A good CV isn’t something easy to get right, and that can make you miss out on a lot of job opportunities that you’d otherwise be a great candidate for.
If you start doing some research into what employers consider to be a good CV, you’ll very often stumble upon statements like “It needs to stand out” or “It needs to tell a story”.
However, it can be difficult to grasp what they explicitly refer to and how to use this kind of feedback. To make our lives a bit easier, let’s unwrap what employers really mean when they say these things and discuss some solutions.
What makes a CV stand out?
First of all, we need to accept that no matter how good we are, we won’t always stand out. The only solution is to find ways to shed the best light on what makes us good, and spread that story as far as possible, until we get noticed by an employer who needs someone like us.
Secondly, we need to start thinking of CVs as instruments of communication. They are NOT an enumeration of cold facts or a narrative of everything we’ve done before. Just like when we write emails, hold speeches or, why not, ask someone out for a date, when we write CVs, we’re just trying to convey a message and ideally, impress.
When employers say that it needs to stand out, it’s just a way of saying “I want to see something I resonate with” – just like when you meet another person and you can tell in a few seconds if you “click” with them or not. When our brains make quick assessments like these about people, what we unconsciously look at, but sometimes fail to express in words, is their alignment with us in terms of values, behavior, vision and knowledge.
That being said, what you want to achieve with your CV is to make it easier for employers to grasp what you’re made of, so that if they resonate with you and need your expertise, they’ll eventually invite you for an interview. Luckily, there are just a few key points that, if you manage to get right, can help you present yourself better and, as a result, get more interviews.
The way your CV looks is the first impression, the way you dress for the party. This opens up a lot of possibility for being authentic, just as much as it scares people off when they believe they have no “design skills”.
The purpose of design is to make content look good. What you say must be good enough to seal the deal, but how you say it opens the door to actually being heard out – in this case, what you want is to make recruiters read your CV in more detail and decide to invite you for an interview.
Some of the very easy things anyone can do in order to have a good design and look the part are:
- Highlight (through color or bolded text) the keywords, sections, titles that you believe are important. The first few seconds of looking at a CV are the most important, so whatever pops up the most in that time will be the basis for the assessment of that piece of content. You need to decide what to you want to convey and help the reader see those things first.
- Create borders, headers, section highlighters that make the content pop up – something as simple as some colored squares (or adding the logo of your university) can work:
- Use white space. Your CV should have wide document margins and enough space between sections to denote a clear separation. The amount of space that text has to breathe has a big influence on its readability. Otherwise, some great content will look cluttered and difficult to follow. See for yourself: left CV sample with lots of text, little visual separation through white space; and right CV sample with similar amount of text, but much more space to process the data.
- Adjust your line spacing. The space between your lines can easily affect the reading speed. Did you know that the default line spacing from Microsoft Word (of 1 line) makes blocks of text difficult to read? However, using too much space between lines can also decrease readability. You’ll have to try a bit until you find a balanced line spacing for your font and size, but it shouldn’t be difficult to notice when you hit a sweet spot. Take a look at these 3 samples of text and choose for yourself:
- You can also consider changing the background color. As most CVs are written on white backgrounds, that should get you easily noticed. And if you’re going for that, also consider contrast – a dark background requires a light font color like white or shades of other colours that are very close to white.
- You can use pictograms to highlight sections and nicely make the separation between them. If you’re a bit more unconventional/informal and the companies you’re applying to are as well, feel free to also use emojis to augment text💃🤘🧢.
- Use colors that reflect your personality. If you want to go a bit more in depth, you can check out this article that explains the symbolism of colors in design. For example, the orange we use in the design of WorkValues stands for adventure, energy and creativity, which are some of our core values.
Structure is probably the underestimated nerd at the party, but it’s in reality the one that holds the whole thing together.
At the first point of contact, structure means you should have:
- clearly separated sections (education, professional experience etc.)
- all your paragraphs aligned
- descending order from the last to the first experience
But at a deeper level, it mostly means organising your message well enough to make a lot of information understandable very fast. However, people are really bad at processing a lot of information at once, so you’ll need to deliver it in small chunks. If you can create visual separation between the types of information you want to deliver, you’ll make it easy to read and understand.
Here’s an example where structure affects readability. (Left)
And one where structure makes content easy to scan through. (Right)
The first one has good content, but the second one is easier to read because you have all relevant pieces of information visually separated, delivered to you in small doses:
- The dates have a lot white space around them, so they’re difficult to miss
- The company name is bolded
- The job title is in italic
- Each experience is separated by the others through a big white space, so you know when it starts and when it ends
Good structure keeps the reader focused and doesn’t bug their mind. So, you’ll need to get a bit creative in utilising your space in an optimal way, so you get as much readable information per inch as possible.
Content is indeed king. Everything you do up until this point is to emphasize and make it easy for people to grasp what you have to say.
In order to write an impactful presentation of yourself, that sends a powerful message and impresses, you first need to clearly define what you want to communicate.
For example, you may decide you want to communicate that:
- you’re a very organised person, that will find a way to optimize any process
- or you’re a creative, that likes to build cool products
- or you’re a bold person that goes the extra mile to deliver amazing results
If, however, defining this message doesn’t come easy because you just find it difficult to evaluate or describe yourself, here’s a quick exercise that you can use to get started.
Take each of the following questions and try to answer. You don’t need to reach a lot of eloquence, but rather brainstorm freely. Every time you find yourself saying/thinking of something that you resonate a lot with (a word or sentence), write it down. You’ll end up with list of keywords that you can use to describe yourself.
- How would you describe your personality?
- What are your aspirations?
- What’s the most important character trait that helped you succeed so far?
- What inspires you?
- What makes you unique?
- What are you passionate about?
- What motivates you?
- Why have you done the work/studies you’ve done so far?
If you generate too many keywords, rank them and select the top 5 that most represent you (and you’d like to convey to employers), and use them to fuel your message.
Once you’ve decided on the message that you can use as your guiding light, you need to use it best describe your experience.
Here are some tips & tricks you can use to do that:
- If there’s a golden rule we can start with, that’s – always describe your results, not your responsibilities. Results, real stories and examples have a lot of power behind them. It has more impact to say “I closed $200k in new revenue” than “I managed new business pipeline”.
- Put numbers on your accomplishments whenever possible or relevant, in order to give them real magnitude. You don’t want to abuse this practice and mention every single detail, like saying “I organised an event with 10 participants”, but you don’t want to forget to mention it when your event had 1000+.
- Filter your thoughts – great communication has brevity. You need to come back to your initial intention of the message you want to convey and decide what’s truly relevant to include in your CV. Don’t just put all of your results, generating a list of 20 bullet points per job, put the ones that make most sense for the message you want to send.
- Use comprehensive job titles to describe your previous experiences, even if they’re not 100% accurate. If your job titles were fully understandable, like Software Engineer or Lawyer, that’s fine, but if you had job titles like “Employee Site Delivery Intern” or “Audience Engager”, which are the result of corporate slang and specific company culture, it’s good to tweak them a bit to help the recruiter understand what you really did. It’s better to say Project Management Intern or Sales Representative, than to stay fully correct to your job title and confuse the reader. That doesn’t mean to lie or embellish your actual position, but to clarify it.
- Make form to fit content, not the other way around. And get out of patterns if it serves you. You can use templates, read best practices, get inspiration from other CVs you like, but don’t let them restrict what you end up writing. If you need to add a “Personal Projects” or “Things I believe in” section in your CV in order to best highlight your experience and send your message across, do it even if you won’t find it anywhere else.
- Omit old experiences if they’re not relevant – if you already have, say, 3-4 jobs under your belt, there’s no need to mention the internships you did during university, unless they’re important to the job you’re applying for (say, you interned at Google and want to apply to another big tech company even though you’ve worked in a couple of startups meanwhile). Use your best judgement and keep things simple for the recruiter that’s going to look at your résumé.
Share your journey
While your objective expertise helps the employer to establish job fit, your personal journey can give you an important competitive edge and already start sending some signals about your character.
Tell stories. Presenting cold data adds objectivity to your presentation. Adding stories creates emotion, which generates empathy and puts your achievements into perspective. It’s one thing to say “I built the department’s business processes” and a completely different one to say “starting from scratch, I bootstrapped the entire set of business processes of the department”.
While they describe the same thing, the second reveals some personal traits. It takes ambition, courage and creativity to build something out of nothing.
Every experience has some learning and every choice has some motivation. Think what would spark the curiosity of the employer and already start sharing more before they have a chance to meet you.
If you’ve made some career zig-zag exploring different job functions, tell the story.
If you’ve made a career gap, tell the story.
If you worked on side project, tell the story.
When employers are looking for stories, they want to see your evolution, the things you’ve learned, the experiences that shaped you and where you want to go. Let them in.
If you found something useful or inspiring in this article, let us know in the comments section below and share it with your friends.
Credits for the CV samples: https://novoresume.com/, https://gosumo-cvtemplate.com/all-cv-templates/, https://colorlib.com/wp/free-resume-templates/,