Top ten graduate CV mistakes – and how to avoid them

Friday, February 5, 2021

1. Too long 

Show off your communication skills by slimming down your CV. A two-page CV is standard for experienced professionals. If yours goes over this, it looks as if you can't distinguish important information, or that you're desperate to include everything in an attempt to look more experienced.

At graduate level, a relevant one-page CV is fine. Employers are deluged with CVs. If they see one which is three pages and more, they're likely to be put off. Eliminate unnecessary words, such as "passionate", "motivated" or "hard-working". Get to the point and show an employer what you can really do for them.

2. Continuous prose 

Learn to write in snippets. Keep paragraphs short: long ones (especially in your summary section) will often be ignored.

You don't need full sentences in your CV. Your reader will probably be skim-reading, so write in a news-flash style. Try a "result-action" or "action–result" format to make important details stand out. For example, you might write: "Proposed cost-cutting plan, shaving 15% off budget" (action –result). Or you could also say: "Shaved 15% off budget through cost-cutting," (result-action) rather than "I proposed a cost-cutting plan..."

3. Too generic

Get used to tailoring your CV to each role you apply for. Although roles may be similar, there will be a slightly different focus each time.

Read the job and person specification to show you understand the requirements. Be prepared to move sections and details around to put the spotlight on different information. If a crucial requirement is a 2:1, put that prominently in your profile. If it's previous experience in a customer-facing role, emphasise that instead. Learn to be flexible.

4. Lacking the "so what?" factor 

You need to make a clear connection between what you write and what the potential employer wants to see. Spell out the connection between your background (skills and studies) and the job requirements.

Find the business value of your degree or other experience: what did it teach you to do? How will that be useful in the job you're applying for? For example, a course module or project might be of value to a potential employer. "Trained to" is a useful phrase here. For instance, if you did a business studies degree, you could say: "Trained to analyse complex data and identify greatest return on investment." Or, if you did an arts degree, for roles where good communication skills are important, you could say: "Trained to research, summarise and present key findings clearly and concisely."

Your CV will be competing with others, so it needs to be relevant and address each specific requirement.

5. Not selling your achievements 

Find achievements from your course or work experience. We tend to shy away from highlighting our successes, but think from your potential employer's point of view and give them what they want, without crossing the line into arrogance.

You'll need to understand what's important in the role or to the organisation so you can match your own examples. For businesses, achievements typically fall into three categories: increasing profits, decreasing costs and streamlining processes. But depending on the type of organisation, you might also need to prove success in other areas, such as creating successful work teams to deliver services or products within a tight budget.

6. Undervaluing other experience 

You need to be selective about what you include, but don't go too far the other way and exclude details from more humble roles, voluntary work, or outside activities.

Led a university club or society? On its own that might not be noteworthy, but if under your leadership your club achieved something, that could be worth including. Worked part-time in a burger bar? That shows you can balance study and work. If you brought in a new product line to generate extra sales, that would be an interesting achievement to highlight.

Don't neglect experience that will prove you have those difficult-to-quantify character traits that graduate employers like to see, such as showing that you're hard-working and have teamwork skills.

7. Woolly vocabulary 

Graduate employers can be guilty of filling their job descriptions with vague wording. Unfortunately, you can't just repeat this back in your CV as it looks unsubstantiated. We all like to think we're innovative problem-solvers, passionate about working in the sector, but our examples have to prove those qualities.

Use numbers to quantify your achievements, and short narratives to show those qualities in action.

8. Dull language 

"Responsible for" and "duties included" are passion-killers in a CV. In your cover letter, phrases like "I wish to apply for..." are just as dull.

Use interesting, accurate and powerful verbs to whet an employer's appetite. Spice up your CV with verbs at the beginning of sentences. "Transformed club meetings to double attendance." Cut out wordiness and avoid passive forms or too much background information.

9. Unnecessary detail 

When describing many jobs, the day-to-day detail is often unnecessary and just takes up space. Concentrate on the highlights and where you made an impact. If you had a summer job working in a cafe, the duties in themselves are easily predictable and don't need to be on your CV. What's of more interest is how many people you served per shift, whether you were entrusted to take payments, and so on.

Sometimes, however, you need some context. For example, you might need to include key data on the companies you worked with to give an idea of the scope of your role. Experiment by putting this in a smaller font under the company name so you have more room for the interesting details.

10. Lacking keywords

If you're applying online, your CV will probably need to contain the right keywords before getting through to the next stage. Keywords are the job-specific phrases and terminology and can include particular qualifications or areas of expertise. Check the job description to identify what these are and make sure you're including them at natural and appropriate points in your CV.

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