Writing a CV that stands out by avoiding the normal tired, empty language

 Why do so many savvy business students present their valuable experience in CV clichés? Tired, empty adjectives make you blend in with the crowd rather than stand out. A CV is a weak door opener at the best of times, so why not get more value out of it?

Few hiring managers look forward to reading CVs. It’s a job that’s often put off until late at night, or during a commute. How do you think a tired mind reacts when it sees the same clichés repeated?

The real impact of clichés
Adjectives, if used too often, become an overdose of ’look at me’. Sadly, too many CV profiles are stuffed with clichés such as self-starter, team player, dynamic, and highly motivated. It seems safe, because it’s the language everyone is using. And that’s the point. The real downside of clichés, apart from putting readers to sleep, is that stale phrases make you sound like everyone else. They make mature, experienced professionals sound like fresh graduates looking for their first role. Opening your CV with hackneyed language offers the subliminal message: ‘I have nothing to offer you can’t get from a 21-year-old.’

Claims often have the opposite effect to the one intended. Stating that you are eager for a new challenge, for example, may suggest you’ve been bored for a long time. When you say highly motivated, an employer thinks: ‘Why wouldn’t you be?’, ‘Why are you making this bland statement rather than showing me hard evidence?’ Committed, professional, hardworking – these words are taken as red, and the fact that you mention them is to be seen as naive.

Language which fails to impress
Cut out empty phrases like enthusiastic, reliable, honest, and conscientious – these qualities are expected in the workplace, and stating them suggests they don’t come naturally. Terms like flexible or available immediately make you sound desperate.

Some stock phrases you might get away with like commercially aware or results-oriented, but they need solid evidence to show you can walk the talk. Some clichés are rescued by context; team player says virtually nothing, but ‘the ideas person in the team’ points to real situations.

Let evidence speak for itself
So how do you get your strengths across? There’s a simple solution: show don’t tell. Use adjectives sparingly, and verbs frequently. Instead of stating you have excellent communication skills, use a bullet point to describe a difficult task, for example: ‘Scripted and recorded a podcast to explain policy changes for a broad audience, including senior managers.’ Don’t list personality traits - give examples demonstrating them.

Check the end of your CV. Watch out for boring, predictable interests - reading, cinema, tennis … and point to activities requiring creativity and energy, especially where you engage with others while you do them. Finally… References available on request. Well, obviously...

Build it from scratch
Try this exercise. Put your CV aside. Ask a friend to put the following four questions to you – and to write down your answers. 

  1. What are you known for?
  2. What are your strongest skills, areas of knowledge and expertise?
  3. What sectors and organisations in your CV make you stand out?
  4. What could make you different from other applicants?

By now your friend should have half a page of bullet points. That’s your core CV evidence. Now find a good CV structure and start to write.

So what?
Apply a final test. Wherever your CV mentions responsibilities or achievements, ask ‘so what?’ If it’s obvious, dull, unimpressive, or normally performed by more junior staff, rephrase or cut it out.

Getting feedback
It’s a waste of time showing your CV to a colleague if all you’re looking for is flattery or a good proof-reader. Find a contact with HR or hiring experience. They may have opinions about CV style, so don’t ask ‘what do you think of my CV?’ Ask ‘what does my CV say to you?’ Listen to the story coming back. If what you hear makes sense, your CV is working. If the feedback is that you’re sending out conflicting messages or fails to tell a coherent story that helps too.


John Lees is the author of Knockout CV . See more at www.johnleescareers.com.