CV, cover letters and applications: help from a real HR Professional.

Posted in Useful
on November 16, 2017

Something a bit different for you, today.

There’s no doubt about it….the job market is a bit confusing and frustrating atm. I know, for a lot of people, even applying for jobs can feel like a bit of a stab in the dark. And, actually, how are you even supposed to get to interview stage if there are like 7585949 people applying for 1 job?


I’m excited to have Sophie as a guest on The North Left today! She’s a very experienced HR professional, who has helpfully provided honest answers to some common questions all about writing CVs, cover letters, and applications.

Sophie has amassed experience in her professional life of all things HR, including recruitment, and is an expert on employment law, so she’s an absolute gem of a person to know if I have a question about anything work-related.

My personal highlight from this is learning about the ‘anchorman’ test. Truly excellent.

Is there anything I shouldn’t write in my personal statement at the top of my CV?

Um, yes. Basically, treat your CV as the professional equivalent of an online dating profile. We don’t need to hear about your good sense of humour, how you are living your best life, etc. etc. Unless you’re applying for something in a field that is heavily focussed on management buzzwords (typically sales type roles) then saying that you’re a “blue-sky thinking creative professional, focussed on synergising to achieve dynamic results” just makes you sound like a bit of an idiot. I mean, what does that even mean?? Keep it simple, and factual – e.g. “A recent marketing graduate seeking opportunities to develop a career in advertising, committed to delivering exceptional results”


Is there a common mistake you see a lot of on CVs?

SPELLING, PUNCTUATION AND GRAMMATICAL ERRORS. Fun fact: most HR professionals are grammar fanatics. There is nothing more distracting when you’re scanning a CV than mentally correcting someone’s poor English. When you’ve got a pile of thirty CVs for one role, it’s also a really easy way to sift out a large number of them. Consider the impression you’re creating – if you can’t be bothered to spellcheck a CV by hitting F7, how much enthusiasm and attention to detail are you going to bring to the role?


How can you make yourself stand out in your cover letter?

To stand out for the right reasons, make sure that your cover letter is tailored to the job you’re applying for. If you send a generic-sounding cover letter, it doesn’t exactly ring out with enthusiasm for the job. In a competitive market, being passionate about the role really can stand you in good stead. So research the organisation, know what they’re looking for in the job spec, and ensure your covering letter reflects those points.


Do you always have to do a cover letter with a CV?

In short, no. Apply for the role in whatever format the organisation requests – application form, seventeen page web application, CV only, or CV plus covering letter. If you’re making a speculative application, always include a covering letter explaining why you’re sending them your CV.


How can I make myself stand out and give myself the best chance if I don’t have a lot of experience?

You may not have a lot of work experience, but you may have life experience that’s relevant – volunteering, participating in organisations like the Scouts, hobbies like performing arts, sports, etc. Many of these experiences come with skills that are transferable to the workplace, you just have to make the connection. So, competing at a county level in your chosen sport demonstrates perseverence and dedication, doing a Duke of Edinburgh award might show that you have good problem solving skills, and being amazing at embroidery shows you have excellent attention to detail.

You might have other skills too, like additional languages, experience with children or the elderly, or a talent with computers. All those things can be incredibly relevant to work. Remember, employers are more interested in the skills you have, and not just how you gained them.


How can I sell myself without sounding arrogant?

It can feel really unnatural to promote yourself in a job application, but that is kind of the point. Fortunately, there’s a very easy test for whether you’ve overdone it. Have you ever seen the film ‘Anchorman’? Great. Now, imagine Ron Burgundy’s voice when you read back your CV. If anything you’ve put in there sounds like something he’d say, it’s probably a bit much.


Do you have to include all of your exam results on CVs?

No. Really, employers are only interested in your highest level of education, and any other relevant qualifications. Remember to include professional qualifications and memberships, as these are often important criteria on which employers sift through applications.


Is it better to include hobbies/personal interests or to leave them out?

If they’re interesting or relevant, absolutely. Personally, I will never forget the applicant who was an amateur historian and included a tiny picture of Henry VIII on his CV… An employer doesn’t necessarily care if you enjoy long walks on the beach, but if you take part in historical re-enactments, are part of a local drama group, or like to paraglide in your spare time, that might help you stand out in their mind a little.


Is it true your CV shouldn’t be more than a page?

1-2 pages, at an absolute maximum. Please, take pity on the poor management team who have to review every application for the job. It’s not unusual to have 30-100 applications for a role, and sadly people just do not have time to read 3000 words on why you want the job.


What is a functional CV? Is it better than the normal type?

A functional CV is sometimes also referred to as a skills-based CV. It groups information according to the skills that you want to highlight to a prospective employer, rather than the traditional CV, which includes your info in chronological order.

Both kinds of CV have their place, and are suited to different things. The chronological CV is typically the default, but a functional CV is particularly useful if you’re changing career, have limited workplace experience or have had a number of short-term or voluntary roles. You list relevant info under the heading of each skill, e.g.


  • leading and participating in group projects as part of uni course,
  • fluent in German and Dutch (speaking, reading and writing),
  • part of the university mountaineering society,
  • led an organising committee in arranging fundraising for Barnados


If I don’t get a job, is it just because my CV is bad or there are too many people applying?

It could be either, neither, or both. If you apply for a job and are unsuccessful, it’s usually for one of the following reasons:

  1. Your CV didn’t sufficiently convey your skills, experience and enthusiasm for the role to the employer.
  2. You don’t have the qualifications, skills or experience for the role.
  3. You do meet the role criteria, but there were other candidates who were even better, so the bar was raised.


Why do some jobs need a CV and some do application forms? Does one give you a better chance than another?

This is purely down to employer preference or requirements. In some roles, certain information needs to be obtained from applications at the first stage of selection screening – e.g. if you were applying to work with vulnerable adults, you would need to disclose spent and unspent convictions. An application form can be the most effective way for an employer to gain this information. It’s also very time consuming. So an employer knows that if you’ve bothered to wade through twenty screens of online questions and tests, then you’re serious about wanting the job.

Should you change your CV for each job you apply for?

Not necessarily. Your CV may be a standard one that you update after major changes (usually a new job or qualification) but you can tweak it to suit the role you’re applying for. If you’re completely changing career direction, or applying for vastly different roles, give consideration to developing a CV that is focussed on highlighting the relevant skills and experience, and therefore more suited to the jobs you want.


What would make you disregard a CV? Or Cover letter?

As above, spelling and grammatical errors. I really can’t state enough how important such a simple thing can be. Apart from that, it’s basically if someone doesn’t meet the necessary requirements for the role.

What should I put on my CV if I’ve never had a job before?

You should include information that highlights the skills you have which are relevant to the job. Think about what you’ve done at school, university, as part of your hobbies that may demonstrate the skills that the employer is looking for. Consider whether a functional CV might be a better choice to draw attention to those skills. If a traditional CV is the one for you, include a covering letter highlighting all your awesomeness.

Do I need to address gaps in employment history? Or does that just draw attention to it? 

Yes, you do. Employers will notice them, so it’s better to give them the info up front. Depending on the nature of the gap, you can either address it in your CV or as part of your covering letter. For example, if you took two years off to look after your small children, list this in the chronology of your CV. Alternatively, you might allude to being made redundant from your last job, or to time spent travelling. Gaps aren’t automatically a negative thing. Think about what positives you’ve drawn from your experience – what were you doing with your time? Did travelling give you insight into different perspectives, which might make you a better communicator? Did the redundancy provide you with an opportunity to take stock of your career and decide to move in a new direction?


I’ve been off work due to mental ill-health. What will a future employer think of that and how do I explain it in a cover letter?

Any decent employer ought to be as supportive of a mental health condition as they are of a physical one. Some conditions may meet the criteria to be defined as a ‘disability’ under the Equality Act 2010, which requires employers to treat you fairly and not discriminate against you on the basis of your illness. How in-depth you choose to go in an application may depend upon the nature of your condition and the duration of your absence. If you have had a significant period out of employment due to ill health, you may wish to cite this as a reason. Equally, you have no obligation to disclose your health or absence information unless it is relevant to the role, but this is quite limited.


I hope this has been helpful for you job-seekers and, for those of you who are not currently applying, I hope you’ll come back and find this helpful if and when the time comes.

Do you have any other work-related questions? Or any tips of your own when it comes to successful job applications? We would love to hear from you!

The reasons you should be using freelancers, small business and bloggers plus 8 ways you can show your support for them #bloggers #smallbusiness #freelance


  • Lisa Dimaline

    Great advice on all. Is it still relevant to have references on your CV? I always use to but feel it takes valuable space!

    November 16, 2017 at 18:15 Reply
    • North

      Thank you so much for reading and commenting!
      Sophie says: “it is not. You can put ‘references available upon request’ instead. This also means an unscrupulous employer can’t request them without your express agreement”

      Good question, I always put references but I won’t be any more!

      November 17, 2017 at 15:30 Reply

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