Writing a good CV is hard. And you rarely get meaningful feedback - so how are you supposed to improve? Here’s what I tell folk asking for resume advice.

The recruitment process

Recruiting is hard. Every organisation has its own wrinkles, but it’s usually a set of tradeoffs between the hiring manager, the budget holder, HR, and the recruitment team. They all have different objectives and constraints, and you need to understand how they interact.

The hiring manager

The hiring manager has a staffing need; they work with the budget holder and HR to figure out how to meet that staffing need, and eventually decide to “go to market”. They write up a job specification (or reuse an existing one), outlining what they need. Often this includes a description of the role, and the requirements for skill, qualification and experience that they believe will identify a good candidate. HR typically review the job spec, and add further information - company overview, benefits, legal requirements, etc.

The budget holder

The hiring manager has to negotiate the budget for both the recruitment process and the ongoing employment costs. The budget holder is balancing this role against all the other demands on the budget; they want to get the “best” candidate that fits in the budget.


In this context, HR refers to the folk who look after policy and process, rather than the recruitment itself. They want to make sure that the hiring process complies with the law, and with company policies. HR folk generally don’t like “exceptions” - they want to be clear that the candidate, the process and the decisions comply with policy. This can affect compensation, terms and conditions, and the recruitment process.

The recruiters

It’s very rare for hiring managers to run the day-to-day recruitment processes - they typically work with recruiters (either internal or external) who place the adverts, screen CVs and often have the first interactions with candidates. Recruiters generally present a short list of candidates to the hiring manager; usually 3-5 candidates make the short list. Recruiters often have financial incentives - their income depends on getting a candidate hired. They rarely have expertise in the technical areas they recruit for, though they will likely have a list of buzz words/technologies they scan for.

While many recruiters are lovely people, the incentives are clear - to earn as much money as possible, they need to get a short list of candidates with a good chance of getting hired through to the hiring manager. They should spend as little time as possible on compiling that short list (so they can work on more than one hire at the same time).

In most cases, the recruiter will look at the job specification with the hiring manager, agree a “sourcing strategy” (how and where they will look for candidates), and provide a short list based on the fit of each candidate with the job spec. For many roles, the recruiter will only talk to the candidate if they’re going to place them on the short list.

How do recruiters compile the short list?

For most roles, they will look at each CV and compare it with the job specification. If there’s a strong match, they’ll go on the “yes” pile; if there’s no match, the CV will go on the “no” pile. For a partial match, there is sometimes a “maybe” pile.

It’s not unusual for there to be dozens or hundreds of CVs for each role, and that initial screening process will rarely take more than a minute. Time spent reading a CV is less valuable to a recruiter than time spent talking to the customer, or to the two or three people on the short list. If the pile of CVs to be scanned is large, the recruiter is usually looking for a reason to say “no” as quickly as possible - they can always go round again if they really can’t get the short list together. And they don’t have to be particularly rational or compassionate in their approach. Typos and poor grammar can be a sign of poor attention to detail. A layout that makes it hard to read the CV can suggest poor communication skills. The use of Comic Sans may suggest the candidate isn’t professional.

The role of your CV

Your CV has just one purpose: get on the “yes” pile at each stage in the screening process.

The first screen is almost certainly by someone who has a large pile of CVs to evaluate, probably only limited understanding of the business and/or technology domain in which you operate, and is just trying to match your CV against a job specification, so they get a credible short-list and can move onto the next role.

So, make it easy for them to see whether you’re a good fit, in 30 seconds or less.

Here are things you can do:

  • Prominently display the job title you currently hold, or are applying for, and make it easy to see how much relevant experience you have. The first thing a screener looks for is typically experience level - most job specifications will specify this, and it’s a nice objective way to fill up the “no” pile.
  • Have a short summary, outlining your unique skills and experience; ideally, this should be a match for the job spec, but that may require more effort than you can afford. Read some job specifications (LinkedIn jobs is good for this), and look at the role description - then write a summary that matches this level of detail.
  • Outline your work history, backing up the unique skills and experience you mention in the summary. Ideally, include some outcomes - not just “I ran the engineering team”, but “I ran the engineering team, improving quality metrics by x% and increasing staff retention by y%”.
  • In most cases, you want a decent level of detail for the most recent 5-7 years, and can summarize anything older.
  • Try to keep the language crisp, precise and professional. This is, of course, culture-specific, but look for as many words you can remove from the resume without losing meaning. Consider “Instigated a process for transformational change in our customer service strategy” with “Improved customer service, delivering an increase in revenue of x%”.

Here are some things I’d avoid if possible:

  • Non-standard designs and layouts: you want the reader to spend their time on the content, not parsing a new visual language. This may not apply if your role is creatively focused - but otherwise, keep it simple.
  • Too short and cramped: there’s a lot of advice on keeping your CV to “just one page”. If you can do that - great! But don’t sacrifice readability - 2 pages is fine, as long as the most important content is above the fold on page 1.
  • Too long: remember, the reader needs to decide in 30 seconds. They won’t get to page 3.
  • Casual language: a CV is not a text to a mate, and nor is it a contract. You want to get the language just right. Don’t try for humour, and don’t make the reader work through jargon or acronyms.

Once you’ve done all this, drafted a version of your new CV, put it away for a day or two, then go through and cut out all the content that doesn’t contribute to getting past that screener.

I can’t write a new CV for every job opportunity!

I know, once you start looking, you’ll see lots of opportunities - can you really taylor your CV for each one?

Most people can’t. Depending on your background, you might have 2 or 3 versions, each emphasizing different aspects of your background - a friend has a “startup CTO” CV, a “technology consultant” CV and a “strategy consultant” CV.

So thinking about that summary, and the points you chose to highlight, are important.

If you make it too generic, you’ll end up on the “maybe” pile for lots of jobs, but probably won’t hit the “yes” pile. If you make it too specific, you may not get on the “maybe” pile - your background may be obviously not a good fit.

The best advice I can give you is to find half a dozen job specifications for jobs you want to do, and are qualified for, and to write your summary to be a great match for at least some of them.

So, good luck with this - the job hunt is tiresome. Write a good CV, and help recruiters put you on the “yes” pile, and the next steps are much easier.