Unfortunately, it doesn’t exist.

There is no such thing as The Perfect CV.   If you talk to 100 different people, you will get 100 different opinions.  I have worked as a headhunter for 25 years.  I have seen literally thousands of CVs.  And I have read at least 10 books on how to write a CV.  Even so, I can guarantee that if I were to write your CV in what I believe to be the most effective format, you could probably find several people who told you they thought it was rubbish and needed complete re-writing.

The obsession that job hunters have with crafting the perfect CV stems, I think, from the hope that they can make a ‘magic bullet’ which, on its own, will be sufficient to open doors, win interviews and bag a job.  Unfortunately there has been plenty of research conducted to show that CV submissions alone lead to a job in less than 1% of cases.

CVs in fact play a relatively minor role in the overall job hunt; there are far more important things you could be doing to find a job than endlessly polishing your CV.   The covering letter, for example, is in many ways much more important for new graduates;  and networking is more important for more experienced job seekers.  For really senior people, the CV comes more or less as an afterthought – it is written by the headhunter quite late in the overall Search process.

And yet…

Whilst a great CV will not be sufficient to get you a job, unfortunately a poor CV will be enough to kybosh your chances.  There are some pretty basic things you can do to improve your chances.

I’m going to set out some of those below.

One Page or Many? :

One of the most basic debates that people have on CVs is whether it should be a one page summary – which has the advantage of brevity and so increasing the chance that it will be read but forces the omission of any interesting details; or a multi-page tome – which has the advantage of allowing you to set out all your achievements and manifold skills but risks sending the reader to sleep as they trawl through the detail for the key points.

There’s an easy way to slice through this particular gordian knot: just have both.  That’s what most headhunters do.

How so?  The basic idea is to have the first page serve as a stand-alone document by including the following subject headings:

  • Your Name & Contact Details
  • Education
  • Professional Qualifications (if any)
  • Employment History (Summary) NB:  just include the key Dates, Company Name and Job Titles
  • Other Qualifications/Skills
  • Then the 2nd, 3rd and 4th pages should include:
  • Your Name & Contact Details
  • Employment History (Detail): Now you can list as much detail as you want, repeating the same Dates, Companies and Job Titles in the same order, but inserting all the detail you left out in the Summary section.

Even so, other than your mum, there’s a limit to people’s interest in reading about your glorious career so I would recommend trying to keep the whole thing to three pages or less.   If you follow the recommendations I make below (in Keep it Relevant), you shouldn’t need to make it longer.

Traditional or Skills/Competency-based? :

If you’re the sort of person who left school at 18, went to University immediately after, graduating with a decent degree, and have worked ever since in more or less one sector, then a traditional CV will probably suit you fine.

But if your career has not been such a neat conveyor belt of uninterrupted progress; if perhaps you went to University late; or didn’t really get any academic qualifications; or if you have taken long periods of time out from working; or if you have done a wide variety of quite different jobs in different sectors; or even if you’ve had a conventional career for 25 years but now want to change direction, then you may wish to consider a skills-based CV instead.

What’s the difference?

A traditional CV tends to list your Education first, and then follows with a chronological list of your Employment History, starting with your most recent job and then working backwards to your first job.

Whereas a skills-based CV focuses mainly on your ‘transferable skills’.   ie. stuff you’re good at that you think might be useful to the company you want to work for.  You can easily see some examples of you search for ‘skills-based CV examples’ or ‘Competency-bases CV examples’.

The various examples available on the internet  hopefully they give an impression of what a skills-based CV is about.  The point is really to divert attention away from any career gaps or changes in direction, and instead focus on a selection of skills, and where you have used them.

I say ‘selection’ because ideally the skills you list should be relevant to the job you are applying for (you can read more about this on the Keep it Relevant page).   For this type of CV, you really do need to customise your CV for each job you apply to.  A ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach will definitely work against you here.

Note also that, even with a skills-based CV, people still want you to give some sort of chronological account of your employment history.  But this tends to come at the end, and is touched on only lightly.

For myself, if I wanted another job as a headhunter, I would probably use a traditional CV format.  But if I wanted to do something a bit different, and move into something other than headhunting, I would definitely use a skills-based CV.

Keep it Relevant :

Let’s say I’m a car salesman, and I’m trying to sell you a Volvo XYZ 2.2.   Let’s say this car has a list of features as long as your arm, some of which will be of interest to you, and some not – depending on where you are in your life.  Now, in an ideal world, I would ask you a  few questions about your current situation to try to find out what you priorities are, and also to get a sense of the types of problems you might have with your current car that my Volvo could solve.

So, to kick things off, I might ask if you are married and/or have children.  Let’s say you are married with two children, and another on the way.

This opens up several fruitful areas to investigate relating to size (can you fit 3 car seats in your current car? Is there room in the boot for all the luggage? Have you got roof rails for a top box?); safety (have you got ISO Fixers to lock in the child seats safely? Have you got side impact bars and airbags? Is there an assisted braking system?);  entertainment (is there an in-car DVD system?), etc.

A good salesman would then start niggling away at those problem areas, exploring the implications of not having these things on your driving satisfaction and life in general, before explaining how the Volvo neatly addresses all these needs, to get you to sign on the dotted line.

Now, clearly, if you are single and childless and I start banging on about the exciting features of ISO Fixers for child seats, or the space available for storing prams, or the child-friendly back of the seat DVD systems, your eyes will soon glaze over, and you will probably choose a different car more appropriate to your singleton status.

But there are plenty of features in the Volvo WYZ 2.2 that could be of interest to singletons too.   For example, if you like surfing or cycling, the roof bars would come in handy; or you might like going to festivals, in which case the spacious boot would easily fit a bell tent and all the kit you need for a few nights camping.  And the surround sound HiFi with ipod dock might come also come in handy.   Or the fact it has a 2.2 litre engine, capable of going from 0 to 60 in 5.5 seconds, might also appeal.  Or the fuel consumption figures if your budget is tight.  And so on and so on.

Obviously, for a Volvo, I would be a little bit limited by the overall brand image and its perception as a safe family car.  But, by focusing only on the features which might interest a singleton, I have could create some wiggle room.

This is a sales technique called ‘SPIN Selling’ as devised by Neil Rackham of Huthwaite International, whereby SPIN stands for Situation, Problems, Implications and Needs Payoff.    I highly recommend you buy this book if you are in any way involved in high value, complex sales.   But, the point Rackham makes is that when you are trying to sell something to someone, you should only talk about the features which satisfy their expressed needs.   Otherwise, at best, you risk diluting your sales pitch and, at worst, you can turn them off your product altogether by talking about features which they see as irrelevant or even a turn off.   So an ideal sales pitch should address all and only the features which meet their needs or requirements.

To put this in the context of your CV:  most people seem to regard their CV in the same way you might regard a brochure listing every single feature or specification in a car.   But in fact, your CV is your sales pitch.  The way you sell yourself is similar to the way large value sales need to be handled.

This means that, rather than listing everything you have ever done, you should ideally restrict yourself to detailing all and only the things you have done which are relevant to the requirements of the job which you are applying to.

If you are currently a Fund Manager and are applying for another Fund Manager job, then this is pretty straightforward.   But if you are trying to make a slight career change, then you need to:

  • Identify what are the key skillsets required of the job you are applying for; then
  • Work out the responsibilities and achievements in your career to date where you have demonstrated competence in those skillsets;
  • Include only those in your CV.

Clearly, to some degree, your CV is a historical record of your career, and so you cannot just leave out the parts that do not fit.

For example: if, over the course of your career, you have had four jobs as an estate agent, and only one as a stockbroker, but you want to apply for a stockbroker job, what do you do?   You cannot just leave out the estate agency jobs.  But the point is that you can choose which parts of your CV to flesh out detail in, and which skills you highlight, and which achievements you document.  Just as with the Volvo salesman, you can chance the emphasis of the discussion to the parts that are relevant to your particular counterpart.  This is where the value of Skills-based of Competency-based CVs can come in, as described above.

Persuading someone that you are really a Stockbroker when you have spent most of your time as an Estate Agent is no different from the challenge a Volvo salesman has in overcoming brand perceptions when selling Volvos to young 20-somethings.  But, with the right approach, it can be done.  It’s about highlighting the bits which are relevant to Stock Broking and glossing over the bits that are irrelevant, by including minimal details on the irrelevant bits.

The bad news is that this means you ideally need to have different CVs for different job types – which of course involves more work than a ‘one size fits all’ CV.   In the example above, you would need to have one CV for Estate Agency jobs and another for Stock Broking jobs.

You probably ought to keep a ‘master CV’ somewhere, which lists all your jobs and achievements.  You can send this to headhunters to keep on file.  But this is mainly for your own historical record only.  When you produce a CV for a specific job, you should copy and paste only the bits which relate to that job (or cut out the bits that do not apply).

It will be worth the extra effort, as it will make your CV a lot more interesting to readers, and so increase the chance it gets read at all.

Focus on Achievements (NOT Responsibilities) :

One of the most common mistakes people make when writing CVs is to list all the various responsibilities every job has ever involved.  Apart from the fact that you should really only include responsibilities that are relevant to the specific job application (see Keep it Relevant above),  there’s nothing more boring to an employer than reading through bullet point after bullet point of responsibilities.  There seems to be a belief that the more responsibilities job seekers can demonstrate they have had, then somehow the more valuable they are as a candidate.

In fact, the reality about any job is that there are usually two or three critical responsibilities that, if you get right, mean the difference between success and failure.  It’s often the people who are good at identifying and staying focused on these critical functions that rise to the top of organisations.

For example, although most Chief Executives theoretically have vast lists of responsibilities, these days, the single most important responsibility for most of them is to be Chief Vision setter and, usually, to maintain or increase the share price.

So, by all means list the two, three or four responsibilities that were the most critical to your job.  But you can leave out all the rest, unless you think they are somehow directly relevant to the job you want.

In any event, responsibilities are the most basic measure of your job.   They are what you get your salary to do.  But your worth as an employee comes down to your achievements.  Amongst all these tens of distracting responsibilities, what did you really achieve?  What value did you create for your employer? In what way did you stand out from anyone else if they had done that role instead of you?

The interesting part of CVs  are the achievements.  Once again, don’t devalue them by listing tens of achievements.  Stick to the achievements that you think are the most impressive, or that you are proudest of.  One or two per job is probably enough. Maybe three.  Make sure you quantify your achievements: how did they add value to the company?

Instead of ‘Increased sales despite difficult trading conditions’, write: ‘Increased sales 150%, from £400k to £800k, despite difficult trading conditions, contributing to a 60% increase in profits between 2008 and 2009’.  Or something like that, where the achievement has been quantified.

If you cannot think of any special achievements, then either you’re not trying hard enough; or else you have genuinely plodded through your career leaving not mark behind you.  But, if you think about it, there is probably something you can point to where, without your contribution, things would have turned out less well.  If you are really struggling to identify your contribution, then you should definitely read ‘What Color is your Parachute’ and ‘Brilliant CV’ – and then have another go at it.

Quantify Everything :

I focus on the Asset Management sector, recruiting people who manage multi-million (often multi-billion) pound Pension Funds and Unit Trusts.  These guys spend their lives quantifying market pricing and company performance. Yet if I were able to charge a tenner every time one of them failed to include in their CVs even the most basic measures relevant to their jobs, I too would be sitting on a multi-million pound investment fund (well, a few thousands anyway, but you get the picture).

In their case, I need to know:

  • The size of their funds
  • How many funds they manage
  • The risk profile of the funds
  • What types of clients do they service (Institutional or Retail?)
  • The performance targets of the funds
  • The volatility measure of the funds (how widely performance has fluctuated)
  • The annualised performance over the last 5 years
  • The net fund flows (has money been coming into the fund, or going out).

Only when I (or my clients) have this data can I start to assess how good they are as a fund manager.

I often ask people to quantify data and they can’t, as it was all too long ago and they cannot remember.

I believe that, every year, you should take the time to record in some sort of ‘Master CV’  all the key data for that year regarding your activites, achievements and new skills learnt so that those facts are recorded and not forgotten.  Then you can reference this resource later in your career.

Formatting Points :

This is all really just common sense. But, for the record:

Some Do‘s:
  • Do use a font somewhere between 9 point and 12 point;
  • Do use a clear font like Helvetica or Garamond;
  • Do make use of formatting, with the dates inset to the left, and judicious use of Bold, Italics and Capitals to make the key facts stand out;
  • Do put your Name and contact details on every page in the header (in case pages get separated from each other);
  • Do put the page number in “Page x of y” format in the footer of each page (for the same reason);
  • Do list Education and Employment History in reverse order (ie: the most recent date first).
Some Don’ts:
  • It shouldn’t need to be said, but spell check everything. Read it. Re-read it. Get two of your friends to check it for spelling errors. Any spelling erros that get through the net will be the kiss of death to your appilcation (see how irritating they can be?!);
  • Don’t use fonts less than 9 point or more than 12 point (other than for your name, which can be slightly larger than the rest);
  • Don’t use any gimmics like fancy paper or parchment, or unusual highlighting effects;
  • Don’t be tempted to include a photo image of yourself. ‘Brilliant CV’ tested this and the verdict is that it won’t help your application but may well hinder it. So just leave it off.
  • Do not use abbreviations like don’t;
  • Don’t use slang – it sucks! – or exclamation marks!!!
  • Try not to use hyperbole (ie: very, extremely, superbly, exceptionally, over-used by most people).
Some other Thoughts:

If you are a LinkedIn user (which you should be), then you really ought to take the same care to create your profile there that are you are taking with your CV.

LinkedIn and Facebook will often be the first thing potential employers see about you – so make sure you manage content and privacy settings on those with this in mind.

LinkedIn allows you to upload a CV or Presentation, which you might as well do, in addition to creating a Profile.

Author: Rupert Reed Last edited 5th January 2021


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