CVs and covering letters

CV 4We see a lot of researchers’ CVs and covering letters in the Careers Service, and a few of us have even written our own. Based on our experience of working with researchers, we wanted to highlight a few common issues that we have noticed.

The novelised CV

Recruiters are busy people. Often, when they scan their CV pile for the first time, they are looking for reasons to reject you. With so many to review, they start to skim read, looking for the key information that tells them you are capable of doing the job. If they can’t find what they want, and quickly, your CV will likely end up in the reject pile.

Write for the skim-reader. Skim-readers will read the first couple of lines of text in a block, and then start scanning down the left side of the document, looking for interesting words to catch their attention. Skim-readers tend not to read more than 4 lines of text before skipping ahead, so anything you write in a large block of text will get lost.

• Break your text up using bullet points – it forces the reader to read more of your CV.
• Start your bullet points with a verb  – one that they would be interested in, e.g. managed, developed, led, supervised. It catches their attention, makes you sound proactive and means you don’t have to write ‘I’ all the time.
• No more than 3-4 lines per bullet and no more than 5 bullets per section.

The autobiographical CV

Despite the misleading name, a CV is not meant to be your life history. It is your answer to the recruiter’s question: what do you have that I want? All too often we see CVs that tell the recruiter everything about the candidate, but very little about the candidate’s ability to do the job.

Every CV needs to be tailored to every job that you apply for. Put yourself in the mindset of a busy recruiter who has a stack of 70+ CVs, and is looking for reasons to reject you.

• Look at your first page. One recruiter told us that, if he doesn’t find what he wants on the first page of a CV, he doesn’t read the rest of it. What does your first page say about you?
• Put the most important information first and give it the most space. This applies to the different sections on your CV, but also the order of the information in each section.
• Review every item on your CV and ask yourself ‘so what?’. Does it tell the recruiter that you can do the job, or are they going to have to read between the lines and guess?
• If something doesn’t speak to your ability to do the job, should it be on your CV at all?

The list of job descriptions

CVs that focus on achievements rather than duties and responsibilities are much more likely to get shortlisted. When you write a description of your project, it doesn’t tell the recruiter what you achieved – were you a proactive go-getter who achieved above and beyond? Or were you a disengaged moaner who got their colleagues to do everything? A simple description of your duties and responsibilities means that the recruiter can’t tell the difference.

What did you achieve in post? If you didn’t achieve anything, or haven’t yet, think about using some active words to describe your job to make you sound more achievement-focused.

The historical covering letter

Academic covering letters often look to the past: ‘this is what I have achieved’. However, recruiters aren’t hiring you for who you were, they are hiring you for who you are going to be. Your letter, which can be longer than the standard 1-page should outline what you want to bring to the job.

• Where are you planning to publish?
• Are there any grant plans that you have brewing? How do they fit with the research strategy for the department?
• If you’re applying for a teaching post, consider whether there are modules that you would like to design and teach. How do they fit within the department’s existing module/course offering?

We have more advice on academic CVs on our website, but we also recommend using Manchester Academic Careers and Vitae for specialist advice on writing academic CVs, or converting your academic CV into a non-academic CV.


Need more help?

Don’t forget that you can come and see us for 1-1 support and feedback on your CV and covering letter, or attend any of our CV training sessions. For more information about how to access help from the Careers Service, see our Support page.


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