Which CV Writing Rules Can You Break?

The evolution of digital technologies has led to a similar evolution in printed documents, including CVs. Most advice on CV writing today differs from that offered ten years ago, before electronic CVs became the norm. Yet looking at the advice offered on the internet, you’ll see that much of it is broadly similar.

There are certain practices in CV composition and editing that seem to be recommended by all and it is easy to perceive these as being ‘the rules’ of CV writing. There is also the perceived wisdom that we all seem to possess, which dictates that you can and can’t do certain things when putting your CV together. To what extent is this true? Are there many fixed rules in a period when so much is changing?

So let’s take a look at some of the conventions of CV writing, in an attempt to understand exactly where it is acceptable to bend the rules. In doing so, we may even see that some of these rules are not rules at all, but are merely myths that persist from days when CV writing was a very different practice to today.

Rule: You Should Include Only 10 Years’ of Employment

A few years back, everybody would include their entire employment history on their CVs. This meant that they’d include every job that they’d held since leaving school, college or university, even if only lasted for a few months.

This thinking has now changed and it is usually recommended that you include only employment from the last 10 years. This is because technology is changing so rapidly these days that experience gained before that time is most likely going to be out of date anyway. The employer only considers the most recent positions, or so the advice goes.

For many candidates, this rule holds firm. Yet for some candidates, it isn’t helpful and sticking to it may actually reduce their chances of gaining an interview. People who’ve had a very varied career, with jobs that don’t always sit within a clear career trajectory, may suffer.

Such candidates may need to resort to a higher level of targeting, with their previous jobs grouped according to type and the most relevant group presented highest. In such cases, the jobs may be drawn from beyond ten years previously, so that enough targeted jobs are included in the target category.

Another instance is for an executive or senior management candidate, who has over ten years of highly meaningful experience. In this case, earlier positions can be included, but without as much detail as more recent ones.

Rule: CVs Should Be Two Pages Long or One Page if You’ve Just Started Out

An old convention used to be that a CV should be one page long, this was particularly the case in the US. These days, it’s usually recommended that candidates submit a CV of two pages in length. To attempt to squeeze everything onto one page would be a mistake, as it would probably end up cramped, cluttered and unreadable.

Meanwhile, most people who are school or college leavers, or who have only had one job, will find that their experience will only fill a single page.

Naturally, there are some candidates who do not fit the rule. Senior executives with several management positions behind them may need to extend their CV to three pages.

Another exception arises with emailed CVs, which tend to be much shorter versions, although now the rise of keyword searching has led to longer, ‘keyword-rich’ CVs.

On the other hand, a candidate who isn’t long out of education may have a wealth of positive, work and non-work experience.

Rule: You Should Explain Gaps in Employment

This is a frequently quoted rule. Unexplained gaps in your career history, the reasoning goes, will raise questions and very possibly doubts in the employer’s mind – they will wonder what you are hiding.

In many instances, gaps of less than 12 months may be entirely ‘innocent’: for example maternity leave. Even if they arise because you felt you absolutely had to leave a job before you had found another, this is not necessarily a problem if you spent less than 12 months unemployed.

If the breaks are longer than a year and/or you are not currently in employment, a line of explanation will help to oil the wheels.

Rule: You Should Only Use a Standard CV Format

A number of formats are usually recommended for CV writing, including the chronological, functional and targeted formats. As already mentioned, some candidates simply don’t fit into the conventional career trajectory and may experience problems trying to squeeze their experience into the conventional formats.

In such cases, it is perfectly OK to be flexible with formats, providing this shows you in the best light. However, it’s advisable to only divert from generally recognised formats when necessary – while you want to show your uniqueness in a CV, do not try to be individual simply for the sake of it.

Rule: You Should No Longer Include Hobbies and Interests

It is no longer expected that you should include a hobbies or interests section in your CV. However, for people at an early stage in their career, your non-work activities can provide a rich source of information that helps to define you as an individual.

Transferable skills are present in sports, group work, charity effort and interest group experience and, as the name implies, can be carried across to the professional environment.

Generally speaking, though, solitary and more intellectual interests provide a less rich source of information.

Rule: Massaging the Truth on Your CV is OK

There are ways of writing your CV that make a certain aspect of your experience or background less obvious. While this is allowing the truth to be slightly obscured, it is not actually telling an untruth.

But being overly creative in your CV writing is fraught with risk. If you give yourself better exam results, create qualifications that you never took, give yourself promotions or create any form of fiction in your CV, it could backfire.

Many employers do checks at some point and this is certainly getting easier. Even your Facebook page can give them information you might wish they didn’t see! Once you are found out, it is very unlikely that an employer will wish to keep you on the payroll and this could jeopardise your career prospects for years.

We would therefore recommend that you never lie on your CV.

Summary

Conventions are usually established by ‘what works best’. These conventions are often then perceived as rules. The truth is that they are what works in most instances, rather than in all instances. This means that there are times when the so-called rules can be broken.

Jobs included can be extended beyond the past 10 years if you’re a management candidate with lots of rich experience, or if your experience is varied and you need to include targeted information for an application.

CV length can be longer than two pages if you’re a management candidate with a wealth of experience behind you, or longer than one page if you’ve recently left education but have lots of experience to draw on for your CV.

Give careful thought to gaps in employment, but don’t get paranoid about them to the extent that you feel that you have to explain every single gap in excruciating detail.
Standard CV formats can be adjusted to suit your experience, providing it shows you in the best possible light.

You no longer have to include hobbies and interests, but these can be a rich source of information, providing you focus on transferable skills that can be applied at work too.

When writing your CV, it’s certainly possible to draw attention away from unfavourable facts in your career history, but never tell a deliberate lie – as you may be found out, meaning you aren’t offered the job or are sacked if you are in a job.

Please let us know what you think by leaving your comments below.

If you need help with your CV / resume please check out our professional CV writing service.

Kind regards,

Paul Bradley.

Managing Director.
Bradley CVs Ltd.

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