CV & cover letters: A fresh approach
Anna Melville-James investigates how professionals can refresh their CV and cover letters for maximum impact.
One document stands between you and your career development: your CV. It is often your first — and potentially only — direct communication with a potential employer and represents a crucial opportunity to sell yourself and your abilities.
Social networking sites such as LinkedIn may have crept up the list of ways to promote yourself and your achievements, but even in this digital age they are not yet a suitable replacement for the CV. And an up-to-date version is more necessary than ever to maximise opportunities in the highly competitive post-pandemic employment market we now face.
The fundamental rules of the CV are that the content needs to be clear and concise, and the whole thing ideally no longer than two pages in length. Research has found that recruiters scan candidate CVs for just 6.25 seconds on average – a tiny window in which to grab their attention — and pay the most attention to the first page.
Other considerations include the layout of your CV, which in turn depends on your goals. For example, if you’re looking to change careers or you’re returning after a break, you might find a skills-based CV a better choice than a chronological list of jobs done.
Style without substance won’t propel your CV to the interview stages — it’s the content that will determine the next step in your application. While curriculum vitae may translate from the Latin as “the story of your life”, try to avoid taking the phrase too literally. Discernment and strategy win over simply detailing all your achievements or areas of expertise.
Your CV is a chance to show a prospective employer the skills and experience you possess that are relevant to the role. Ask yourself the purpose of every single item you are including, and why it would be useful to the person reading it — and think carefully about the weighting and breakdown of information.
“Every accountant wants their technical ability to really shine on their CV. That’s understandable,” says Victoria McLean, CEO of career consultancy City CV. “But Covid-19 means we are all living and working in a profoundly changed business reality. This new world is characterised by uncertainty and constant change; now, more than ever before, what we call ‘soft skills’ are critical skills.
“The best accounting CVs aren’t lists of jobs, employers and technical responsibilities. They strike the right balance between technical competencies and evidence of your adaptability, growth mindset, relationship building and leadership abilities. These are more difficult to demonstrate with tangible achievements, but overhauling your CV is a great opportunity to reassess your career strategically.”
Tailoring your CV to each role you apply for is something that will also elevate your job hunting to one based on quality rather than quantity. No CV will fit every job and it is likely to be obvious to prospective employers and recruiters if you are simply sending a generic one.
Instead, analyse each job you apply for carefully and use the information to gain greater clarity on your fitness for the position. Think about your points of differentiation. Why are you suitable for this role? What makes you an asset? Conversely, if you are unable to answer these questions, then it may not be the role for you.
The write stuff
The principle of “show don’t tell” is an effective way to bring your CV to life. “Good team players” and “highly motivated” individuals should always offer supporting examples. And experience isn’t the same as achievement – don’t just list where you’ve been and what you’ve done, rather show how you stood out and talk about it in a measurable way by detailing metrics and KPIs.
“When we work with senior finance professionals, they all comment that one of the benefits of their CV consultation is that it forces them to think about the business outcomes of their projects,” says McLean. “This process means we can craft a really compelling CV that helps them to secure a senior role. We focus on the benefits delivered and the relationships established, rather than just the technical complexity of the accounting process.”
Submitting a cover letter offers an additional opportunity to elaborate on the skills and experience listed in your CV as they relate to the job for which you’re applying, or, for a speculative application, to outline what you can bring to the company more generally.
Sometimes overlooked in its importance, the cover letter is another layer through which to augment the information in your CV, showing how your skillset aligns with the role, what you can bring to the team and, crucially, why you want the position.
Finally, remember that, in many cases, both your CV and cover letter will set the agenda for subsequent interviews. Crafting the perfect pitch on paper may be key to allowing you to get through the door — but it is the work you do in understanding and being able to articulate your worth that will get you the job.
ICAS’ professional development guides give members in-depth information and quick tips on writing CVs and cover letters with impact. For more information, click here.