The Art of CV Writing

by Chris Tang in Articles

DatePosted on August 11, 2016 at 02:25 PM
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From time to time, we receive CV/resumes which, in substance, show a strong academic background and work history, but the layout or content is presented in such a way that the candidate is in real danger of harming their job prospects. In these cases, the document appears to have missed the point of why a CV was created in the first place, namely, to get the invitation for a job interview.  

By analogy, it’s like being dealt the best deck of cards at a high-stakes game of Texas Hold 'em, and still losing. That could show a lack of understanding of how the game is played, or the player at that moment in time is out of focus or their mind is on other things. In the worse case scenario, they’re not particularly motivated to play the game.  These reasons can equally apply to a job applicant.  

Picture the scene.

You’re working in a fast-paced, hectic law firm work environment that requires long hours in the office, or long periods of travel and forever attending meetings. You are focused in your role (legal, accounting, HR, business development, secretarial), so much so, that everything else is simply a side-thought. 

Are your a corporate lawyer? You’ll probably remember the earn-out mechanism that was used a year ago on Project [‘X'] and you know the exact date of the next earn-out review. 

Are you a legal secretary?  The partner asks you to retrieve the letter of advice that had been typed up on Christmas Day 2013.  You know exactly where it is because you know the IT system inside out, and you were probably there typing the letter out for the partner! 

And so on, and so forth.  You’re a professional in your field. You know exactly where things are and what needs to be done, you act swiftly and decisively on the challenges put before you. That is because your work is ingrained into your daily work life.  Your focus is on both your work and to your clients and colleagues.

When it comes to asking about non-work matters, your way of thinking or memory recall skills start to get a little fuzzy.  What’s for dinner tonight? Who cares? Let’s just go to a restaurant or order a takeout!  You prioritise things in your life, and what you have for dinner tonight is usually low on that list of priorities.  

Play your cards right, and you'll get the job interview you want. In a similar way, if you are asked something about you, you'll probably hesitate at best, or break out into a cold sweat at worst. When was the last electricity bill you paid, and for how much? Do you know how much has been spent on your credit card? How many pairs of socks do you have in your chest of draws? What are your key achievements in your career?  

These are not questions that are put to you all day, every day. Of course, these matters will tend to be low on your list of priorities.  So it’s no surprise then at the end of a long, hard day at work, deciding what to present on your CV/resume and how to present it, is something that can be either inadequately done (lack of experience or benchmark to work from) or overdone (fear that you’ll miss out by not adding in every detail).

So when drafting your CV/resume, always focus on your target audience and consider the following: 

1. Reduce detail and volume in your CV 

An eight page career description is not a CV, it’s a business plan, an autobiography, or a confession! None of these are appropriate for your job hunting. Chances are you'll have repeated the exact same role and duties in every organisation you worked at, from 12 years ago and through to today. Condense your CV to a more manageable two to three pages, for resumes, keep to one page. For applicants with a long (15+ years) career track with multiple employers, consider a concise list of employers and date ranges (with no further narrative or description attached to each employer), then focus on your key areas of specialisation and achievements. 

A company secretary might feel that they can only put the same responsibilities for each company they worked at, but you should consider turning your CV from a roles-based CV (I did this, I did that = boring) to an achievements-based CV (you can clearly see your progress through your career). 

Here is an extract of an achievements-based CV:

Company A (latest), Company Secretary Manager: recruiting and managing a team of 2 Assistant company secretary managers and 3 company secretary officers, overseeing the corporate affairs of main Hong Kong listed company and 92 private legal entities in 15 jurisdictions across the Apac region, greater China, Europe, BVI and Cayman islands.

Company B (previous), Company Secretary Manager: next in command to the named Company Secretary, managing a team of 5 officers, undertook a major group restructuring programme 2 months ahead of schedule, acting as the lead company liaison with external counsel and accountants. 

Company C (earlier), Company Secretary Manager: promoted within 6 months of joining from Assistant Manager, and managing 1 company secretarial officer.

2. Prioritise the content 

Put the most important content about you at the top, with the least important (to that particular job) at the bottom.  Let’s be clear. I’m not saying that these aspects are unimportant per se. Indeed, you may well hold some of these in as high regard as other areas of your work and academic career, perhaps even higher.  But the importance of these subjects is personal to you. You hold that achievement or experience very dear to your heart. But it may not necessarily get you that job interview or, ultimately, a job offer.  

"when drafting your CV/resume, always focus on your target audience"

For example you may have studied a JD, and as part of one module, you researched and analysed an aspect of human rights law which was emotionally and academically challenging for you, whilst ultimately highly rewarding. This experience is highly relevant if you are applying to a law firm or barristers’ chambers that have a focus on human rights law, but isn’t necessarily of relevance if you are applying for a role as an IPO associate at an international law firm.  It may be relevant, in certain circumstances, if you know the firm is passionate about pro bono work on human rights abuses, and you feel that you could add value to their pro bono programme. Otherwise, it’s better to be left as a footnote towards the end of your CV, at least it can act as a trigger for discussion by the interviewer, should they choose.

3. Keep it punchy  

Some CVs simply over-elaborate on their experiences or say the same thing twice (a tautology), for example (in brackets), “I personally raised $25,000 for Greenpeace during a charity walk in the Himalayas, June 2015." 

Another example, in an accounting CV: “Reconciled monthly accounts receivable and accounts payable in order to help assess cash flow and complete monthly management accounts”.  The wording in italics simply states the obvious, delete it. 

4. Define terms or use acronyms 

This will go some way to help make your CV punchy. If you use long terminology, think about abbreviating it or using an acronym, but remember to define it at the very first instance where it’s referenced.  

"An 8 page document is not a CV, it’s a business plan, an autobiography, or a confession!"

For example:  Member of the project committee of Justice Centre Hong Kong (“JCHK”) for 2 years from August 2011.  Acted as a guest speaker in a globally distributed TV documentary on migrant issues in which I discussed the legal challenges facing refugees entering Hong Kong.

Some acronyms are a widely accepted and used term, and don’t need defining, such as KYC/AML (in compliance), AR/AP (in finance), BD (business development), whilst others are not so and should be defined, such as JCHK (Justice Centre Hong Kong), MSF (Medicin Sans Frontiere).  In any event, use acronyms sparingly.

5. Help your recruiter to help you

Often, external recruiters need to format a CV/resume. Whilst using tables is helpful in organising your content, if you have a complicated table setup, or narrow your margins in order to fit more content it will affect the formatting process. So the general rule of thumb is, use tables sparingly (or avoid altogether), and if you are applying to an external recruiter, send your CV in word format to enable easier reformatting. For applications direct to an organisation, you can send it as a converted PDF (never scanned as many employers will use key word search software to evaluate your CV for relevance). 


Here’s a takeaway to consider when drafting or reviewing your CV/resume:  ask yourself, ‘will the format and content of this CV give me the greatest chance of getting a job interview at the organisation I want?’.  

Remember, you only have a limited amount of 'real estate' to use (ie the coverage on the page), so always utilise it to maximum effect. Imagine you are seeing a row of billboard advertisements on the street or in the MTR/subway station, and only one sticks to your mind. That goes to show that the billboard most memorable to you had targeted its audience in the best possible way. It could have been funny, or had a serious message to put across, or it was visually stunning. In similar vein, drafting a CV or resume must be drafted in a way such that the content and layout gives maximum (positive) impact.  

Sometimes, less is more.  

Lastly, if you don’t have the time to write an impactful CV or your recruiter suggests it needs a substantial rewrite and you find yourself struggling to see how it could be improved upon, then consider hiring a professional CV writer.   


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About the Author

Chris Tang

Chris is a co-Managing Director of Star Anise and a former practising corporate lawyer. He is a regular post contributor on LinkedIn and you can connect with him here:

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