I must have seen well over 40,000 CVs and applications over the years- and the applicants who have spent time focusing on the specifics of a role to tailor their CV really stand out.

There is no getting away from it. applying for jobs is not easy-  I have often spoken with graduates who have applied for dozens or even hundreds of jobs and not been successful. Or in some cases even secured an interview. Often a significant factor has been that they have spent too little time on each application; generally just sending the same default CV.

I have previously written a blog with my thoughts on how to structure your CV, and this blog is more about how to tailor it for a specific application. The person selecting people for interview will be looking for specific things on your CV, and if something is not on there then you risk missing out. You can find out more about how the process works here

Spending a little time on your application will really make you stand out against the majority of applicants. This is ideally done at the initial application stage. But I will also ask applicants who I have spoken with to do this once they know more about the role and business, and before their CV is sent to the employer. This is so the person who is ultimately selecting people for interview has as much information as possible, so your chances of being selected are as good as they can be.

What should you do?

It’s largely basic stuff. The first thing to look at is the advert or job description, as this is where you will see what the requirements are. The business is literally telling you what they want to see. It will generally list essential and desirable criteria; these won’t always be listed specifically, but may be mentioned in the advert.

If the advert says that something is essential then the CV needs to cover this. And desirable skills can often make the difference, so try and cover as many of them as you can too. Some of the requirements will relate to ‘soft skills’ for example teamwork, communication, problem solving, time management, organisation etc. Or it could be a piece of knowledge such as a software package, or something you studied.

Don’t assume the person reading the CV will know that you have these skills, even if it’s something as standard as Excel (and if Excel knowledge is requested then make sure you expand on your knowledge, is it basic or can you create PivotTables and analyse data for example).

Just think how much more powerful your application will be if you mention that you have some knowledge of the exact things that are listed in the advert. Even if you have only touched on them in your degree, you still need to mention it (but say what level you are at).

Bullet points can be very effective in listing key skills, and a summary tying everything together is important. When someone is reviewing your CV they are scanning, looking for various things. If everything is tied together it makes it easier.  Thinking about why you want this opportunity, and why you are suitable, will also make it a lot easier to discuss if you do get a call from the recruiter.

Some applicants this through a cover letter (and if the advert specifically requests one they you need to do this). But my own personal preference is that it’s covered on the CV. It’s best to add this as a summary towards the top of the first page. Title it ‘Summary’, ‘Statement’, ”Profile’ or something similar. I would say it needs to be anything from 200-500 words, depending on the role. 

 If there are too many words the key parts can be lost in the text and become less powerful.  I would recommend trimming anything that doesn’t need to be on there. A good way of doing it is to check again against the advert or job description, and see if everything is relevant. For example, if you have written something about leadership, and this is not going to be required in the role, then remove it. Also, make sure you are not repeating things.

Write it in the first person, it’s you that’s writing it not someone else (so use I, me, etc; not your name).

Don’t be tempted to use AI to write it, this is a big negative- and it can usually be spotted. Write it yourself.

Make sure you do some brief research into any terms on the advert that you are not familiar with (type it into google and you can get the basics in less than a minute). You may get a call to discuss your application, and it shows interest and commitment if you have done some research.

The advert will often list some of the duties that you will be doing in the job. But don’t worry if you have not done these specific things, as you won’t always be expected to know them (and training is generally provided). Focus on the bigger picture, and what you have done, particularly if there is something that relates to the duty. In the example below, the graduate may not have done a job where this process is followed. Nor may they have even done sales. But the skills that are required include: organisation, communication, and customer service (these would probably be listed in the advert).

Managing the sales process from initial prospecting stage through to securing the order and ensuring successful project implementation, with a focus on customer satisfaction and retention.

If you say you can do something, make sure what you do backs this up; for example, I have seen many CVs over the years that listed ‘attention to detail’ as a skill, but had at least one spelling mistake. Or sometimes a skill is listed but the applicant not then been able to justify it when asked to expand. You need to have some decent knowledge of something to list it, as you will probably be asked about it.

A lot of cover letters / summaries that I see are general, and comprise of ‘business speak’ cliches and banal statements that are often not relevant to the opportunity (and in many cases are not factual). And they don’t always read naturally. For example: ‘I am an ambitious leader, able to influence stakeholders while maintaining an air of creativity and an aura of gravitas. Agile with 360 degree capabilities and able to think outside the box’ .

It’s easy to feel that this is what businesses want- but in my experience it’s not. They simply want to know that you have the knowledge and attributes that they require. And some of the additions can actually do more harm than good, particularly if you can’t really back it up.

Ideally, make sure you also cover why you want the specific role. This is not always essential in the initial application, but you will be asked it at some point. Particularly if there is something a bit different about it. For example, an IT graduate applying for a role speaking with customers, as opposed to just sitting at a screen with no people contact. Or an Engineer applying for a sales role.

But make sure what you add has substance. Often, I receive a summary showing interest that just quotes parts of the advert, with something added like ‘I would be excited to work with…’ and several other similar sentences; nothing tangible about why they are a good match and why they are interested.

In terms of your degree, if the position is directly related then make sure that you mention any modules that are directly related. Give a bit of information about what you did etc. If your degree is not directly related, but is acceptable for the job, then there may not be so much need to give details of specific modules as they are not directly relevant and will make the CV more crowded.

If you are applying to a recruiter’s advert then the company won’t generally be named. It’s not necessary to know this at the outset and I will discuss more about the business with those who are a good match initially. Then you will have the opportunity to research the business further (and can then update your CV again before it is sent to the employer). You can find out more about the application process here. There will, though, be bits in there about the industry or business that you can cover.

Following these steps will help your applications to be more focused, punchy and to the point. It means you have to tailor the CV for each application you make, but it will really make you stand out. You will be sending less applications, but the ones that you do send will be of a much higher quality. This in itself is not guaranteed to secure an interview, but it will significantly increase your chances.

Matthew Parry,
Director. SME Graduate Employment

Email: matthew@sme-graduates.co.uk Telephone: 0370 774 9500

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