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Writing a Good CV – Tips for a Killer First Contact

On Stage Lighting looks at the workhorse of gaining employment as a lighting professional, the Curriculum Vitae, and considers how you can create a killer CV.  But first, how does your CV actually fit into the recruitment process?

As a lighting professional, either freelance or looking for permanent employment, at some stage you will try to gain access to people and places that don’t know you from Adam.  It could be an advertised job or simply an attempt to create an “in” with a company you would like to work with.  Let’s focus on advertised jobs for today, you’ve seen an ad inviting CV submissions and want to make sure you give yourself the best chance of securing an interview.

Even when you have a few years behind you in any industry, you’ve met new people and have the beginnings of a contact network.  As time passes, those contacts move about, find new roles themselves and you slot into new areas of work, and meet even more contacts. But remember, that ideal gig might just be around the corner,  and you may still be facing a cold start to get it.

Note: Modern Curriculum Vitae are often shorter versions of a more traditional CV, with some emphasis on personality as much as a list of employment history and qualifications.  These are more like the US “Resume”, but as I’m sitting here in sunny England, we’ll use the term CV for today.  We also aren’t going to look at covering letters or application forms, also important tools in the process.

Many On Stage Lighting readers are in the early stages of their chosen path. As a student or budding lampie just starting out, applying for jobs and pitching yourself in amongst a gaggle of other doing the same, your CV is vital.  While there are a number of ways in which employers invite applications, including standard application forms and personal statements, the CV is still probably the most common way to make that first contact with a potential employer in our business.

Job Offer

What does the CV do?

Simple.  The purpose of the Curriculum Vitae in this scenario, is to get you in front of the employer, the next stage of the selection process.

The Recruitment Process

Before we dive into what you need to do to get that job, it’s worth understanding the process from the employers point of view. Be the employer for a moment.

As an employer, you need to hire someone to fill a role.  You want to make sure that you have the best chance of finding the right person, the person that fulfills your requirements – the person specification.  That spec might be laid out in a document, be set down by industry convention or just thoughts in the head of the hirer.

As an employer, you try to reach many possible candidates by placing advertising in places that are the most relevant to the industry – perhaps in The Stage ( in the UK), Stage Jobs Pro among others.  In the job advert, you want to give enough information to reach only the most suitable candidates, a hands off weeding out process.  The next part of that process might be to invite prospective candidates to apply for more details / information pack, where they can read a detailed version of the role and the person that you are looking for.  The second weeding, if you will (?!).

After that, you as the employer will want to shortlist a choice of candidates for interview so may invite submissions of CVs.  Sifting through CVs can be an onerous task, especially with a large number of applicants who, due to the first two stages of elimination (advert and information pack), all basically fit the vacancy based on qualifications and experience.

The CV Sorting Scenario

As the employer you have a stack of CVs that have rolled in since your advert went live.  It’s time to start shortlisting but you are busy and don’t have all day to study CVs, you do have a business to run.

From 100 CVs in the pile, you and a colleague are looking to find ten, just 10 CVs, to discuss and consider more fully with a view to shortlisting five candidates for interview.  For one job.  That means you have to bin 95.  Let’s hope that at least 70% of applicants make it easy for you…..

Tips for creating that killer CV

Ok, that’s enough of being an employer.  How might you attempt to make sure that your CV isn’t in the 70% that are hardly read before losing out in the first cut?

Making your CV attractive and readable

I don’t mean making your CV possible to read, but making it seem easy to get the information the employer wants.  This is where formatting and first impressions counts.  Maybe you only have 20 seconds before your CV is put on the “nah, not today” pile.  (20 seconds is an age these days, I reckon you have 3 seconds to keep a web visitor interested in an article enough to read it!! )

If an employer feels that getting to the information is going to be hard work, they may not make a special effort to drill down into your experience or outside interests long enough to keep your CV in their hand.

How should I layout my CV?

In the first instance, this could mean good use of headings, groups and columns alongside other formatting such as bold text or horizontal lines.  I personally wonder  about the wisdom of straying so far from CV convention that the reader has to work out your own personal UI before getting to the information, particularly in this scenario against 99 others.  Whacky and unique is not always an asset.

If it looks easy to read, it’ll get read.

Note: In a sea of white  floppy printouts, you might even want look at the paper you present with, remembering that in the end, paper is not going to actually get you an interview.  I find I hold on longer to documents on thicker than normal paper, but that’s just me 😉

Attention to Detail

Anyone ever seen a person spec or job of any kind that doesn’t require attention to detail?  Ever?  No, thought not.

Spelling and grammatical errors on a CV don’t suggest attention to detail but they do make it a great deal easier for your CV to get “passed over” – i.e. canned.

The Right Candidate

The CVs on the pile should be from people who actually qualify and are suitable for the job,  after all, that’s one function of the advertisement.  So how might you make your CV stand out from the crowd in the suitability stakes?

For me, this means understanding that “your” CV is not a static entity – something that you create once and send out with every application.  OK, so you are you.  But, how do you fit into the job for which you are applying?  A busy employer would like an easy-to-spot clue that you fit the person specification for this job, a clue that’ll keep your CV in their hand long enough to make your pitch.

This might be in the way the headings are titled, a tag line in the header or simply the order in which you present things.  Some categorise CVs as Chronological or Functional (Skills Based), either a list of employment history or a precis of skills and experience – and the two can be combined. (I assume that we all tend to scan a document top to bottom first time round and it’s silly to put your most relevant experience half way down a second page just for the sake of chronology)

The employer isn’t looking for a CV to shortlist, they are looking at pieces of paper to find a person that fits their requirements.  If you are the right person, make sure they see that.

How does a CV get me an interview, anyway?

Right, so you’ve passed the spellchecker, the layout test and have demonstrated that your skills and experience fit the person specification.  What is actually going to get you from the final ten CVs, to the shortlisted five for interview?  Still hangin’ in there in the final 5%…

The employer feels that you would be a suitable candidate by now, else they wouldn’t still be considering you.  Each job, person and CV is different but getting to interview comes down to one thing:  They want to know more about you.

Interviewing can a hard process for employers, especially if they are not professional recruiters.  They have to think of questions to ask, how to interpret the answers and base what could be a big decision on a short meeting.  And then do that four more times or more.

While there are some stock questions that are popular with some interviewers in all industries, the trouble with stock questions is that they can lead to stock answers. So, at some point, this interview is going to be more specific – not about your ability to deal with stock questions but about that which is unique to you.

The employer might see something in your CV that will make their life easier as an interviewer, something they could ask about.  It could be a gap year doing something particularly interesting or relevant, or maybe just a bullet point in your Skills and Interests section.  It might be that you have had two recurring roles in particular that seem wildly opposed.  Asking about those things is what makes an interview, both for you and them.

I’ve recently spent some time reviewing CVs of Technical Theatre graduates, people starting to make their way in the business.  As your work life move on, things get more diverse, skills and roles held become unique.  At graduate level, your skills and experience are very similar to those of your peers – CVs can look pretty much the same.  At this time, it is even more important to highlight those unique parts of you that makes a potential employer wonder and to want to know more.

Make sure there is plenty to wonder about.

Take Home Points about your CV

To wrap up, here are four stages that you poor little CV has to go through during the shortlisting process before you get that call for interview.

  • Don’t get binned – Errors and formatting can effect your chances of getting much more than a cursory glance.
  • Make me want to read – Look like you’ve got something to say and I won’t have to struggle to find what I’m looking for.
  • Let me know – that you are suitable for the post and fit the person specification.
  • Find out more – Make me want to ask you more about your Unique Selling Points.

On Stage Lighting readers will often find themselves pushing to get that next gigGraduate or a seasoned pro, looking to make a life in an industry that is suffering as much as any.  Using a CV to get access to a potential employer, from a cold start, is hard and potentially daunting.

Hopefully, we’ve managed to nail the important points and given you an employer’s point of view, to help you create your own killer CV.

Now, go do.  Guess you could always get a T shirt printed up instead … 😉 (image from Blackbird Tees)

While OSL has a lot of student readers, we also have a lot of more mature lighting peeps around here too, many of which are employers.  So guys, if you have any experience or insight on what makes a good CV for you, comments as usual please.

4 Responses to Writing a Good CV – Tips for a Killer First Contact

  1. David May 24, 2010 at 7:07 pm #

    I’m loving some of the newer “infographic resume” styles. Not sure they are ready for prime time, but they are really cool.

    http://www.vizualresume.com/

  2. 89lampie May 24, 2010 at 7:10 pm #

    A fantastic insight here into something which was never covered in my recent employment in the industry classes at theatre school. No one really made it clear about “Getting binned” etc. Here’s hoping I can take ideas from this great post. Thanks alot! *Goes off to edit CV* 🙂

  3. Rob Sayer May 24, 2010 at 9:13 pm #

    Hey David, interesting visual resumes. I agree that they seem kinda cool, if rather extreme. I also wonder if they aren’t designed by the same guys that build flash website that even I, let alone my mother in law, can’t figure out the navigation. Graphic designers these days seem to have forgotten the meaning of the word “function” and anything that makes the reader have to work to understand before they can use, is a PITA.

    Thanks 89lampie, (btw, am teaching a similar class soon to some technical theatre students so it’s great to have good feedback before I do, eh?). Perhaps you should pass my details on to your course leader 😉

  4. Nic July 30, 2010 at 3:17 pm #

    As annoying and cumbersome as it can be, you have to tailor your CV to every single job you go for. You need to put your skills across that relates them to the role, not just list the skills themselves. That will rarely get you anywhere.

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