Wednesday, 9 November 2011

The CV: an antipasto, not the main dish

How ironic if a blog post on CVs were long and messy. So I'll keep this as tight as a good curriculum vitae.

Your goal is simple: to offer a snapshot of your experience. Like good writing, it is as hard if not harder to write tight than to write long. A CV is not a smörgåsbord or even a main dish. It is an hors d'oeuvre.

Do you know how much time someone generally takes to read the CV of a job or graduate school applicant? I won't dare quantify it. Suffice it to say that it's no longer than the time it takes a harried Italian commuter to down an espresso coffee on the way to work.

Like an antipasto, a CV is meant to whet the reader's appetite. You want to answer some basic questions so that the reader can situate you and, hopefully, be interested in learning more. What are those questions?

- Where have you studied, what did you study and when?
- What kind of work experiences have you had and where?
- Have you received any special awards or recognition?
- What languages do you speak?
- What else makes you truly unique?

The reader should have to take no more than 30 seconds to have a basic idea of your background. The emphasis is on "basic". You will have a chance to delve more deeply into your past and your future in your statement of aims and, if you are applying to SAIS Bologna, your interview. You want the reader to be interested in learning more about you, not to answer any and all questions on the CV.

A few pitfalls:

- If there is a gap of more than 6 months in your academic or professional experiences, you should explain that in your statement of purpose. Experienced readers of CVs spot such gaps immediately. Most everyone has such gaps; they just need to be explained.

- A CV that is too long is a turn-off. What is too long? How many angels can you fit on the head of a pin? I like one-page CVs, but others want more detail. Make the CV as long as it has to be to cover your experiences without inflating them. At some stages of an application or for certain positions, more detail is needed. In any case, make sure each word counts. If a word is not needed, cut it out.

- It can be useful at the top of a CV to summarize your background. But beware of overdoing it or of using wooden or hackneyed language.

- Does anyone nowadays not know basic computer applications like Word, Excel or Powerpoint? It's a given, so no need to mention them.

I know someone out there has this question: What is the difference between a CV and a resume? Some consider the resume to be a compact CV, which they feel should be at least 2 pages. That distinction may hold true for individuals with substantial professional experience. That is not the case with most of our applicants.

A good CV is crisp and clean, easy to read and a help to the reader who wants to know quickly what you've done without wasting time. Don't think you need to put everything except the kitchen sink in your CV. Consider it more the architect's sketch of the kitchen.

Nelson Graves