Happy UN Career Podcast / Episode 11

5 Key Principles for a Great CV

Happy UN Career Podcast / Episode 11

Episode 11 / 1 December 2020


This episode is part of a  small series called: “Professional Development – Job Hunting and CVs”.

In the previous episode in this series, I talked about 5 problems you solve by always having a good, updated CV. You can find that episode at www.barbarakandersen.com/9.

For today’s episode, I’ve identified 5 important CV writing principles that nearly always come into play when I discuss CV’s with my clients. And then I’ll also share 3 bonus tips, including how to make CV writing interesting and rewarding!

Who Likes CV Writing?

I have yet to meet a person who told me that they enjoyed working on their CV!

I have met a few people who treated CV writing as just another task on their to-do list that they would just sit down and work their way through. According to plan.

But I’ve met many more who really don’t enjoy it. (The same way they really don’t enjoy the annual performance review process.)

Maybe you recognize this?

Of course, you want to be recognized for your efforts, but you find the whole CV writing process somewhat tedious. And you feel uncomfortable having to point out your own talents and achievements.

I definitely know that feeling myself. I had a love-hate relationship with CV writing for many years.

I wanted, of course, to have a crisp and professional-looking CV clearly outlining my experience and competencies. And which would hopefully give me an edge in a recruitment process.

And I certainly enjoyed the feeling of accomplishment and professionalism when I finally got it done and felt I’d done an OK job of it.

But frankly, I felt very self-conscious about the whole process of deciding what to keep in and what to leave out. Suddenly everything seemed important. But was it?

At the same time, I felt very awkward about having to promote myself. And I felt uncomfortable with the tactics I felt were going on with the CV writing and the whole application process.

The whole thing triggered feelings of frustration and discomfort – and, honestly, a lot of procrastination.

The problem, I found out later, is that this way of thinking about CV writing is very much focused on me, myself and my feelings. And all those feelings make it difficult to sort the essential from the non-essential in the CV.

A good first tip is therefore to get yourself – or at least your feelings – out of the CV, so to speak. And that’s where it’s often very helpful to get support from someone else.

To help you get started, I’d like to share …

5 Key Principles for Writing a Great CV

Principle No. 1: Make it short(er)

There are no laws or regulations on CV’s. But there’s good advice. Which is based on common sense really.

I may tell you that your 8-page CV is far too long. But then you may tell me that this is the CV you used when you got hired for your current position. So, an 8-page CV does not necessarily mean that you won’t get shortlisted. But it does not really signal competence in filtering the essential from the non-essential. Or strong written communication skills.

Recruiters and hiring managers are busy people like you and me. They are quite possibly receiving large numbers of applications for the position you’re applying for. So, you want to make a strong impression already on the first half page of your CV. They might never get to page 4 – or 8.

When we write long CV’s, it’s because we have a lot of ourselves invested in that CV. We worry about leaving out some important fact that we feel the recruiters should know about us. So, we overload the CV with information and details that no one has time to read.

And each job and experience feel important when you look back. A lot of hard work went into each of them. How can you possibly describe that in two or three lines?

Well, if you’ve been working for a while, you started your CV a long time ago. And every time you’ve updated your CV, you have added to the experience at the top, but did you also remember to shorten it correspondingly at the end?

For example, those jobs you held before, during and right after university. They were important and essential in the first years after your graduation. But as you move on and get increasingly more complex experience, increase in authority level and build your expertise, those early jobs can be minimised to just a short mention.

Remember, in most cases, it’ll be the experience of, say, the last 10 years that will be the most interesting when someone is judging whether you’re relevant for a position you’re applying for today.

Principle No. 2: Be brief and concrete

Overall, “brief, concrete and to the point” should apply to everything you write in your CV.

Make the description of your responsibilities specific and tangible. And short! Don’t just copy/paste your TOR or job description. And don’t refer to your responsibilities as “tasks”. The word “task” easily makes your responsibilities sound very menial – which probably they were not.

Brief and succinct also goes for the profile summary at the top of your CV. Think of this as your elevator pitch. If the person reading your CV didn’t have time to do more than read your profile summary, what would be their impression of you? It should make them want to read on.

And don’t try to squeeze in your 15 most important skills and competencies here. It really doesn’t read very well. Rather think about the 3 most important points they absolutely should know about you if there really was no more space. And as they’re relevant for the position you’re applying for, of course.

Make it short and crisp – and preferably with a bit of “punch”.

Principle No. 3: Include Your Key Achievements

Many still haven’t gotten used to this, but for each job experience, you want to mention some of your key achievements. You can place this section after the (brief) description of your responsibilities.

As I’m sure you have experienced yourself, the fact that a person is responsible for something doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re doing a great job. Or having a positive impact.

So, writing about your key achievements gives you an opportunity to show what difference you actually made in your job. (Implying of course that you’ll be able to do the same in your new job!)

Make the description of your key achievements as concrete and tangible as you can. If possible, it’s great to put in numbers. How many workshops did you organize? In how little time? By how much did you increase the engagement on social media? You get the picture.

You really want to demonstrate the scope and complexity of what you’ve done.

You probably already wrote a description of your key achievements in your annual performance review, so look that up to get input and inspiration for the key achievements’ sections in your CV.

Principle no. 4: Tailor-make Your CV

Every CV has to be tailor-made to the position you’re applying for. This means that you always have to make the last finishing touches in choice of words and examples based on the key skills, competencies and experience mentioned in the vacancy announcement.

It’s important to match the keywords of the vacancy announcement as much as you can in your application.

If you’re interested in jobs with different profiles, it’s useful to keep two versions of your CV so that you don’t have to change too much every time you send an application. For example, if you’re interested in applying for jobs with a more technical profile whilst also applying for, say, project management positions.

Principle No. 5: Think of Your Reader!

Recruiters are busy people just like you and me. And hopefully, your future manager is reading your CV! Therefore, you want to make sure that your CV is as reader-friendly and visually inviting as you can. That means good formatting, good margins, good use of bullet points, plenty of white space, etc.

When you look down the page it should be easy to get an overview of all the information. And there’s no need to complicate things with lots of colours, boxes and strange formatting.

Be professional but write in a clear, succinct language. Even if we’re all used to the bureaucratic writing style of the UN, nobody really enjoys reading that. (And that’s just one of the reasons why you shouldn’t copy/paste from your job description, by the way.)

And, of course, make sure your spelling and language are impeccable! If there are spelling mistakes or missing words already in the first paragraph (and yes, I’ve seen this more than once), it sends a very unfortunate signal to the reader.

Don’t let that happen to you.

Have in mind that you want to make it easy for your readers to quickly get an impression of the scope and complexity of what you’ve done. And in a way that shows how your experience can be transferred and applied successfully in the job you’re applying for.

Use Your Own Recruitment Experience

Maybe because of all the feelings we invest in our own CV and the application writing, we sometimes overlook important insights we already gained.

Chances are you’ve been involved in recruitment yourself. Think back a bit. What has impressed you in the CVs and cover letters you’ve seen?

What makes you think “Yes, here’s somebody I want to talk to in an interview”?

How many CV pages do you like to read? And how many pages do you have time to read when you’re recruiting? When do you feel that a CV conveys professionalism and is clear and easy to get an overview of?

Often, this tip helps my clients see their own CV’s and motivational letters in a new light.

How to Make Sure You Always Have an Updated CV

As I also mentioned in episode 9 (www.barbarakandersen.com/9), I encourage you to use the annual performance review process as a prompt to update your CV at least once a year.

You always want to consider whether your most important achievements from the year merits inclusion in your CV. And if your responsibilities have changed, you also want to consider if your CV should be revised accordingly.

If you do this, your CV will always be updated and ready to share!

How to Enjoy Working on Your CV!

I hope these principles and tips will inspire you to dig out your CV and update it so that it’s ready for the next interesting job opportunity you come across.

However, if you still need a bit of motivation, here’s a way to also make CV writing enjoyable!

Working on your CV is also an opportunity to celebrate yourself!

Make your CV the document where you remind yourself of all the great things you’ve been part of. The teams you were engaged with. The results you produced.

Remember the Career Journey exercise from episode no. 4? That’s a really nice exercise that allows you to celebrate your career until today. With everything you’ve done and everything you’ve learned on the way.

Treat your CV as an alternative version of the career journey. A shorter and more concise version. But nevertheless, the feeling you should have when reading your own CV should be like a brief and succinct reminder of an interesting and rewarding work-life!

Let’s do this!

Essentially, your CV is something you produce in order to make an impression on other people. You’re marketing yourself!

Many of us feel slightly uncomfortable with this. We’d much rather that people knew us and saw our worth – than that we have to spell it out and “show off”.

But this is how the system works – you need a good CV. And you need to make it work for you, as well as you possibly can. You owe it to yourself.

So, would you be impressed by your own CV? Is it reader-friendly, professional, concise and to the point? Does the first half-page make you want to read on?

If not, I really encourage you to get started.

It’s OK to Get Support

It can be enormously helpful to get an outside perspective on your CV. Probably, you have a good colleague who will help review and comment on your CV. Or a good friend?

Depending on where you start from, you may also want to consider professional support.

A fresh pair of eyes can be really helpful with:

  • Editing out the unessential parts, and
  • Highlighting your most important experience and competencies.

You may find it especially useful to get help formulating your achievements in such a way that it’s clear what you did and what you were responsible for. In my experience, that’s a particularly difficult part for many of us. (Also because we work so much in teams.)

I wish you lots of luck with your CV!

And I’d be very happy to get any feedback from you on how it worked out. You’re always welcome to write to me at bka@barbarakandersen.com.

What’s Next?

In the next episode, I’ll talk about how career is both personal and individual.

This would seem like an obvious thing. Yet we constantly compare ourselves to others and how they’re doing. And we worry about how they look at us. It’s easy to feel that you should be like them, do like them, progress in the same way as them.

But neither life nor work is like that. What works for one person does not necessarily work for the other.

So how do you find and stick with your own work and career path? One that you will feel happy and confident with? More on that next time.