How to write a killer CV

Published on Feb 26, 2020 in Business

Last week I saw my friend Jack. He told me he was applying for sales/marketing positions at various companies in Bristol and wanted my feedback on his CV. I said "sure" but quickly regretted it when Jack gave me his CV: a 2-page long, very colourful, text-heavy recap of everything he's done, studied and worked on in his entire life.

Jack somehow managed to commit all the cardinal sins of CV writing at once:

  • add as much shit as possible, even when it's not relevant
  • make it as generic as possible
  • describe yourself with the same overused 30 words ("highly motivated self-starter"...) 


I've not applied to many jobs (I've been self-employed almost my entire adult life) but over the years I've hired several people and by shifting through hundreds of CVs I've figured out what makes a CV stand out. In short, I know the rules of the game.

In this post, I'll show you three simple rules to get your CV to stand out and massively increase your chances of getting the job you want.

The Game

Let's go back to Jack. His CV sucks but of course, this is not Jack's fault. He simply didn't know the rules of the Job Application Game

In this game there are two players:

  • you (a.k.a. the hero)
  • the person who reads your CV, let's call he/she "The Recruiter" (a.k.a. the boss)

The goal of the game* is for you to be hired but to do that you first need to win this level by beating the Recruiter (the boss).

The Recruiter has only one job: figure out as quickly as possible if you're a good candidate for that position and either hire you or send you to the next round.

Now here's the key point: in this game, your only job is to make the Recruiter's job easier. In other words, to beat The Recruiter you must help the Recruiter. The easier you make their job, the higher the chances you will win at this game.

*The only difference between this game and, say, Super Mario is that if you die in this game (if the Recruiter doesn't pick you for the next round) you don't get to play the game again, at least not with the same company. You're out. For good.


3 tricks to win the game

Like every game, the Job Application Game has tricks and cheats.
There are 3 simple tricks to win at this game.


Trick 1: Make it about THEM

Take a standard CV. It's ALL about the person who wrote it.
Me, me, me, I, I, I...

Don't. Do. That.

Your CV should always be about THEM, the company you're applying to, not you. Take your ego, crush it, crumple it and throw it away.

This will feel extremely counterintuitive. Of course my CV is about me! Who else should it be about?

But if you ask that question, you are missing the point: the person who reads your CV doesn't give a damn about you. They only care about filling the position with the best candidate.

(If this hurts your feelings, you can have a cry. I'll wait.)

Ok so how do you write a CV about them?
Spend some time researching the company. Find out about their problems, roadmap, goals. If they have a blog, read it. If they have a public roadmap, analyse it. Find interviews, podcasts, etc with the CEO or execs of the company.

It doesn't matter what you do, just spend some time researching the company and their goals. This alone will put you head and shoulder above 98% of the other applicants.

But that's only the first step.

The second step is to show them how your past experiences, personality, skills, studies, etc, make you a good fit for that position AND help the company achieve their goals or overcome their problems.

Let me give you an example.

One of the companies my friend Jack was applying to had a post on their blog where they outlined their goals for 2020, which included expanding their offering to enterprises in the B2B market.

That information is gold. Why? Because Jack has experience with B2B products. In fact, most of his work experience is about selling B2B products to senior management of large companies.

Now Jack can talk not just about his sales skill, but show how such skills can help the company in a specific, tangible way. In other words, Jack can make it about them.

(By the way, this is also precisely why you should never send the same CV for two applications. How could you? Unless you're applying to the same position for exactly the same company - in which case you probably need to rethink your strategy - it simply doesn't make any sense because different companies have different goals, different problems, etc.)


Trick 2: Don't bury the lead

I'm always surprised when I read a CV and hidden on page 2, under a mountain of useless info, I find something truly impressive that makes me go "Ah! That's amazing!"

In my experience most CVs are designed to hide the gold.

You're probably doing it with your CV. You're leaving it to the Recruiter to find the gems. In other words, you're making the Recruiter's job more difficult, which is the exact opposite of what you have to do to win this game.

Instead, lead with your most impressive achievement*. Read your CV and find something that stands out and use that that as the first paragraph of your CV. Give the Recruiter a reason to stop.

This will be clearer with an example.
Let's imagine a woman (Milly) who is applying to be the private chef for Bill Gates. Milly has 15 years of experience, several certifications and multiple awards. Milly has also been the personal chef for Jeff Bezos (CEO of Amazon) for 3 years.

What do you think Milly's lead should be?
Having been Bezos' private chef for 3 years easily trumps any other certification, award or experience she has. In fact, Milly's CV could easily be just one line "Jeff Bezos's personal chef for 3 years". Everything else is a bonus.

I know what you're thinking: I haven't done anything impressive.
But I don't believe you. Unless you're at the absolute beginning of your carrier, you have definitely done something that can impress the Recruiter. It doesn't have to be world-impressive either.

For example, Jack's most impressive achievement was that in his previous business - a startup he bootstrapped at 23 - he managed to get the UK's 2nd largest van leasing company AND the UK's 2nd 

largest car buying company. This is hardly something that will make the headlines on the New York Times, but it's quite remarkable for a 23 years old. In one fell swoop, Jack has showed the ability to conduct business negotiations, self-reliance and hustling (he bootstrapped his company); all great skills for a sales person.

And yet, this information was in a bullet point on page 2, buried under dozens of similar bullet points. Jack was burying the lead. He was making the Recruiter's job more difficult.

Don't let the Recruiter do the dirty job of figuring out why you're a good candidate. Make their life easier. Don't bury the lead.

Additional tips about the Lead

Your lead should be the first thing the Recruiter reads. It should be the first paragraph of your CV and you should spend 80% of your time optimising it, trying different versions, etc.

Here's a tip on writing your lead: imagine you're the keynote speaker of an event of the company you're applying to. The host is going to introduce you by reading a small blurb (2-3 lines). What do you want it to say? What would make you feel proud?

*Your most impressive achievement should be related to the position you're applying for. After all, remember that your job is to make the Recruiter's job easy and their job is to find the best candidate for a specific position. However if you have something truly exceptional to show for use that instead. For example, my friend Elijah was applying for a designer position but his lead was an open-source Javascript component used by thousands of front-end developers he had built in his spare time. The lead wasn't directly related to design but it showed creativity and the ability to work in a team, which ultimately granted him the job.


Trick 3: Keep it short

Imagine two restaurants. In one you're given a menu of 10 pages with dozens of different dishes. In the other, you're given a one-page menu with 5 dishes on it.

Which restaurant do you trust more?

If you are like most people, you will trust the one with the smaller menu more. There's actually lots of research that shows how people naturally trust more people or companies that give them fewer options. Most people, you included, don't believe people (or restaurants) can be good at too many things at the same time. Which is why Michelin star restaurants have tiny menus and generalist restaurants have a couple of dozen.

The same thing happens with your CV. Squeezing in every single piece of information about your life, your carrier and your studies is the equivalent of a 10-page menu in a restaurant. Don't say everything you can do; say the best 3 to 5 things you can do.

As a rule of thumb, your CV should not be longer than 1 page, ideally half a page. You know you have won when your entire CV is one line; e.g: "Former CMO of Hubspot". If you can do that, no one will care where you studied or what your hobbies are.

Take the Milly example above. Her entire CV could effectively be one line "Jeff Bezos's personal chef for 3 years". You want to get to that level of minimalism for your CV.

Avoid repetitions
The reason a lot of CVs balloon to multiple pages is often due to pointless repetitions. Jack's CV, for example, had a section called "Skills" that listed things like:

  • Excel, Word and Email
  • Photo-editing
  • etc

Can you see what's wrong with that section?
I'll help you. If you can't use Excel or send emails in 2020 you're like somebody who can't read or write 50 years ago. The fact that you're applying to the job proves that you can send an email.

Photo-editing? That might be interesting... if Jack was applying to a design position. Too bad he's applying to a Sales position.

Don't make the same mistake. Cut, cut, cut.
Your goal should be to cut off as much as possible without removing any important information. What qualifies as "important" information? Anything that helps the Recruiter decide you're the right person for that position.

Where you studied very very rarely makes the cut here. Your hobbies almost never. Prizes/awards? Please don't fool yourself. Nobody cares about the "Best Entrepreneur Award" you got in 7th grade.

Remove these sections all together or summarise them in a couple of lines, unless you have proof that these information make the Recruiter's job easier. For example, if you know that the company you're applying to likes to hires people from a specific school and you happen to have gone to that school, then mention it.


Game over

To recap:

  1. This is a game. If you know the rules of the game you massively increase your chances of winning.
  2. Your only job is to make the Recruiter's job easier.
  3. Use these 3 tricks to win the game:
    1. Trick 1: Make it about THEM
      The person who reads your CV doesn't give a damn about you. Spend some time researching the company. Find out about their problems, roadmap, goals. Then show them how your past experiences, personality, skills, etc, can help the company achieve their goals or overcome their problems.
    2. Trick 2: Don't bury the lead
      Lead with your most impressive achievement. Read your CV and find something that stands out and make it the cornerstone of your CV. Give the Recruiter a reason to stop. Spend 80% of your time optimising the lead.
    3. Trick 3: Keep it short
      Your CV is like the menu of a restaurant. Keep it short and people will naturally trust you more. Avoid useless repetitions.

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