Many people I know do not perceive revising Curriculum Vitae as their hobby. This article is about my personal experiences in making my CV worked for my benefit, and how this experience has helped some other people’s applications to be successful. I know that there are many ways to go to Rome, so let us not take this article as a “must follow” rule, but as an insight on how a CV can land you a dream job, or, the acceptance letter to that dream university. I have to note here that my experiences are based on having offered a PhD position in the Netherlands and a job in Norway afterwards. The article thus should be read in that context.
As importantly, please use this article in addition to already much information on “how to write your CV” available everywhere such as on internet, from your university, or any guidance booklets. This means I will not talk about how you should structure your CV, what should be in there, how long it should be, etc. You should read this article after you have followed the best practice in creating a CV, but you still feel that some crucial touch is missing.
Rule #1: You have to fall in love with your CV
There were some points in my life that revising my CV felt like shopping. After every newer version, I fell even more in love with my CV. I could read my CV over and over again, and could not get enough of it. It was not the content that made me fall in love with it. I fell in love because of, well, a little bit of everything: the way it looked like, the way each part presented the texts, the way the texts could be understood from different angles, the high readability level, the font size and type, you name it.
It was like seeing your Facebook profile and imagining how people may perceive and actually like it. Just for your information, I did not have amazing work experiences or education like what you may imagine. As I said, it is not the content. It is how my education, experiences, and relevant stuff were presented in an honest, highly readable way that becomes so attractive and unique.
If you cannot read your CV one more time because you are fed up by it, you cannot expect others to find your CV attractive. Imagine how those authorities who read thousands of CVs every day can fall in love with your CV that you do not love yourself. Do you remember when you fall in love and how every little thing about that person matters to you? That is the exact feeling you should have with your CV!
Rule #2: Readability, readability, readability
Your CV should be able to be scanned and understood in less than two minutes. In two minutes, the readers should be able to grasp briefly and imagine what kind of person you are and whether you would be a good fit for the vacant position.
This means that your CV should have a very high readability level. Take the level as extreme as you can. But remember not to cut too much relevant stuff. Making your CV very readable does not mean cutting off information. It means presenting the information in a way that makes people actually want to get to know you!
Use headings, bigger fonts on headings, very clear separations between parts, short sentences, bullet points, space. Look at many and many more example CVs. Pick the ones that you like the most, that make you read the CVs, that make you say “Oh, what a perfect person behind this CV”. Then, imitate their CVs. Not the content of course.
Rule #3: Rephrase but do not lie
Never lie on your CV, this is obvious. But you can (re)rephrase so that the texts are read nicer and sound sophisticated. Words are there to be played with. For example, you had been a private Math tutor for elementary students. As the description under this heading, you can put “Experienced tutor in assisting elementary students achieve high grades in Math at different schools”. You might have tutored only a handful of students, and your definition of the “high grades” were those above 6.9, not above 8 or 9 like others may define “high grades”. But this is not lying. It is fine to leave some space on your CV for readers to make their own definition and imagination of your achievements, unless your achievement really stands out such as physics national champions or granted scholarships.
Accordingly, although you should be honest on your CV, you should not tell too much information either. For example, you won as the runner-up on a debating competition at your university. You may want to avoid saying on your CV that there were only five students participated. Unless there was a crucial mass participating at that competition, there was no point saying that you were the number two out of five.
I hope you get the idea. Never lie, it will backfire. Just edit and re-edit your texts until they sound as if you had never wasted a single minute of your life watching that stupid television advertisement.
Rule #4: Do not miss important little details
Miraculously, people can forget important little details on their CVs. For example, you were the pioneer of a charity student organization at your university. In the description, you wrote “Fund-raised 3.000.000 rupiahs for the orphanage home in the community”. But you forgot to put “Liaison with departmental leaders at the university to establish and run the organization”.
You may perceive some significant activities as too “small” or “intangible” so do not deserve a place on CVs. But liaising with departmental leaders definitely took some efforts and was likely to be one of the most important keys. You might not have formal meetings with them. You might approach the leaders one by one on informal situations. But you did liaison with them and got their support.
This kind of effort should be made explicit on your CV. More importantly, this shows your leadership, negotiation and interpersonal skills. Oh yes, these skills do sell your CV, especially if they are backed up by facts such as in the example.
So, sit down, brainstorm every single activity that you have done for each CV heading. Then create short, command-like sentences to describe the most relevant and important activities, no matter how small, intangible, and unimportant they are in your head, in bullet points.
Rule #5: Create a loving relationship between your personal statement or cover letter, and CV
Personal statement or cover letters can come in many formats, from a short email with your CV attached to it, to a formal headed letter. Whatever the format is, you always have to create a strong relationship between the letter and your CV. Your personal statement or cover letter should never repeat what can be found on the attached CV. Instead, the letter should discuss about other things that are not important enough to be put on CV but very relevant for the position. This is why you should always personalize your personal statement or cover letter for different positions.
Be it for the purpose of applying to a university abroad or for a job, your personal statement and cover letter should discuss about why you are interested in the position and why you are the perfect candidate. This is the place where you should be able to give strong and convincing reasoning. Be as genuine as you can possibly be. More importantly, use your CV to back up your story. If you say in your letter that you are a sociable person who can work well in teams or independently, you should refer to your CV in which showing activities such as being the organizational leader or member who collaborates with different parties. If you say that you have a big passion in mathematics although your background is mostly within social sciences, you should be able to refer to your CV showing that you are a member of a math club or actively tutoring students in Math. If you cannot really back up your story by using your CV, it is very easy for the readers to assume that you are just talking nonsense.
I usually add another point in my letters, which is how the position can bring me to where I want to be in the (near) future. This is when everything comes together: the consistency of your professional life. I know that life is not consistent. You probably change your goals or career directions many times. This is fine, as long as you state the reasoning why you want to change your direction. This is particularly essential, if you are thinking of applying for a job – even abroad – after you graduate. Telling your potential employers about how they can help you to be where you want to be is very powerful, if they buy your reasoning. It shows that you have visions and missions for your own life, and your potential employers can use your motivation to achieve their goals, too. What a good fit!
Invisible Rule #6: Sometimes faith and luck are the only keywords
You may have applied all best practices in creating a wonderful CV. But you receive only rejection letters. I have been there and done that. As an Indonesian who tried to find a job in Europe (I do not have a permanent residence in any of European countries), a job offer did not come very easily. But it is not impossible.
You just have to accept the fact that the competition is even fiercer for you. You have to compete with highly educated Europeans (who speak several languages and have working permits) and the citizens of other developed countries. But you should not lose faith or motivation. I remember I was saying to myself that I just needed one position.
That is it. You just need to find one. This mentality helped me to go through dark days and motivated myself to apply “just one more position”. “One more position to apply” had become hundreds of applications from which I finally received two great job offers and several interviews.
I coupled up my faith with looking for a position in the weirdest places. So think outside the box of your field. Do not believe in your thought that you have applied in all available and relevant positions for your backgrounds. You do not know what you do not know. So keep looking and be open to unexpected possibilities.