How to use your CV to “control” the subsequent interview

Over the last 15 years or so I have often found myself advising employment seekers – from young graduates to potential Managing Directors – about how to write and structure their CVs. It has often occurred to me that in the heat of trying to write down everything that might conceivably be of some interest to somebody, the purpose and objectives of the CV are sometimes forgotten by the authors. Many CV writing guides are often focused on format. Some may even include something about content but most usually take the “purpose” for granted. In the overwhelming majority of cases the objectives of submission of a CV is to be first selected for an employment interview and then to form the basis or the starting point for the interview itself.

(Scroll to bottom of post for “Writing your CV” pdf)

It is often tempting to just take the last CV one has prepared and update it quickly for the next application. “Standard” CVs are often used by applicants as part of a mass mailing. By definition a “mass mailing” is the indiscriminate dissemination of an information package without sufficient forethought as to what is to be achieved. This, I think, is a major mistake. A CV should be part of a “true communication”. Even though it requires extra thought and some extra effort a CV needs to be part of a purposeful cognitive process and must be tailored to suit the position being applied for.

Preparing your CV must start with putting yourself in the shoes of the reader. To be part of a proper communication process, every CV  therefore must

  1. have a clear and identified purpose,
  2. have identified targets for the communication
  3. have a clear message,
  4. be directed with precision,
  5. contain an “information package” – which is usually the CV itself – and
  6. ensure that the identified readers receive the intended messages and come to the intended perceptions

The process must start not with the applicant’s credentials and his capabilities but with the capabilities and experience being sought. Every CV – before being written – must consider that it has to be directed at two classes of readers and has two principal objectives:

  1. First it must lead a “screener” to select the applicant for a subsequent interview.
  2. Second it must encourage the interviewer – either before the interview or even during the interview – to travel down preferred paths leading to a conclusion in favour of the applicant.

A screener who is selecting candidates to be called for interview may spend less than a minute on looking at a CV. He rarely gets past the first page. It is my experience that a well written and structured First Page can determine if someone is called for an interview (and by corollary a poor First Page can lead to being screened out). The importance of the First Page and the impressions and perceptions it creates is paramount. If the First Page fails to get the applicant called for interview the rest of the CV becomes irrelevant and is wasted.

But it is the following one or 2 or – at most – 3 pages which can be used to “control” an interview. Very often these are the pages which are only skimmed during screening and which are usually read carefully only for those actually called for interview – and often only during the interview. If these pages are written correctly and with the interviewer’s objectives in mind, they can ensure that the interview follows paths desired by and beneficial for the applicant.

With at least these two classes of reader – the screeners and the interviewers – the CV must contain two essential, distinct  but complementary parts.  The First Page needs to be self-contained but to be naturally backed up by the rest of the CV. A screener generally has very little time to spend on each applicant. He does not want to and should not feel it necessary to go beyond the First Page. He must have made his selection before he gets to the end of the First Page. This is where some thought is required. If the screener can come quickly to the conclusion that the applicant has the capabilities which match the required abilities for the position, then the job is done. It becomes a no-brainer for the applicant to be called for interview. Therefore it becomes vital that the applicant must have identified – and I usually suggest this be written down – the abilities and experience being sought. Equally the potential “disqualifying” attributes should be identified. Then he must structure and write his First Page to present his strengths, experience and capabilities – explicitly and concisely – such that this “match” with the required abilities becomes obvious in the mind of the screener. The First Page must then focus on quickly – preferably within half a page – creating the perception within the screener that a match has been found.

There is a great deal of variation in how interviewers prepare for an interview (and I am a strong believer that the better prepared an interviewer the more revealing and useful an interview is). The skill of the interviewer is generally unknown but it can be anticipated to some extent. But whatever the levels of skill and preparation, the key document available to an interviewer regarding the applicant’s strengths and capabilities is the full CV. Most probably he would have read this carefully and prepared some questions prior to the interview. If he is well prepared, he may well try and focus also on weaknesses that he perceives. Paradoxically an interviewer focuses on weaknesses especially if he begins to suspect that a good match is feasible. He will then primarily be looking for confirmation of the “match” and for any potential  “show-stoppers” which could disqualify the applicant. There is always risk involved in selecting an applicant and it should not be forgotten that an interviewer is also looking to minimise his risk exposure. It is here that the CV and the way it is structured and written can provide the “rails” for the progress of the interview. There is nothing wrong in an applicant trying to “guide” his own interview into the directions he prefers. Strengths and capabilities must seem – to the interviewer – to be under-played such that they are further explored to the benefit of the applicant. Weaknesses should seem to be openly acknowledged so that they cannot come as “surprises” or as “show-stoppers” during the course of the interview. A good CV provides some of the reassurance that any interviewer needs before coming to a conclusion. Strengths or experience which do not seem to be relevant or seem to be peripheral can be presented somewhat cryptically so that – in the event they can be of collateral benefit – the interviewer has an open invitation to pursue these. This applies also to awards and achievements in peripheral areas or which took place a long time ago. Cryptic references to these tempt the interviewer and beg the questions which are to the benefit of the applicant. It is the applicant who with his CV has to seduce the interviewer into reaching a favourable conclusion. In many ways it is not unlike a skillful salesman leading the prospective customer into reaching a decision and closing the deal.

Your CV is a document to market yourself. But it should not be treated as a general brochure to be sent indiscriminately. It is not a “one size fits all” document. It must be directed with precision and with forethought as to what perceptions it must engender in the readers. It must not only be tailored to suit every particular application but it must also address the separate screening and interview processes that may apply. It is the information package for a “true communication”. If done correctly it can be used to guide and “control” an interview.

 Writing Your CV (pdf)

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One Response to “How to use your CV to “control” the subsequent interview”

  1. Bogdan Marius Beleuz Says:

    Thank you for your remarkable post.

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