A CV is not an Obituary

It’s a provocative title, but sometimes this is justified in order bring attention to a subject that most people take for granted.

So, what is the objective of a CV? Simple, to get yourself invited to an interview.

How do you increase your chances of getting such an invitation? By using your one-dimensional CV to jump off the page, highlighting why employers will benefit from your skills, while at the same time avoiding sensitive subjects (age, political/religious persuasion…) that might cause you to be rejected on-the-spot.

When most people create their CV, they typically rely upon the only format that they are immediately familiar with, a chronological style that lists the various jobs they have done in reverse order, detailing the tasks that they performed in each position. A chronological CV is appropriate in some cases, but not universally. In many instances a skills-based CV is better for your circumstances; click here for more details.

In this article,we focus on the second default CV decision: listing the tasks that you did in each job in your employment history section. Let’s go back to the title… Why compare a CV with an obituary? As anyone who reads the newspaper knows, an obituary contains the name of the person, and a brief summary of their life. Some people build their CVs in the same way, a concise overview of their history, albeit one with a focus on employment.

However, does compiling an abbreviated list of tasks you performed in the past and educational institutions you attended really enable you to make the best possible impression to a hiring manager? When I was graduating from an American university in the mid-80s and writing my first resume, one of the things that I was advised to do was start with an objective statement, in my case something like “A recent computer science graduate seeking a challenging entry-level position that utilizes my skills”. Today you will find few people that would advise including such a statement in a resume/CV; why? Take another look at that objective and notice that the focus is on what I (the job candidate) wanted. However, think about it, who is the target for your CV? It certainly is not you; if I was the hiring manager I would have hired myself in a second, with the largest compensation package in the history of college graduates. No, the audience is obviously the prospective employers that you are attempting to impress with your job candidacy.

What you should be trying to do is ensure that your application is viewed by the company as most exactly fitting the profile of the job candidate they seek and/or you are the one that best solves the problem that they have (and thereby the position that they are offering). While listing the tasks that you have performed in the past is one way to meet this objective, such a method requires the employer to make inferences – mentally translating how the things you have done previously can be applicable to them. Why leave things to chance when you can make the hiring manager’s life easier and increase your employment attractiveness at the same.

Instead of opening your CV with an objective, it is much more common nowadays to start with a summary/profile. Maybe something like this, “Computer science graduate available to assist your company meet software deadlines by writing high-quality code in C, Pascal, Assembly Language, and PL/1 – available around the clock and excited to contribute to your company”. [For those of you out there that are software people, I know that this list of languages dates me, but that is what we learned in university in the early 1980s.] Yes, it is a summary/profile of you (the job candidate), but a good summary describes how you match the employee profile that is being sought, and how the company will benefit from your skills. To some this message may be almost indistinguishable from my original objective sentence, but changing the focus from the job candidate to the employer makes a great difference in the way your message will be received and processed. Instead of focusing on what you have done until now, concentrate on what you can do for this new company, including when relevant the benefits that will accrue to the company from your employment. Your CV should focus on the future, not the past. Listing tasks, without tying them together to directly call attention to how they are useful to the company, is a wasted opportunity.

One technique to use on a CV to realize this goal is to include accomplishments in your summary/job descriptions, not just tasks. The advantage of mentioning accomplishments is that you move up a level in positioning yourself, describing not just what you have done in the past, but also how the activities that you performed benefited the company – this is the ultimate in tailoring your CV to the target audience! Sales people have a relatively easy time listing accomplishments (at least successful ones do), as the evaluation of their job is directly based upon quantifiable targets (quota, revenues…). People in other professions can have more difficultly articulating specific accomplishments that they can attribute to their work. For assistance in identifying your own accomplishments, click here.

Transitioning from a candidate-centric task CV to an employer-targeted CV introduces complexity though. When you are focused on yourself things are easy as you know everything there is to know. However, when you are concentrating on the employer/hiring manager, there are always unknowns. How can the job candidate understand what the employer really wants? In order to do this well, you have to do your homework. Research is required, using the job advertisement itself (if one exists), internal connections at the company that you have or develop, and publicly available information using Internet (such as LinkedIn and corporate websites) or other resources. Including accomplishments in your CV that are related to the organization, and indicating how what you are capable of doing ties to the activities of the prospective employer will do wonders in improving the reception that you receive.

Approaching a company with a CV that is focused on them is the best way to grab their attention and distinguish yourself from the crowd.

Ron Machol - June 2010

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