Anyone who’s serious about landing the job they’re applying for wants their CV to stand out for all the best reasons. So, the first thing to expect when reading a CV is that this is the applicant giving it their best shot – or it should be. Sometimes that enthusiasm to catch your eye may encourage applicants to embellish, write things they think sound good but don’t really understand, or – just occasionally – plain make something up.
Spotting waffle, exaggeration, mistakes and downright invention can sometimes be difficult – and interpreting how much weight to give each is possibly even harder. Only you, who knows what attributes a vacancy calls for, can really decide. So, what are some of the more common misleading additions to CVs?
Exaggerated qualifications, overly grand job descriptions, inflated salaries and grandiose statements about personal attributes and skills are probably the most common.
So, how do we read between the lines? Everyone will have different standards, and give different weightings to the following, depending on their personal views and depending on the job on offer. But they are all areas that are worth bearing in mind.
The first thing many people look for is how organised the CV is? How well laid out and structured. Does it have a logical flow? How readable and clear is it? Has attention been paid to spelling and basic grammar?
You may consider that spelling and grammar are not relevant to the job on offer and that’s true for many roles. Or you may take the view that mistakes, made when someone is trying to give the best impression possible, tell you a fair bit about the candidate’s attention to detail. Even if the person is no spelling and grammar genius, there is always a spell checker available and someone else who can be asked to check through a CV.
How well a CV is structured could also indicate how intellectually organised the candidate is in general, which may well be an important factor for the role being considered.
Are the CV’s contents relevant? This is important because the inclusion of irrelevant information or information that is relevant but buried indicates that the candidate has given little thought to the application and probably, therefore, the job itself.
Also, a CV in which details are opaque or missing may have something to hide.
So, if the candidate has tailored their CV to the job on offer, this tells you they have thought about the role, what is required by the employer and that they are serious about the job. Often, a covering letter will be the candidate’s attempt to demonstrate that their experience, skills and personality are all right for the role. But someone who has crafted their CV to demonstrate this as well – rather than just attached a standard one – is a person who should stand out.
Dates are a key component of CVs and any omissions should be investigated. Do the dates add up? If not, this merits further checks. The candidate may have simply made a mistake, or they may be hiding something.
Make sure too that all dates for previous employment and for periods of education are included – if they’re not, it’s worth asking for them. It may be that a candidate changes jobs frequently and this is a sign of instability or lack of commitment. The explanation for staying in one job for a short time may be perfectly reasonable. The key though is to look for a pattern and ask for the reasons for leaving jobs.
Look for bland management jargon that is really little more than padding – it could well be an indicator, once again, of the candidate’s lack of clarity and of them not having thought through what they actually want to say.
If a person really does have good ‘interpersonal skills’, find out exactly what they mean by this – everyone knows this is a positive thing, but people often have quite different definitions of what it means. A candidate who is specific and says, for example, ‘I am a good negotiator’ and explains why, is clearly thinking more about what they are writing.
Similarly, for many other old favourites: ‘highly dedicated’, ‘excellent attention to detail’, ‘good leadership skills’, ‘added value’, ‘holistic’, ‘team player’ and ‘360-degree approach’. All of these may be valid, depending on your view, but, without concrete examples, they are little more than loosely linked management clichés.
Look also for excessive personal information about hobbies and interests, especially those that are particularly nebulous, like ‘socialising’, ‘travelling’ and ‘dining out’. Perhaps these descriptions can give some insight into the candidate’s personality, but, once again, it’s worth asking in what way are they relevant to the job on offer? A note of caution: it’s often hard for even the most professional of interviewers to divorce their personal views and preferences from the selection process. But it’s a great idea to keep questioning whether you are doing so. Why? Because a small predilection may cause you to overlook a candidate’s much more important positive features.
Also, it’s as well not to rely on old maxims such as ‘first impressions are always right’. Sometimes they might be; often they can be misleading. This is certainly true when you’re considering a person’s written application for a position that doesn’t involve writing in any significant way. Does it matter that a plumber, or electrician or a bar tender can’t spell or structure a CV? Similarly, if the job calls for writing and clerical skills, then the standard of CV presentation will be higher.
Finally, always make sure you measure the strength of a CV against selection criteria you decide beforehand – this will help you stay focused on objective screening.