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. This has understandably had a negative impact on them, and I have a lot of sympathy. However, in many cases a significant factor has been that they have spent too little time on each application- generally just sending the same default CV. This is often due to applying for far too many vacancies, including many that they didn’t really want or were not suitable for (sometimes the CV will even have a statement declaring a passion for a specific field of work- but the application is for a different type of role). Or others that they were suitable for, but where they missed out key information.

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 our more about how the process works here

It’s largely basic stuff, and about checking the advert to see what is required. But in some areas, where there is a lot of competition with sometimes hundreds of applications, you need to show a bit more to make your application stand out.

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?

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 well. 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. So if you are writing something along these lines its best to make sure that its related to the specific role, and that you can give examples to back up anything that is said.

The first thing to look at is the advert or job description, as this is where you will see what the requirements are. It will generally list essential and desirable criteria – if you don’t have the essential skills and knowledge then I would question if it is worth investing the time in applying. I see memes on social media encouraging people to apply for jobs even if they don’t have the skills, but this is probably only applicable if you are close to being a match, and if you can make a very good case to be considered (for example if you don’t know a particular piece of software, but know what it is and have done something very similar). More likely it will add to the number of rejections, and take up time that can be more productively invested in applying for roles that are more suitable. That said, if it’s an area you really want to get into then you may be able to do something to develop the skills you are lacking, and then apply (but that’s a story for another blog).

If you do fit the profile, then I would recommend getting to work on updating your CV.

In short, 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.

Go through the advert and tick off each relevant bit once you have covered it. And 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) as you may get a call to discuss your application. It shows interest and commitment if you have done some research.

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 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.

Bullet points can be very effective in listing key skills, and a summary tying everything together is important. The main reason is that when someone is reviewing your CV they are scanning, looking for various things; if everything is tied together it makes it easier, and makes your application look a lot more powerful.  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 do 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 summary towards the top of the first page. Title it ‘Summary’, ‘Statement’, ”Profile’ or something similar. In terms of word-count its not exact, but I would say 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, so I would also recommend trimming anything that doesn’t really need to be on there. A good way of doing it is to check again against the advert, 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.

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.

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).

If you are applying to a recruiter’s advert then the company won’t generally be named. It’s usually 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

SME Graduate Employment is a specialist student and graduate recruitment agency covering permanent jobs, placements, and internships across the UK. Most job types and business sectors are covered.

You can see student and graduate jobs advertised here and read more blogs and advice to help develop your employability skills here

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