Graduate CVs – actions to improve

Some things just never seem to change. After a recent “drop-in” session for graduates, I sat down to prepare my own summary of the session – the key issues, some newly emerging themes, and a rough guide to the statistics. I find this helps me keep things in perspective, and helps me track any shifts over time. Whilst there are always some new issues, the overwhelming volume of questions relate the the same old things.

What follows is a generalisation and certainly doesn’t apply to everyone, but it represents the bulk of the issues I come across. I conclude with my Top Ten actions.

Graduates are bad at writing CVs
Graduates typically have a small amount of experience, but regularly struggle to squeeze it all into only two pages. They constantly search for the mythical “perfect format”, failing to notice that they haven’t included vital information.

Graduates don’t know how to sell themselves
They forget the purpose of their application, and too frequently fail to differentiate themselves from their peers. They completely forget that finding a job is a competitive business, in which supply usually exceeds demand.

They are caught up in the process
“Should I put my key points into my cover letter, or summarise them with bullets at the top of my CV? Should not bother with a cover letter since it’s an electronic application? Is it better to put my name in bold at the top of both pages, or should it be part of the footer on the second page?” – questions such as these suggest that it’s become a process, rather than a “sales campaign” in which the only product on offer is the graduate him/ herself.

Reflection doesn’t help
Whenever I am talking to an experienced hire who has got caught up in the process, a timeout helps – just a brief period of reflection. What’s the objective, what’s the level of success, what needs to change etc. Suddenly they snap out of it, see the light and make the needed changes. Graduates don’t usually have the experience to benefit from that period of reflection – they need better guidance; they need to be taken through it slowly, step by step.

They believe recruiters are psychic
Through blindly following a process, graduates are often missing vital information from their CVs – factors which would undoubtedly improve their chances of employment. They are somehow expecting that recruiters will read between the lines and ask probing questions at an interview. By leaving that information off their CV, that interview is unlikely to happen.

They are driven by the need to get a first job
This is not simply a financial concern. It is also one of pride, self-confidence and peer pressure. Somehow this blurs their sense of purpose and forces errors, through continually rushing to get more applications submitted.

So here is my Top Ten list of actions for graduates preparing a CV and cover letter:

1. Look at how newspapers sell themselves – the top half of the first page does all the selling.

2. Don’t worry about the format – any of the “standard” formats is acceptable these days. No matter how many people you ask, you will never get single answer to the question about which is best – it is very much a matter of personal taste.

3. Content (and how you word it) is king – make sure you include all the things the employer is looking for. Don’t leave out anything relevant, expecting the reader to be psychic – in my experience they rarely are!

4. “Sell yourself” to your friends – can you convince them in less than 30 seconds, that you are right for the job?  Include those factors in your CV.

5. Two pages maximum – people with thirty years of experience can summarise it on two pages; so can you.

6. Slow down – stop pedaling, and take a break from applications. Copy/ paste is a quick way of completing applications, but it won’t be helping if the content isn’t right. Taking time over individual applications is likely to be much more fruitful.

7. Do you really want the job? – If not, don’t waste your own time, and that of the employer by applying. Concentrate your time and effort on the ones you really, really want.

8. Be clear about what is relevant – take the time to think carefully about the characteristics your prospective employer wants. Find experiences (from anywhere in your past) which demonstrate you have them, and describe them in a way which makes you stand out.

9. Don’t pad it out – avoid the temptation to fill your CV with meaningless skills. And before declaring yourself to be a “team player”, check this post.

10. Motivation, enthusiasm and drive – these are characteristics which employers are looking for in you. If your CV doesn’t demonstrate you’ve got them, you need to change it.

Finally, remember that luck plays a part – not every immaculate CV will be successful.


Feel free to comment on this post – I’d be interested to hear your views.
Inixiti – Improving graduate employability. Click here to visit the website.


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