UK CV writing guide

Notes

This document has been abandoned. Decided to release it so that at least something should be available for people that ask for help. Might update it in the future, but not planning to…

Introduction

some stories: CV in the thrash (no address). Internship — absence of CV. No one answers in London — the 6 page CV. My cv binned because of a gap — how I found out.

Who is your intended and what they are looking for.

  • Recruiters.
  • Software that recruiting agencies work with.
  • HR department of the company you are applying for.
  • HR in your company or your next line manager.
  • Friends, relatives or mentors whom you might ask for help or career advice.
  • Your colleagues.
  • Potential Clients, specially for professions where it is difficult to provide a portfolio.
  • Yourself (when you might want to evaluate your career, “Business Model You” example).

They are more than you might have expected.

Strategy and Approach

Although the analogies might seem a bit exotic, this book’s advice is that the CV document should be: like a Bonsai tree, KISSed, and strategic. Details follow.

Bonsai CV

Selected this term as a reference to the “Karate Kid” movie series where the second leading actor is seen pruning and taking care of his bonsai tree again and again, ad infinitum. As a small tree that needs hours and years or care in order to reach perfection, the CV document needs to be updated frequently in order not only to improve, but also to reflect the current situation of the person.

— Suggested frequency — Supply with link to podcast.

Why you need to update it every once in a while or every time something happens or changes.

(also quoting) Why it is not an only “when I am applying for work” affair.

Things that should be placed initially and removed later on.

KISS CV

KISS is the well known acronym for “Keep it Simple and Stupid”.Reader does not have to be impressed with unique or novel layout choices, funny fonts or multiple table arrangements. Reader should be able to comprehend the content and be impressed by that. This is why CV needs to adhere a lot to the conventions of the media.

Use only bold, some italics, bullets points, nested bullet points. Maybe maybe horizontal lines. Also ensure proper spacing on paragraphs and new line break points (more on the typography section).

Exception to this rule is when we apply to creative domains such as graphic design, print, illustration etc, where the CV needs also to make a visual statement.

As we will discuss later on, the CV is not read only from people but also from machines that try to parse and comprehend its content. A difficult to read layout means that many programs will probably reject it, something that can easily be avoided.

In list format:

Use

  • bold
  • italics
  • bullet points
  • New page breakpoints (not a number of spaced to reach next page)
  • (maybe) nested bullet points
  • (maybe) one or two horizontal lines

Avoid

  • Word tables
  • Other tables
  • Unique or novel fonts
  • Breaking conventions

The European CV guidelines

Many people adhere to some guidelines specified from a bunch EU bureaucrats. CVs including sports, other social activities and generally content that in the 60s/70s only Stazi and maybe KGB would care to collect. Because of the weight of the information there, a structure is proposed that includes many tables and pages, in order to make the whole document readable.

The above do not apply for UK. We are proud that you don’t have to tell us that you love tennis to become a good teaching assistant in the Math faculty.

Strategic CV

One liner: “Start with CV document, from that populate other media.”

Multiple channels and ways to promote oneself have been lately introduced to our lives, forcing the HR departments to adapt and recruitment industry not only to adapt but also to shrink. Hence there is the need to have a strategy on how to cope with multiple of choices where details “like” a CV will be displayed. Two examples are linkedIN and the careers site of the stack exchange network (“http://careers.stackoverflow.com/uk/" and of course “http://www.linkedin.com/" ).

So it is normal to think on how and if someone could maintain a persistent, updated, cohesive on and off line identity with so many options. The approach towards this is to keep the CV document in the center of the picture and let the information flow through to other media. (note: this fits with the “KISS” approach discussed above)

No matter what, at least in one step in an introductory, interviewing or hiring process, a CV will need to be read, approved and filed by someone. This is a step that the other media, for the foreseeable future, cannot and probably should not bypass.

There is also a psychological factor: the idea that one has to update many documents whenever a change has been made, makes it easier to postpone, because of the amount of effort required. So it is more probable to prefer to postpone an update on subconscious level. While having one document is something far more easy and manageable. (note: this fits with the “Bonsai” approach discussed above)

Considering the above: perfect your CV document and populate with that other sites or media, with a “copy-paste” mentality. Minor adjustments that might have to be made, such as a character limit or others, should be made on the spot. Maintain one document and your sanity.

Frequent questions

Should I have multiple CVs?

Some people follow this path with different approaches: One is to have a CV document for each industry they are interested in. I had a friend who wanted to work for either the finance industry or the IT industry, who maintained two versions: One emphasizing in his interest in applied mathematics, for the finance positions, as well as another one with more details on his software writing capabilities for the IT positions.

This approach has the following negative points: Instead of maintaining one document, the job seeker here has to maintain two. This is a good source for errors or inconsistencies which at some point will occur. Second not all “customers” of the document are treated equally: Consider the example above and a recruiter that gets the “finance” version, now think of what would happen if a, say finance, company needs a software engineer position from this recruiter. Probably our candidate will not be considered, although he would like the position.

There is another document for this purpose, the cover letter. This is the document which needs to be customized per application. So every modifications or “tweaks” specific for a single application, should go be placed there. For our example above, my friend should place his aptitude for mathematics to the cover letter for each application for the finance industry, doing the same for programming when applying for IT positions.

Should I “tweak” my CV per application?

Explain as a sub case of above.

How about linked in and other job sites?

Placeholder. No, explain why.

General Topics

Gaps

Or “Mind the Gap”, as the recorded voice-over says in the London’s Underground.

Q] Shall I fill the gap with work irrelevant to my occupation?

Overlaps

How we deal with overlaps (2 or more projects at the same time)

Don’t show a different person than who you are Exceptions

-> After you’re done with version 1

Peer review

Errors that your eye will pass on. Things that have not been well explained, red flags.

Domain Expert review

Native speaker / Local review (foreigners R us)

Why it is important to have worked before yourself: because your peers and advisors will all spot the most obvious errors and will not go deeper (Joel Spolsky bug fixing paradigm).

/* Links */ http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2012/07/i_wont_hire_people_who_use_poo.html

File type and name

File type

File name

TODO: instructions for naming files, tips for different versions. Formula: first name — underscore — last name — underscore — CV — dot — doc/docx etc.

Typography

“Typography is for the benefit of the reader, not the writer.”
http://practicaltypography.com/who-is-typography-for.html

Typography matters and this is good. A small additional investment in typography could be the differentiating factor that can in some cases provide you with a competitive advantage.

Some “selling” points Better typography makes your document easier to read, hence

  • It is easier for someone to understand if you fit for a position or not.
  • Can help your CV “make it”. (Consider you are an hiring agent and need to sort out 10 candidates from 100 received CVs and cover letters. What would you do if 10 CVs are practically unreadable? Probably throw them away.) Same stands for the HR department or the ultra busy startup CEO/CTO of the company you applied directly.
  • It communicates that you care about your writing and presentation. TODO PUT OGLEVILE OR SOMETHING QUOTE
  • It also makes it easier for friends, coworkers, managers or editing professionals to read it and spot mistakes, suggest corrections or conduct rewrites it necessary. An investment in quality of typography helps making subsequent quality improvements to the content easier, because mistakes or disambiguations are easier to spot and correct.
  • Specialization of rule above for non-native speakers (like me): It is easier to ask for help to improve or localize a document with good typography.

Some differences from a normal text: edits and parsers

Avoid table based layout + why?

Use bullets + why?

Header

The following elements should be in the header:

  • Your name.
  • Contact details: Address, phone number(s), e-mail.

Name

In form of first name, middle name(s), surname. It should have a larger font then the rest of the document’s text. Some examples, originally from here:

  • Pete Travis
  • Carlos Ezquerra
  • Alex Garland
  • John Wagner
  • Karl Urban
  • Olivia Thirlby
  • Lena Headey

Contact Details

Address

Typical UK format is suggested: House Number — Street, District, Postal Code, City. Comma separated ending with a dot. Use one line if possible.

Phone number(s)

As in address, use one line separating different phone numbers with a comma. Prefer local format by omitting +44 or any other country prefix if the people on the other end do not need to use it in order to call you.

Mobile number should be first, followed by land line if available.

E-mail

While the previous two sections are more or less self-explanatory, more attention needs to be made for which email addresses you are going to use.

It has been confirmed by studies, but it is also obvious that potential recruiters and agents make assumptions about a person, based on the email address. Although it seems that it is only something that will be copy-pasted, it is still part of the document so people will read it. Addresses like: “greatWoWplayer943@facebook.com” indicate an immature person that is not yet ready for a proper position.

There is a related comic strip from “the oatmeal”, which illustrates the situation. (original available here: http://theoatmeal.com/comics/email_address.

People have written about it extensively, so there are many resources available, this is another one: “Does your email address say you’re a rube?”.

This is the most important part of this article, since many people follow a mistaken approach, more than anywhere else. Suppose that your name is “Pat Mills”, the following are the possible email address possibilities, ordered from “best fit” to inappropriate:

  • “pat@mills.com” or “me@patmills.com”, alternatively “pat@mills.net” or something similar. This email address communicates that its owner has a knowledge on how domains work, has invested time in buying his own domain and setting up a mail box. Also is interested about having their name as a “personal brand”.
  • “pat.mills@gmail.com”, which gmail treats the same as “patmills@gmail.com”: The casual case. It has been accepted as the most accepted one, as discussed before (see image above). In case your name is already taken, and there is no easy way to expand it, such as: “patrick.mills@gmail.com”, then it is common to see people adding a number, or a city or something else (“pat.mills98@gmail.com”), which is also generally treated as something OK.
  • “pat.mills@yahoo.com”, “pat.mills@hotmail.com”: Those providers have problematic reputation and are also prone to prejudice. Hotmail and yahoo were popularized in mid-90s when may people assumed that in order to have an MSN account, you needed to have it paired with a hotmail address. This brings the assumption that the person did that email in a hurry or has lost touch with current trends, something specially harmful for IT. Yahoo addresses have been many times taken over and used for spamming, also they were overused in the 90s — same with “aol.com”…
  • “draw934@somewhere.com”, “hobbit99@somewhereelse.com” etc: “Nickname” addresses. These indicate an immature person, a kid essentially, that is sending their CV to test the waters. Not being serious, it goes almost straight to rejection.
  • “pat.mills@anothercompany.com”. Using a corporate email is the most toxic thing that can be done. It indicates that: person did not bother to create a personal address, uses corporate time and resources to read personal emails, an indication of what will happen if there is a hire in the position where he applies. Also the address might probably be invalid, after changing roles or employment.

The process of acquiring a personal domain is easier and definitely less costly than one might believe. Currently I am using hover (not affiliated in any way), with average cost of in the $10 — $20 per year for the provider, including a mailbox. In my case, google apps were used for email handling. The whole process needed about one afternoon. Hover often run discount campaigns for owning a name-domain. There is a very nice article documenting the whole process, as well as the whys and hows on lihehacker: Why You Should Use Google Apps with a Personal Domain Instead of Your Gmail Account.

What to omit and why

Date of Birth

There are many opinions in this subject from different places around the world, the case for UK is that it should not be provided. Generally, since this is a binary (“Yes” or “No”) decision, odds favor “No”. This is based on the following facts: Date of Birth (DoB) is personal data, hence in the same category with political or religious beliefs should not be part of the CV on the grounds of age discrimination .

A question raised by a friend was something in the lines of: what-if a company wants to hire only young people, because of its culture or the same for another company that wants only people with lots of experience? The answer to this is that an agent or company’s HR can deduce the applicant’s relative age from year of graduations or other experience.

TODO: rephrase: Also an agent who does not want to get into trouble, might pass a CV containing a DoB. On top of the above, because DoB is treated as personal data, it can be used for illicit purposes such as fraud cases (identity theft, DoB is a common security question) or for spammers/tracking companies that want to get it for marketing purposes.

Marital Status

Most arguments detailed in “Date of Birth” apply equally here.

Photo

A photo should be avoided: Again, all arguments detailed in “Date of Birth” apply here as well, since a photograph provides more than anything else grounds for most types of discrimination.

Details from countries other than the one you apply to

An example would be applying to Finnish companies from a, say, UK address

Although not general, there are some cases that this might become a deal breaker: With the current financial situation, there is almost certainly talent available locally, so the search for employees that are willing to relocate might not be necessary. Of course this does not apply for situations such as distance working, for high performers in their field, or for positions in rural locations. Same for occupations with high demand, where local talent just not enough. Also the company to which you apply might want to send you documents to review or sign.

If possible, use an address of a friend or relative in the country you are willing to apply to. If no one is available, consider renting a P.O. Box for correspondence.

Experience

Title

Description

Job experience — Purple cow you

Definition a purple cow:

The idea is kindly borrowed from the marketing book of Seth Godin, “Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable”. Its epicenter is that in order for a business to succeed in the current environment, it has to be remarkable.

A very nice essay, quoted here (TODO: Ask for permission):

The purple cow is a business analogy. Imagine you’re driving past a field full of cows. All the cows are the normal black, brown and white colours. You’d barely notice them. Then imagine you see a purple cow in the field. You’re immediately interested and you turn to the person next to you and say, ‘Hey Jodie, see that purple cow over there? Wow’. You might even call you’re mate Mike who’s into cows, ‘Mike, holy crap I just saw a purple cow. You come across one of those before?’ While the book was written before iPhone, FaceBook and Twitter you’d probably take a photo on your iPhone, post it to FaceBook and Tweet it. …
All those black, brown and white cows are like normal businesses. They do their job well, occasionally someone will notice them, but they don’t do anything extraordinary. The purple cow is a business that does things differently. It’s remarkable. You tell your friends and acquaintances about it. …

(origin: http://www.22michaels.com/2010/12/purple-cow.html)

Lets examine how these apply to the experience section of the CV. Here tow things need to be communicated:

  1. That you are a cow.
  2. That you are a purple one.

Specifically, the cow part is derived from the job description, what you were hired to do and how you did it. Which were the “normal”, day to day activities needs to be established, so that the reader can understand the working experience accumulated in that position. For IT jobs, the description needs to be more technical involving programming languages, frameworks etc. An example: “Was in charge of maintaining a five year e-commerce bespoken web application written in PHP, jQuery and Zend framework”.

For the purple part, there needs to be described what was remarkable about the whole experience, how the person in that position added value that was or was not part of the job description.

important: differentiation, competitive advantage, why hire you might be: something that you had not thought, eg quantity of work, having to go solo, introducing a new technology.

that great podcast that changed my life

Again link to the “big” pod-cast.

Applicant has to explain the following:

Cow: what functions have been performed in previous positions. That makes him a “cow”: merchant, IT support, sales, industrial worker, etc

Purple: The added value that was generated. As of definition, the more purple the better. In podcast’s context its achievements

Examples

Test Case:

Extract from CV

Comments: bad written, difficult to distinguish what the applicant was actually doing (the “cow” part is suffering), at the same time there were no “extras” (nothing “purple”).

Transformation #1: In a short paragraph distinguished job functions from technologies used.

Transformation #2: Added achievements, now the potential employer knows what to expect.

Education

Education section bears many similarities with the “Experience” one, but also some differences.

Starting with the similarities, the same pattern needs to be followed: Where did the studies take place, what was studied, as well as assignments, thesis and personal projects.

The “purple” (remarkable) elements of the time in Academia, should be everything outside the normal “flow”. This has to do with electives, assignments chosen personally with a very good result, thesis and potential placements.

TODO: Format. TITLE — UNI — GRADUATING DEGREE WHY: AS IN “Experience”

Differences have to do with the fact that for most positions, the attention is not as much focused towards the academic curriculum of the applicant, as in the previous positions and “hands on experience”. On the other hand, when a person graduates, usually there is only the academic experience to talk and write about, while the academic choices are usually an indicator of later career aspirations. So there needs to be a meaningful compromise between those two.

With the above in mind, the suggested course of action is for the first iterations of the CV document, when the applicant has not been in many positions, to describe with details the time in academia. This of course, without conducting a “copy-paste” of the degree’s transcript. As time goes on and more industrial experience enriches the document, or available space is becoming less and less, academic experience can start getting trimmed down. Details for this in the next section.

Scaling up and down experience in academia

Progressively time in academia should be aligned with the rest of the industry experience, somehow telling the same story. So if the applicant is mostly a systems administrator, then assignments, thesis or classes that are related to systems administration should be detailed in the CV, while say an elective in international relations would not. Same stands for career aspirations: a class on a subject that the applicants wants to work on but did not had the chance yet, demonstrating that there is some theoretical background.

Generally since the aim of the document is to assist in a career in the industry, it is better to emphasize on classes or projects that resembled similar conditions, such as: Thesis, possible group projects, big programming assignments, etc. Of course if the aim was to have a career in the academia, there would be a different story.

In more detail, thesis for an non-academic is a project done solely, starting from scratch with a degree of supervision, which can range from minimal to total micromanagement. It is one of the first times where the students had to plan, execute, report, learn on their own and of course research in the scientific context. Group projects is one exercise in working with others, solving conflicts between team members, balancing different approaches, planning, management. A discussion can be initiated here with topics like: “Which was your role in the project”, “How did you manage a disagreement” and “Did you ship at the end?”.

→ Write also about big programming assignments ←

Programming Languages / technical section

Other Projects

Side projects Freelancing Workshops?

Other related information

Languages spoken

Visa Status

It is normal for potential employees to want to know your legal status, because of unavoidable implications. Is there a need for sponsoring a visa, any other registrations, fees, renewals? Or is there a hard deadline on which an application might or not be approved?

So if there is a question about your visa status, consider preempting it, saving time from the employee or agent who might need to do some homework. Some examples: Do Greek nationals need VISA in order to work in UK? Romanian nationals? If the answer is different in the above cases, why?

Suggested responses, which can be further tweaked if needed:

  • “Eligible to work in UK (EU national)”.
  • “Eligible to work in UK (EU national Spouse Visa)”

The most important is to communicate your work status and not how it was obtained.

Saving space by removing work status information

Based on (1) personal, (2) anecdotal, (3) undocumented experience, people stopped asking me about my status after I was working in UK for my third year in a row. A possible explanation is that previous employers might have done a security check, or that many people migrated from my country of origin hence the absence of visa or other restrictions became more common knowledge.

So if more space is needed for other things consider removing the legal status after having worked for at least one local company.

Other Activities

Some CVs include an “activities” section, containing interests and hobbies. The contents tend to follow a pattern similar to “music, traveling, cinema”. Although there is no concrete advice on if this section should be included or not, two cases can be considered.

When a person is in the first steps on their career, the CV document looks a bit empty, so it makes sense to communicate a message like: “I did not spend my university years as a couch potato, I also did some traveling or records spinning for my friends”, which is honestly good to know. “It shows that you are active, have interests, etc etc” as the advice used to go.

On the other hand when the person has some years of experience, the CV document supplies a good insight of his / her career and aspirations. There an “activities” section seems a bit redundant.

In one sentence: Use this as a filler, when the CV document approximates the two pages limit, consider removing it.

References

Position

Reference section traditionally the last one on the document. One assumption for this is that the person who would at most cases do the reference check, is someone else than the one handling the CV, so putting it last facilitates this process. This is just an assumption.

Whom to ask for a reference letter

The most common suggestion is to have two references. Without knowing the origins of this, it makes lots of sense.

For people with an academic degree, the best approach is to have one from an academic supervisor and one from a position in the industry. For people without a degree, preferably two, from two different placements (two supervisors from a different companies). Needless to say, if you have only one, put that one.

It is very common to be asked to supply the reference letter(s), they need to be available in advance. This shields from situations such as asking for them during a reference check and the supervisor being too busy or generally not available to provide them, or in some cases having changed their mind.

Formatting

The above dictate the format of a reference:

  • Name of referee.
  • Position held while supplying the reference and company.
  • Work and personal phone number.
  • Work email address.

It is possible that the referee might change positions or companies, so a personal phone number should be there, in case the email and the work phone number bounce.

Summary

Reference letters in advance, bottom of the CV and provide adequate information for them to be crossed checked.

Extras

Your own site

Note: Having your own domain with an email address was discussed in the “email” section, this section expands, including a “portfolio”-like www site.

Definitely an idea worth considering. I host my own site in the following address: http://www.mistriotis.com. The underlying technology is github pages, which means that apart from owning the domain, there is no additional cost.

Having a “personal” site means that all documents related to and including the CV will be in one central place from which people interested will be able to check, without getting back to the candidate. Things like: “Please send me links to your github or bitbucket accounts”, can be answered something like: “The links are the following: … . You can also check www.myname.com for more details”. Instead of having them in a document, you can copy paste them from there as well. This has the cascading effect that the email correspondence will be faster which means that you will have a positive or negative response a little bit sooner, rather than later.

Whenever something new happens such as posts, a new open source project or a publication, there is the tendency of wanting to update it, which also means that the habit of regularly updating the CV is further enforced.

The cons of the above is the effort that’s required for maintenance and a small learning curve, specially there is no familiarity with HTML and related technologies. It would also not help a lot if there is not enough material to display: maybe it is worth reconsidering a couple of years down the line.

Appendix

Reading Material, Bibliography

“Being Geek”, Michael Loop, O’ Reilly

Publisher link (contains free sample): http://shop.oreilly.com/product/9780596155414.do

Amazon UK link: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Being-Geek-Software-Developers-Handbook/dp/0596155409

This books has a detailed description of the paths that your CV follows from a recruiter through HR up to a potential technical review from a team lead within a technical organization. This helped to understand and evaluate that people with diverse backgrounds will read and process, each one being equally important, since all of them have veto rejection power. It is also one of the best available orientation guides of the industry.

Author’s approach about CV writing is available in his 2007 blog post: “You’ve got 30 seconds”.

I am writing a book named “IT Archetypes” — a know thyself guide for the IT people, a know thy-friends guide for the ones that interact with them. Check it here: http://www.itarchetypes.com and sign up to the newsletter for updates on new chapters.