7 Ways to Fill a Sparse CV
You might have read advice on writing a CV that tells you, sternly, that it should under no circumstances be longer than two sides of A4.
There will come a time in your career when that feels very difficult to achieve; when to make your CV fit that sort of space, you either need to make descriptions of jobs very, very short, or risk giving the impression that you only sprung into existence five years previously. But when you’re writing a CV for the first time – perhaps for an internship, scholarship, summer job or just because your school thinks it’s a valuable thing to practise – you’re likely to encounter the opposite problem: that you simply don’t have enough to say.
You might have tried making the margins bigger, adding chunky headers and footers, and listing all of the school exams you’ve ever taken vertically so there’s lots of white space, but if all of that still isn’t giving you enough material, here are our top tips.
1. Frame your CV around your skills
A standard CV template might include sections for “employment history” or “experience”, plus “education”, and perhaps a separate section for “key skills”. This works well if you have a lot of content to squeeze in. It doesn’t work so well if your education is “primary school and five years of secondary school, internal exams only” and your employment history is “none”.
One way around this is to avoid presenting your CV as a series of topics, with details included chronologically, but instead to frame it around your skills. You’ll want to keep the section on your education, but after that, the rest can be a list of your skills – you should prioritise the skills you choose based on the role you’re applying for. It could look like this:
Skills and competencies
Leadership I was the stage manager for the 2015 school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which had a cast of 25. I coordinated communications and managed the team of 5 stagehands.
I captained my school hockey B team for 2015-16. I found consensus on team tactics and my team members put me forward again as their first choice for captain for 2016-17.
This also frees up your covering letter to discuss the role you’re applying for more specifically. A conventional CV might require you to say in your covering letter, “I feel my leadership experience, such as my role as stage manager on A Midsummer Night’s Dream and my captaincy of the school hockey team, prepares me well for the leadership required in an Acme Technologies internship…” you can relate your experience much more specifically to the role, e.g. “I would relish the opportunity to put my extensive leadership experience to use in an Acme Technologies internship; in particular, the chance to lead the intern team in the monthly departmental competition would be both enjoyable and a great chance for me to develop my skills.”
2. Include a personal statement
A CV framed around skills isn’t going to be right for everyone and for every role. If a conventional chronological CV suits you better, one way of adding a little more content is to include a personal statement. This isn’t something everyone puts on their CV, but it can be particularly valuable when you’re just starting out. The CVs of people with lots of experience often imply a personal statement; for instance, the CV of someone with experience of proofreading, marking exams and tutoring naturally suggests that they might see their long-term career in teaching. But when you have the standard range of activities of any teenager, it can be harder to tell what your long-term goals might be.
A personal statement should be short (around 50 words is reasonable) and concise, focusing on whatever aspects of your life to date and your future goals you see as most important. Let’s say you were thinking of applying for an internship at an advertising agency. You might write something like this:
“An ambitious secondary school student focusing on creative subjects, especially Art and Design, aiming to secure an internship in an advertising agency to learn more about the potential careers in this field and my suitability to such roles. My career goal is to become a graphic designer for large, fast-paced advertising agency.”
As the above example demonstrates, your personal statement should say who you are, what you’re currently doing, and what you’re aiming to do – and these things should form a coherent whole. If they don’t, you can also use the mission statement to explain that, e.g. by noting that your current focus is on x subjects, but that you hope to transition to y subjects that relate more closely to your long-term goal.
3. Don’t include irrelevant things
If the above ideas are still leaving your CV feeling a bit empty, then you might be feeling tempted to include items that aren’t particularly relevant. Maybe you won an award for singing when you were twelve. Perhaps you completed a first-aid course that’s valid for two years, five years ago. Or you got some really impressive test results in 2013. It might not be recent or relevant, but surely they’d want to know that you were a prodigy?
Unfortunately not. Your prospective employer almost certainly doesn’t want to hear about things that happened so long ago you’d almost forgotten all about them. One way of judging what’s worth including is asking yourself, if you were friends with someone of the age you were when you did whatever it is you’re thinking of mentioning, would it be usual? If you’re 15, you might well be friends with 13 or 14 year olds, so something you did aged 13 or 14 could be worth mentioning. You’re almost certainly not going to be friends with an 11 year old unless you’re their babysitter – so don’t mention something you did aged 11.
Similarly, it’s worth considering how impressive your achievements are. A bronze prize in a village competition is not going to be worth mentioning. A bronze prize in a national competition is. There might be some achievements that you’re particularly proud of, versus others you’re more indifferent to, but do your best to look at them objectively, or ask a more impartial friend for their opinion.
4. Ask your loved ones
The flip side of this is that in many cases, we have plenty of skills and achievements to include; we just forget that they’re valuable. If everyone in your school did a first aid course, then you might forget that not everyone applying for the role will have those skills, and so they’re worth mentioning. The same might be true if your school or friendship group has a lot of academically talented people; you might not be aware of all the things that make you stand out. Or there are simply the things that you forget all about doing until you find the certificate in the bottom of a drawer.
One way to be reminded of all of these skills and achievements is to ask your friends and family. Which achievements do your parents and grandparents still boast about to their friends? What skills are your friends particularly impressed by? It can be hard to find a way to ask this without looking as if you’re fishing for compliments, but “it’s for my CV” should – hopefully – deal with any objections on that score.
5. Include helpful information
Anyone reading your CV is likely to have a whole lot of other CVs to read – in the case of some jobs, they might be reading hundreds of the things. CVs will become separated from covering letters, or misplaced in the wrong part of a pile, or even with the best will in the world, start to blend into one another.
That’s why it’s useful – rather than irrelevant – to include helpful information at the top of your CV. Include your full name, making sure it’s consistent with the name on your covering letter and what comes up when you send an email; it won’t endear you to an employer if they have to spend time figuring out whether Lottie L Jones and Charlotte Jones are the same applicant or not. Also include your email address (and for the same reason, make sure it’s the same email address you used to send in your application), your postal address and your telephone number. All of this adds bulk to your CV, but no employer will object to you making their life easier by including it.
Having said this, don’t include your date of birth, and seriously consider whether it’s wise to include a photograph. Laws against age discrimination mean that including your date of birth can feel to an employer a little like including your ethnicity. Including a photograph is up to you, but consider that your employer will remember whatever was most distinctive about your CV, and you’d sooner be “the one with the amazing exam results” rather than “the one with the fringe”.
6. Tailor your CV to the role, and take employers’ expectations into account
It’s good advice generally to tailor your CV to the role. For instance, if you’re applying for a summer job as waiting staff in a busy restaurant, it’s probably best to emphasise the “teamwork” and “customer service” parts of your experience, and de-emphasise the “leadership” aspects (more leaders are not usually required in a crowded kitchen that already has a chef). But this is particularly true if you don’t have much to fill your CV with, because if you’re simply stuck for ideas on what to say, you can use the information about the role as a springboard. You might well be in a position where you’ll need to talk up meagre experience either way, so make sure you’re talking up the right meagre experience. For instance, if they want someone with skills in social media, try to get as much mileage as you can from the time that you helped your friend with his band’s Facebook page.
Remember, too, that it’s OK to talk up whatever limited experience you have. If someone is willing to hire people of your age, they’re going to be aware that you’re not going to have heaps of experience (the occasional job posting of “internship. Great way for a student to get their first step on the ladder in this field. Five years’ experience required” aside). That means they will expect you to turn a couple of hours’ babysitting a month into “valuable experience of early-years learning”, or sitting in on a school council meeting into “democratic engagement within my community”. Don’t overdo it – your prospective employer does know what real experience looks like, after all – but at the same time, it’s OK to make the most of what you’ve done, even if it’s not much.
7. Format it attractively
If all else fails, it might be time to go back to the formatting. Thankfully, including lots of white space is considered good design at the moment, so instead of making the margins bigger and seeing if you can get away with pt 14 font, why not see if you can make your CV more attractive at the same time as stretching out the content? Give every paragraph and section room to breathe with white space around it, and add simple borders and the like to give it more structure. There are plenty of downloadable CV designs out there if you don’t have a flair for this sort of thing yourself. And if you are talented in graphic design, then you can use your CV as a way to show off.
This isn’t just a means of making the content of your CV go further. Many CVs are atrociously formatted, for instance if they’ve come via a recruitment agency who have put their own branding over the top, or if the employer’s computer doesn’t have the same fonts installed (saving your CV as a PDF helps avoid this problem), or simply because the applicant thinks that Comic Sans is the right font for them. So if your CV is not only readable but attractive, it might go that little bit further towards securing you the role.
What have you done to fill a sparse CV? Share your ideas in the comments!
Image credits: keyboard; brainstorm; potter’s wheel; personal statement; child in pool; woman giving advice; pug; barista; desk.