Why your CV might be letting you down: Hiring managers reveal what employers are really looking for

If you're narrowly missing out on roles or not even getting to interview stage, this advice might get you over the line.

Job-hunting is exciting with its promise of change and new opportunity, but it brings disappointment, too, when we don’t get a role we thought we’d be perfect for.

Sometimes we can be surprised to find we don’t even make it to the interview stage.

What might we be doing wrong, or not quite nailing, at least?

According to SEEK New Zealand general manager Janet Faulding, it starts with getting your CV and cover letter right.

To ensure an employer even takes a second look at you, it’s imperative your CV and cover letter are relevant to the role you’re applying for, she says.

Your cover letter should tell them succinctly why you’re applying for the job and why you are a candidate worth considering, she says.

“Tailor your cover letter to the tone of the job listing and concentrate on two or three key words from the job ad, as well as one of your unique selling points. Your CV will then serve as evidence as to why you are a good fit for the role.”

There’s no need to list every job you’ve had or your entire education history back to primary school.

“Highlight what information will be important for the potential employer to know, such as relevant work experience,” she advises.

Janet can’t emphasise enough the importance of keeping CVs and cover letters brief.

“SEEK recommends that your CV is no more than two pages long, and a cover letter is no more than one,” she says.

“Employers often receive a high quantity of applications and don’t have the time to read every single page that is sent their way.”

Make them personal.

“Including personal things about yourself that might spark your potential employer’s interest will help you stand out in the crowd,” Janet explains.

What sort of things?

“Foreign exchanges, unique hobbies or sports and volunteer work may help to set you apart from other applicants and also indicates you have qualities such as commitment, motivation and a good work ethic.

“But don’t include personal information such as your home address, religion, age or marital status. It is also recommended to not include a photo unless it has been specifically requested,” she says.

And last but not least, remember first impressions count.

“A potential employer may be more likely to discount a messy CV as it can come across as careless and unprofessional,” says Janet.

“Make sure you have everything in a neatly formatted document with headings, bullet points or paragraphs to make it easy to read.

“Take the time to proofread it to make sure there are no spelling mistakes or grammatical errors.”

Have someone else cast their eye over it too. They’ll spot typos you miss because they’ll be looking at your efforts with fresh eyes (just like an employer).

Filling in the gaps

If you’ve been out of the work force for a while it’s best to account for any time spent out of the office, hiring managers recommend.

Angela Cameron, managing director of Consult Recruitment, says, “When there’s some time on the résumé that’s not accounted for it makes hiring managers nervous. There is more of a risk factor associated with that, and a hiring manager will tend to focus on the gaps rather than the stuff you have accounted for.”

Filling in the gaps gives you the opportunity to explain more fully who you are as a person, she says.

“And it’s okay to have a life – to have an extended holiday or be looking after sick parents or having kids.”

If you’ve taken time out of the work force to raise children Angela wouldn’t recommend using the words ‘mum’, ‘dad’ or ‘parent’ on your CV, though.

“I’d say ‘family responsibilities’,” she says. “It could mean kids, it could mean that you’ve been caring for a sick family member, and if you want to talk about it further you can.

“When people put down ‘home executive’ and ‘management’ and ‘multi tasking’, I personally think it demeans it. Everyone knows what being a parent is like and anyone who is a parent knows it’s a really, really tough job, and I think when you are a parent trying to come back you over-sell that aspect and you don’t need to. Just be black and white about it.”

And if you make it to the interview stage… interviewed 850 hiring managers to find out the biggest mistakes candidates make.

Number one was being late. Number two was whining. Showing a lack of preparation came in third.

Bad-mouthing a former boss or company also proved to be candidates’ downfall.

Do your homework on the role and company so that you walk into the interview well-prepared, advises Angela Cameron, and allow yourself plenty of time to get to the interview. Your aim should be to come across as professional and friendly.

Meanwhile recommends avoiding these words and phrases:

  • I don’t know – indicates a lack of preparation and thought about the actual role

  • I hate – it’s a strong word. Don’t use it.

  • Slang or swear words

  • I’ll do anything you ask – too desperate

  • That is a great question – they can see you’re biding for time. Just go with a pause, it shows confidence and that you’re self-assured.

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