margins and tabbing.
Research shows that CV’s are easiest to read if in 11 or 12 pt, Times New Roman or Arial script. Emphasis should be gained through emboldening or capitals rather than underlining or italicising.
Resist the temptation to add a photograph or to get carried away with fancy binders, use of graphics and colour etc. These CAN have a negative impact.

Targeting

Once you have produced your CV, you may well never send it out twice in the same form. You should always look at the job advert (or at what you know about the company and the job if no advert) and fine-tune the CV each time to match the requirement. Primarily this will be in the areas of key skills to be highlighted. Don’t forget to keep a copy of each variant, so that you arrive at interview with the same script as the interviewer!!!

Be Honest.

It is easy to gild the lily on paper, but very difficult to sustain the untruth when face to face with the interviewer, so do not dig a hole for yourself with the CV. Only make claims for your past performance or experience that can be substantiated.

No gaps.

Hiring managers tend to get suspicious if there is a gap in the dates on your career history and may make assumptions about what you were up to. If you have taken time out for sabbatical, maternity/child rearing, travel or health reasons then say so. As I shall explain later, however, a gap left at the start of the career – in other words only listing our jobs from 1986 instead of 1976 is not being dishonest (“earlier jobs too long ago to be relevant!”) and can be used as part of the “age concealing” process.

Positive

Present yourself in a very positive way, bring out what you have done in terms of your transferable skills, strengths, achievements and experience rather than majoring just on your responsibilities. Ask yourself how your previous employers have benefited from having you around. Use action verbs to describe your previous roles - taught, negotiated, managed, developed etc rather than assisted, coordinated, liaised, which give no clear sense of accountability.

Structure

Most CVs will contain the same elements of information, but there are options as to how these are structured.

The elements – to be looked at in detail shortly – will include:

Contact details
Personal profile
Career history
Achievements
Key skills
Personal details such as date of birth (!!!), education, qualifications, interests

I would suggest that, in most cases, the first two sections on the document will be the (name and) contact details and the personal profile. It does make sense to put your address etc at the top to aid the recipients’ admin task, and it certainly makes sense to have the profile, if you have one, at the beginning to give an instant view of yourself and cause the reader to want to read further to find out more.

The area with scope for variation in structure is that around skills/achievements/history. Three versions of my own CV are attached to demonstrate three possibilities.

Firstly, the functional CV. This defines your past in functional areas, in each case giving a function header (project management, marketing, management, design) and then, under each, spelling out some of the key achievements and skills demonstrated in that function. The actual job history, which follows, is a brief one since most of the “selling” detail has appeared within the function.

This approach is often appropriate for those who have a multi-functional background who wish to market themselves for some or all of the functions.

Secondly, the historical CV. This is structured around the career history as its major element, showing appropriate skills and achievements within the context of each job role. May be a better approach for those who have relatively mono-functional careers, spending most of their time progressing through the levels of eg marketing, finance, development.

Lastly, a hybrid CV. Spells out the transferable skills and achievements as discrete lists and then career history in brief form.

Educational and personal details, which probably have relatively little impact when we are 50+ and sell ourselves on our experience, can follow at the end.

There are many other models and ways of cutting the cake of our backgrounds, and you may wish to use a variant rather than a direct match to one of these three. That’s fine – it’s your CV!

Content

The guidelines that follow are sequenced as per the “hybrid model” referred to above, but the effect is the same whichever you are following.

Note that there is no need to have the words Curriculum Vitae at the top. It is obvious what the document is and you could easily cause your first in-the-bin-inducing spelling error!

Contact details. It makes sense to have your name in bold larger script top centre. The usual form of your name will suffice (Don Wilde rather than Donald James Wilde B Sc, MICPD). Address and numbers may well also be centred, or may be at left and right. Include full contact details, including mobile phone and e-mail, since recruiters/agencies often wish to contact candidates in a hurry. If you do not have either mobile or e-mail, particularly the latter, then think of getting them as they may considerably improve your campaign effectiveness.

Profile or Personal Profile. This is key since it determines, in many cases, whether the rest of the document gets read at all. Probably no more than two sentences, one describing your 2/3 key experience areas, the other perhaps 3/4 key skills. This is one section that you need to look at closely each time you send it out and tune to the particular application. It helps to give impact if the profile is emboldened and, maybe, cut in by 1 cm either side. Rather like a sales call, if you do not grab the attention in this first half page you may be sunk.

Incidentally, do be aware that it is generally considered that the profile section, indeed all sections, should be written in the indirect third person to make it sound more objective. So do not use “Don is …..” or “I am ….” but words in the form “An experienced project manager ……”. The profile should also stick to what is rather than what you want to be, and should not refer to your ambitions/aspirations for the future, or even your next job.

Key Skills. Whether as a discrete list, or addressed within functions or career history, you must be able to identify some key transferable skills. Some will be functional (eg project planning, double-entry book-keeping, remuneration analysis, application software development) whilst others will be generic, often mainly behavioural, of which examples include analysis, communication, integrity, planning and organising, sensitivity to others. Include any PC skills, particularly in the area of Microsoft Office. IT professionals will clearly need to present a considerable list, probably a good half page, to cover all the detail. Again this skills area is one to be tuned each time you use the CV.

Achievements. Most of us can look back over our careers and identify jobs/projects/tasks that they have done well, perhaps been rewarded specifically for, or have taken a major chunk of time, or given rise to particular pride. Spell them out, briefly, particularly if of any relevance to the targeted job. Always, always, always include measures if you can (eg £xxM profit, 50 staff, sales increased 50%, two weeks inside target timescale).

Career History. This is likely to be a discrete section, whatever your model, although varying in detail level. Some suggestions:

always go in reverse date order (ie most recent job first) unless there is good reason for not doing so (possible if earlier jobs in your career are most relevant to the one sought)

express dates in years (1998 – 2003) rather than months. If nothing else, this might help to hide how long you have been out of a job!

give job title and company name, but other specifics such as company address, manager’s name are unnecessary. It is often useful, particularly with recent or relevant jobs, to put a sentence about the company (product and size) to help scope.

use action verbs, as mentioned earlier, when describing jobs. Include achievements and skills used if these have not been covered in separate sections

remember that you do not need to go into great detail about your duties unless you are trying to fill two pages!

go back, with no gaps, as far as you think it to be relevant. You may, for example, choose to list each position (with decreasing detail?) back to 1987, then to have an entry that says “1980-1987, various junior finance roles in retail” and to stop there even though you have been working since 1969. Only tell them what is appropriate to your application.

Personal Details. Some additional items of detail that you may wish to include, either under one blanket heading or separately.

Date of Birth (never age). In my book there is no reason why we should declare this, unless applying for a role where we feel that being 50+ enhances our chances. Even though there is much less age discrimination these days, and it is not only B&Q that invites retirees, it has certainly not disappeared completely.

Education. Is this likely to make a difference when in our fifties or sixties? Not very, but there are some employers who are very degree conscious, so I would encourage graduates to mention the fact, but not to detail all the O and A levels that led up to then. Those with other qualifications may well put them down, at least the highest level, but if you have none or “just 3 O levels” then just do not mention education at all.

Professional Qualifications. Please do not list every training course that you have ever attended, but if you have occupational or professional achievements to be shown off to aid your chances then do so. Similarly if you have done training courses that cover areas outside your experience field (eg a language) should be included if you think it relevant.

Interests. In brief, please, but do mention them (or some of them). Whilst your hobbies will only occasionally aid your ability to make the interview list, many interviewers like to take a lead from here when making the open, warm , rapport-building conversation as you walk through the door. Hence “I see you like travel – where have you visited recently?” or “You say you are a snooker player – did you watch the Nationals last week?” will, they hope, help you to feel more relaxed before diving into deep interview mode.

Some Don’ts

Just a few things that you might want to think carefully before including anywhere in your CV.

Age, as discussed

Salary. It should be your objective not to bring up money until as late as possible, ideally when they want to make you an offer, since this improves your bargaining power. Certainly not this early.

Hobbies and interests. Be a little careful here. Whilst some community work looks excellent on a CV, too much can raise questions as to when you find time to work! Be aware of any interests or political or religious affiliations that may seem perfectly normal to you but MIGHT be looked at askance by some others.

Don’t make comments on your CV that reflect badly on previous employers. This can even be as innocuous as “appointed to XXX project to get the company out of contractual difficulties”.

Marital status, children, driving licence, health are usually irrelevant.

Identifying references will fill unnecessary space, may not be required, and may be something on which you change your mind (who to name) as a result of the interview. So leave it out unless asked.

TLA’s and jargon should only be used when you are very confident that the recipient will know what you are talking about.

So, as you prepare to produce this masterpiece of selling, first of all gather all documentation that may help in terms of previous job descriptions and appraisals, the results of your earlier personal analysis exercise etc. Decide on a layout, ensuring impact in the first half page. Draft your CV through a number of stages. Repeatedly ask “is this going to make a difference to my being called for interview?” – and ditch it if the answer is “no”. When you have produced your best shot, find others to comment on what you have said about yourself and, more importantly, to proof read the thing. You cannot have enough presentation checks made if you are to be sure of it being your best shot.

Links to sample CVs

Please note these are pdf files of word documents which may take a moment to display

1 – A functional approach

2 – A historical approach

3 – A hybrid approach

Don Wilde, the writter of this Guide, has many years experience in outplacement and career consultancy, latterly on a self-employed basis but prior to that within the IT industry. He has experience in a variety of human resources, business and project management, and staff development roles.
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