Whether it’s a lengthy gap or an overseas education, candidates who have unusual career paths, as well as those considering a change in direction or reinvention, are likely have their work cut out when drafting their CVs. Below our associate editor and career coach Husnara Begum shares her top three tips on how to tackle some of the most common sticking points.
Tip One: Low exam grades
In many sectors, including law, conventional wisdom dictates your academic achievements should be positioned towards the top of your CV, especially for entry-level / graduate roles. But it’s worth noting this really is a convention and NOT a rule. As such, one way of getting around low exam grades that do not meet an employer’s minimum requirements is to bury them at the bottom of your CV.
Indeed, even for mature candidates with stellar academics, there’s also a very strong argument in favour of giving your exam grades less prominence because as time passes they’ll become less relevant, with employers shifting their focus to relevant work experience and/or competencies. Mature candidates may also wish to leave out bygone high school exam grades altogether because again over time these become less interesting to hiring organisations.
If there are genuine mitigating circumstances that held you back from reaching your expected level I’d recommend adding an asterisk next to the relevant grade/mark and then referring to the mitigating circumstance(s) in a short footnote. You don’t need to go into too much detail, a short outline will suffice but if appropriate you may wish to offer to discuss further with the employer.
Whilst I’m on the topic of exam grades I wanted to flag the importance of reality checking. If your grades or indeed work experience etc do not meet the minimum set by an employer then it’s worth picking up the phone and asking them if they would still consider you.
Tip 2: Overseas education and qualifications
Unless you studied at a high-profile prestigious university that is really well known across the globe for academic excellence I’d recommend putting the ranking of your institution in your home country in brackets next to its name. Similarly, for secondary school exam grades I’d suggest setting out what they equate to in terms of UCAS points.
Remember the person reviewing your CV will thank you for making their lives simple! With this in mind, put yourself in the shoes of the person doing the initial sift of CVs and ask yourself if they were reviewing your version will all the information contained in it make sense? Confusing CVs that lack context will not win you any favours. I’d much rather see a slightly longer CV than one that leaves me asking more questions about the candidate than I had before casting my eyes over their CV.
Tip 3: Gaps
Short gaps lasting a few weeks, especially between finishing your A-Levels and starting university are not a big deal. But if any breaks stretch beyond a couple of months then these should all be accounted for. My top tip for managing short(ish) gaps on CVs is to only use the month or year when referring to start and end dates of courses and/or jobs. And if you’ve had a series of temporary roles with small gaps between each one you could pool this together and say: “A series of short temporary roles, including three months at XXXXXX, which focused on selling widgets to clients in the energy sector.”
For longer gaps the magic phrase to use is “A planned career break to [start a family][care for an elderly relative][go travelling]” etc. It really is that simple. If a gap was caused by redundancy it’s really important to describe this using language such as “a difficult business decision for your previous employer during challenging times/economic uncertainty”. Meanwhile, if your break was a result of an illness then again mention that you’ve now returned to full health and ready for a fresh challenge. Separately, if during a period of employment you were on maternity leave then there is no legal obligation to make reference to this on your CV, although from a practical perspective you may wish to do so.
When referring to any negatives, such as an illness or redundancy, on your CV brevity is also important. Lengthy sob stories or disparaging remarks about former employers simply don’t work. Meanwhile, as is the case with all-things CV related if a break is both short and historic then you may even get away with leaving it out.
Another way around gaps and indeed low academic grades is to opt for a skills-based CV. Look out for tips on drafting skills-based CV in future blogs.
Remember there is no wrong or right way to set out a CV, so opt for one that works best for you and the sectors relating to your job search. And though some embellishment is absolutely fine, after all a CV is a sales pitch, avoid over-doing it. Lying on a CV is high-risk because if the hiring organisation smells a rat that turns out to be true they are perfectly within their rights to withdraw an offer and blacklist you.