All Filler, No Killer – The Top 5 mistakes people make in their CVs.


Without wishing to grouse endlessly about how badly schools are preparing kids for their future work lives, it’s hard not to when I see the standard of instruction surrounding how to order and write a CV. Now, I will say that this is not a phenomenon exclusive to students, this is something even very polished, capable and successful business people struggle with equally. Which of course in turn serves to highlight how poorly prepared teachers are to tell their students how to do this. Even employers themselves are pretty average at this – however after nearly 14 years of doing this I estimate in an average day I might look at around 25 – 30 CVs, which adds up to somewhere north of 100,000 CVs so when I say this is what you should be doing it comes with slightly more weight than an internet how to search. So, please find below the Top 5 No No’s for CV writing that are as applicable for the 15 year old looking for their first job as a disaffected Cineworld employee as they are for someone on the cusp of retirement just looking for that one last role to see them through.

Let me begin by saying CVs and the peculiar mores are, much like the avocado bath suite, subject to the whimsy of time and fashion. There was a time when using phrases like blue sky thinking and out of the box was quite daring and innovative then it become commonplace and eventually ire-inspiring. Once it was true that CVs had to be no more than a one sheet executive summary, then no more than 2, then 3, then eventually people had whole dossiers that they would schlep from place to place. Nowadays it’s probably a common sense approach, say what you need to say and get out. But let’s not get bogged down with length, it’s much more about what you do with it.

1/ Waffle – People aren’t signing up to read the life and times of…, this is not Nicholas Nickleby, short terse prose is much more effective than pontificating about the nature of your working relationships, drawing conclusions and exploring what you learnt. An employer wants to know what you did, where you did it and whether you were successful. Keep it tangible, provable and factual. They want you to work for them, not marry their daughters so keep it simple and stick to the narrative you’re trying to sell.

2/ I, Claudius – If Edd started writing his blog exclusively in the 3rd person or if Edd started announcing himself upon arrival at clients’ receptions by exclaiming, ‘Edd is here’ it wouldn’t seem too harsh to assume that Edd was in need of a lobotomy. You are not Kanye West, do not, ever, refer to yourself in the 3rd person in your CV. Mark is… Sheila has a… John describes himself as… everyone else thinks you’re a wanker. You wouldn’t do this in real life, you’d look like an actual lunatic but it happens time and again in CVs. Equally, persistent use of ‘I’ can be grating too, it looks so needy. If you remove the personal pronouns bit, it makes life so much easier – ‘A pragmatic commercial management professional…’ for example or in bullet points when talking about your role, ‘Led, managed and developed…’ it seems more business like, it does away with waffle and doesn’t paint a portrait of an egoist.

3/ Interests – Perhaps when you’re younger the interests section at the CV may be more relevant, with less experience to draw upon you’re trying to highlight more about you as a person and how you might be a suitable fit culturally. When you’re in your forties the fact you attend bi-monthly meetings for those who appreciate bicycles made of cheese is considerably less relevant than whether you have useful and relevant experience of doing the job you are applying for. If I had my way I would do away with the whole thing entirely. The worst of it is that people are by and large completely uninspiring in the choices they include, ‘socializing with friends’ how is that in any way remarkable? Of course you enjoy socializing with friends, if you didn’t they wouldn’t be your friends. If someone said socializing with enemies at least it would be a talking point. Unless you have something that has a direct bearing on the job and will further the potential employer’s understanding of the depth of your commitment to an area then just leave it alone.

4/ Adjectives – The number of CVs I read that make wild, vainglorious declarations of their brilliance is staggering. The reader of your CV is wanting to understand what you can do, what you have done and what skills you can offer them, they are not in the market to be sold piffery and swaggering nonsense. Waxing lyrically about how well you did something without demonstrable facts and figures that can validate those claims is a fart in an elevator – noxious, embarrassing and leaving a nasty taste in the mouth. If what you did was so impressive there’s no need to tart it up, stick the figures down and let them do the talking for you. Percentages, facts, big numbers all have a wonderful way of cutting through the nonsense in a way that honeyed prose doesn’t.

5/ Jokes – Remarkable as it may seem there remains a staunchly devoted vanguard of people who still think editorializing their CVs with little asides like a Bob Monkhouse routine is going to get them through the door. Jokes can work in an interview setting very nicely but when your audience is unseen and unknown to you it’s not worth the risk. No one is ever going to judge you harshly for being too business like or professional in your CV. Stay on message, cut out anything that doesn’t sell you or your abilities. A CV is a marketing brochure, a sales document and nothing more, it’s not a biography, it’s not somewhere for you try out new material, it’s not an opportunity to stretch those authorly muscles, it is conveying who you are and what you can offer. Let that underpin everything that follows.

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