Tips for improving your CV

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Recently, I’ve seen a lot of people online asking for CV improvement tips. Most of them make the same mistakes, and while I tried to help some of them, eventually I realized that I repeat myself too often. So I decided to share some tips for CV improvement from someone who’s been on both sides of the interviewing process, and is married to a tech recruiter. So let’s begin.

Who reads your CV?

Before we begin to talk about your CV, we need to understand who reads them, and what’s their purpose. Excluding any automation and AI tools that might or might not exist nowadays, the first person to view your CV—is a tech recruiter. Their role is to do a quick match between your skills and the position.

A recruiter, on average, spends between 6 and 8 seconds per resume. Why? Because some positions get hundreds, if not thousands of resumes. Many of them are irrelevant for the position, location, experiences, skills, etc. Some CVs are needlessly long, or contain absolutely irrelevant information. Therefor, we, humans, develop optimization mechanisms.

A recruiter will try to scan your CV for recognizable patterns. They will then do an assessment based on these patterns, and if your CV passes the initial assessment, the recruiter will spend time reading the relevant parts.

It’s important to clarify that this does not tell anything about how good or bad the recruiter is. You might think that it’s unfair that recruiters resort to quick scanning rather that reading your entire CV, but think about it this way: do you really read every line of 1500 lines modification PR? Chances are, you skim. Because if you wouldn’t, we would live in a perfect world where there would be no bugs or security vulnerabilities.

So look at it as a fact of life. These are the rules of the game, and you can either play it, or go be angry at how unfair the world is.

How to style your CV to catch the eye

As I mentioned earlier, people who read your CV, resort to quick scanning. This is why we want to catch their attention. There are many ways to get the attention of the reader, and here are some examples:

  • Using bullet lists instead of long walls of text
  • Structuring your text logically with headers
  • Highlighting relevant achievements and skills by using text formatting such as bold or italic
  • Removing unnecessary information that shadows the important parts
  • Rephrasing complicated sentences (for example, instead of saying “in a logical way”, you can say “logically”, etc)

How to structure your CV?

Now that we understood who looks at your CV and in what manner, let’s talk about some basic structuring elements of the CV.

Header is the first thing that catches the eye of the reader. This is like your business card, and it should tell the person who sees it:

  • Who are you?
  • What do you do?
  • Where your work can be found?

Some people go crazy in their header and include things like their picture, full address, or hobbies. All these things are irrelevant, and some of them can even harm. I will discuss things you should not put in your CV later in this article.

Your header should include at minimum: Your full name, relevant title for the position, and contact details like email and/or phone number. It’s also advisable to add links to places that showcase your work or contributions. This could include links to:

  • LinkedIn
  • GitHub/GitLab/BitBucket—a place where you can showcase your projects
  • StackOverflow
  • Blog or personal website/portfolio

Use common sense. If you don’t have an active GitHub, don’t link it. Same for StackOverflow, LinkedIn and any other website. If you blog about food recipes with mushrooms, but applying for a software engineer position, your blog is a distraction, and should not be in your CV.

Last tip: links should be clickable and visually presented as links (for example: using blue text). The last thing you want is for the person to mistype your email, and you will never get your interview appointment.

Summary

Summary is a very contradicting block. The general advice is to skip summary all together, and instead use cover letter if the job application requires it. If you do want to include summary, and have the necessary space (I will discuss later about the length of the CV), then you should—(a) keep it short, and (b) explain why you are a good fit for the position, rather than talking about your life journey.

Education

If you have a relevant degree (read: computer science or mathematics), include them at the top of your CV (after header and summary). Irrelevant degrees (sociology, psychology, architecture), should be included in the end of the CV.

Make sure to highlight relevant honorary titles, and include any high scores, achievements, relevant publications, projects, and researches.

This section should be short, and to the point. Ideally a one-liner per degree for non internship or junior positions.

For people without degrees, remember that there are plenty of talented, self-taught developers who work, and are successful in the industry. You should still apply to positions that require degrees if you believe that you can compensate the lack of degree and showcase your strong side in the CV.

Work experience

This is the most important section of your CV, and should include, in reverse chronological order, all your work experience, internships, contracts, projects, etc.

Each position, including different roles in the same company, should be visually separated, while all roles in one company should be grouped together. This presents growth in the company in a visual way to the eyes of the reader. You should also include tenure for each role.

Each company block can include 1–2 sentences about the company and/or the products. Afterward, mention your role(s) together with these 3 points:

  • Things done
  • Achievements and impact
  • Tech stack

Things done are, well, things you’ve done while performing the role. It’s always better to back it up with numbers. Here are some great examples:

  • Reduced response time from 1.5s to 200ms in a critical part of the system
  • Increased sales by 30%
  • Implemented TDD which caused a reduction of 25% in runtime in our CI/CD pipeline

Notice how each sentence is (a) phrased in past tense, (b) is part of a bullet list, and (c) highlights important information. Now, instead of trying to explain you why this is better, let me just write the same information in a paragraph and let you be the judge.

I work at X for Y years, in a team. During my time there I managed to achieve a lot. One great example is when I was able to write a piece of code that reduced the response time drastically in a critical part of the system. This was great, because it helped the company to increase sales. I was also able to implement a test driven methodology which helped cut the run time of our CI/CD pipeline by 20 seconds.

One word: BORING. Ain’t nobody got time to read it. It’s like a dull novel. It says nothing by using so many words and mental capacity. There are no numbers and no reference points, but instead ambiguous words like “drastically” and “increase”. The only number here is “20 seconds”, but even then it’s useless, because if your pipeline was running for 17 minutes, 20 second reduction is not an achievement I’d put in my CV. 25%, on the other hand, is.

There is another psychological trick you can use called “framing”. For example, a reduction in response time from 600ms to 400ms, might not sound impressive. On the other hand, 33% reduction—is impressive, even though it’s the same information.

Before we move to the next section, one word about tech stack. There are two approaches:

  • Adding tech stack per position
  • Adding a separate CV section for tech stack

I recommend using the first approach, as this indicates two things: (1) showcasing your most recent tech stack, and (2) might show a progression and/or growth.

Additional information

Some more information that you can include in the CV:

  • Spoken languages
  • Openness to relocation, if applicable
  • Links to relevant publications, technical papers, patents, etc

Common mistakes in making your CV

Biased information

By far, one of the biggest mistakes people make in their CV, is to include biased information. They might think it’s cute that they can bake cupcakes, or like to put their photo in the CV, while in reality it might play against them.

I’m not going to talk in depth about biases, why they exist, and how the world is unfair. Instead, I’ll leave you with that: this is a game, and you need to play by certain rules in order to be able to compete and win this game.

We, humans, all have biases. And even though we undergo corporate trainings, you can’t go against your nature. Your interviewer might dislike dogs, or be allergic to cats. The fact that you dedicate a sentence, or God forbid a paragraph, of the CV to your beloved furry friend—might bias the interviewer to look for reasons to reject you.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of things to not include in your CV: photo, hobbies, marital status, location, sex, race, culture, religion, age (including date of birth), disabilities, etc. Having said that, there might be laws in your country, or the country where you apply in, which require you to disclose certain information, so get yourself educated on that matter.

Unnecessary information / Generalization / Too long of a CV

The second most common mistake—is a very long CV and/or CV that tells the reader nothing about you and your experience. Firstly, let’s talk about CV length.

Your CV must be 1 page long. If you have more than 8 years of experience, it’s fine if your CV becomes 1.5 to 2 pages. Here are some tips how you can reduce the length of your CV:

  • Removing irrelevant information
  • Replacing terminology with abbreviations: Database becomes DB, Pull Request becomes PR, etc
  • Avoiding “walls of text”
  • Playing with font size and formatting options

In case you still struggle with CV length, consider limiting information about your oldest experience. Remember, most interviewers are interested in your recent experience anyway.

Lastly, I want to touch the topic of unnecessary information and generalization. These two things contribute to CV length as well, and avoiding them can help you make your CV leaner while providing more context to the reader.

Avoid adding any information that is not relevant to the job/position/industry. Your future team lead does not care about the fact that you were the beer drinking champion in high school, despite the fact that you consider it an honorary badge. Instead, they care about your experience in impact in past jobs. This is why it’s important to make your CV concise and to the point.

Instead of writing vague statements like “Designed an internal system”, try to answer questions such as “What system?”, “Why it was needed?”, “What was the impact of this system on the product/company/team?“. Every sentence in your CV should show impact and explain—better with numbers—the value of the idea, task performed, or experience gained. Remember, you have to explain years of your work in a few sentences, why not focus on the most important things that really demonstrate your growth and the value your provide(d) for the company?

Design / Format / Spelling

The last mistake people make with their CVs is related to the design and the format of the CV.

The only acceptable format of the CV is PDF. Other formats depend a lot on the software in which they are viewed, so a .docx file created on your computer, might be completely messed up on the computer/software of your reader. PDF does not have these issues.

In terms of design, your CV should be monotonous color and text only. Avoid any graphics such as images, or complex formatting options such as tables or forms. Use neutral colors: white background, black text, gray headers, blue hyperlinks. Avoid using anything that can distract the reader from the main purpose of your CV.

Lastly, make sure that your CV is professional. This means two things. First is spelling and grammar—make sure to reread it before submitting, give someone to proofread it, or use spellchecking software. Second, make sure your CV is written in the expected language. Some companies want a CV in English, while others might request CV in country’s locale language.

Final words

Your CV is a gateway to your experience. On one hand you want to put as much information as possible in there; on the other hand, you need to understand that CVs are rarely read thoroughly, at least not in the screening phase. This is why it’s important to craft your CV in a way that you can both (a) present your experience, and (b) catch the eye of the reader. Your CV could be deciding factor of whether you will be contacted back by the company and invited for interview.

However, there is more to CV that what I wrote in this article. I didn’t touch things like LinkedIn, which is preferred nowadays more than CVs; covers letters; blogs and other social networks. Moreover, CV is just one step in the interviewing process.

From applicant to Employee book cover

This is the reason I teamed up with my wife, a Senior Talent Acquisition Specialist in tech, and we wrote the book From Applicant to Employee - Your blueprint for landing a job in tech. This book covers the entire interviewing process, and this article is based on chapter 2 from the book: Building your CV. If you believe this book can help you with your job search, consider buying it on Gumroad or LeanPub in order to support us and this blog.

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Published by

Dmitry Kudryavtsev

Dmitry Kudryavtsev

Senior Software Engineer / Tech Entrepreneur

With more than 14 years of professional experience in tech, Dmitry is a generalist software engineer with a strong passion to writing code and writing about code.