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CV Best Practises for 2021: Survey of Career Experts

Writing a good CV is all about following a certain etiquette. But there’s so much to keep in mind! This study will show you what’s truly key to remember.

Michael Tomaszewski, CPRW
Certified Professional Resume Writer, Career Expert
CV Best Practises for 2021: Survey of Career Experts

best practises

We’re serious about CVs and so should you be. After all, it’s the piece of paper (alright, a digital copy of one) that has the power to impact your entire professional path. Scary, right?

The thing is… CV writing is a game that has some unwritten laws established by recruiters and hiring decision-makers. That doesn’t sound fair, does it? How are you supposed to win?

Don’t worry. We’ve surveyed those who lay down these rules. They told us everything they knew. Now we’re sharing it with you. 

Read on to learn how to crack the CV code and beat recruiters at their own game. It will all boil down to following some best practises.

Must-haves and must-gos

best practises

Recruiters see thousands of CVs every day and, depending on the source, spend an average of 6 to 15 seconds on a given document. This means their time is precious, but more importantly, to you, it means your CV has to click ASAP.

A job-winning CV has to be organised in a standard way. That begins with including proper sections in the right order.

In a nutshell:

  • Contact information
  • Profile (objective or summary)
  • Work history
  • Education
  • Skills

These are the very basics virtually all CV pros we surveyed agree on: 9 out of 10 professional CV writers recommend including all of the above-listed sections.

The thing is, “basics” won’t always do— 

Knowing what sections to include on your CV is one thing, but what about items and data to put in each of those?

Sometimes it’s not as straightforward as it might seem.

For instance, nowadays, including a link to your LinkedIn profile in the contact information section is practically a must—96% of CV experts suggest you do so.

Also, if you’re a student or have less than a year of professional experience, you should add your GPA to your education section. That’s according to 88% of our respondents.

For candidates with 2–5 years of experience, 67% of CV experts still recommend including the GPA.

If you’ve been in the workforce for 5+ years, 9 out of 10 respondents say listing GPA is a bad idea.

What about sections or pieces of information *not* to include on CVs in 2021?

  • 90% of CV writing pros say you shouldn’t include a list of hobbies and interests if you have more than 5 years of experience.
  • For candidates with less experience than that, adding hobbies is still risky: 77% of our respondents advise against it.
  • You shouldn’t list your references according to 89% of CV writers.
  • Similarly, 88% shun using the phrase “references available upon request.”

The purpose of the hobbies and interest section, back in the 90s, was to add a “human” touch to an otherwise robotic document. But today, that’s an obsolete practise. Let’s face it, your personal interests have little to do with your work performance and it’s the latter that should define your chances of getting hired. Listing interests on a CV feels too personal and unprofessional.

Speaking of unprofessional—so is including references on a CV. Not only is it not customary in the US, it also validates most personal data protection regulations. When it comes to the phrase “references available upon request”... Come on. It’s implied they’re available.

How in-depth should your CV be?

best practises

We’ve just talked about what sections to include on a CV and covered some items you should omit. What about what goes *in* those sections? How much information should you provide?

Let’s discuss our survey’s results.

The most important part of a CV, according to the Jobvite Recruiter Nation Report, is the work experience section (67% of recruiters pay the most attention to it). Here’s what to do to get it just right, according to CV pros:

Limit yourself to 15 years of relevant experience

When asked how far back the work history section should go, recruiters typically answered with one of the three time spans:

  • 10 years: 33% of respondents
  • 15 years: 35% of respondents
  • 20 years: 22% of respondents

The median (as well as a “common sense” choice) stands at 15 years for most working professionals.

Obviously, we’re talking about relevant experience here. If, at the beginning of your career, you held seasonal or part-time jobs unrelated to your current profession, skip those, even if it means limiting the scope of your CV to only cover the last 10 years.

If, in turn, you’re a seasoned executive or a C-level pro and you need to outline more than the last 15 years of experience to properly illustrate your progression, go for it (but only if you truly think it adds value to your CV).

Use up to 6 bullet points per position

We then asked CV writers about the maximum number of bullets job seekers can use to describe their achievements and responsibilities in a single position. The answers ranged from 4 to 10, the most common ones being:

  • 4 or less: 12%
  • 5: 27%
  • 6: 24%
  • 7: 16%
  • 8: 11%
  • 9 or more—10%

The average was 6.125 and the median 6. And this is a very reasonable number you should be aiming for. 

Remember—recruiters want CVs tailored to a particular opening (Careerbuilder data shows that 54% of recruiters will reject a generic CV). If you pick up to 6 most relevant achievements and describe them in bullet points, it will be enough to present you as *the* ideal candidate while not boring the reader to death.

Do use bullet points, avoid paragraphs

It seems to have become fashionable in recent times to include an introductory paragraph below a job entry on a CV, before proceeding to use the good ol’ bullets—but it’s definitely not recommended.

86% of our respondents suggest sticking to bullet points. First of all, doing so makes the whole document easier to scan. Secondly, a CV is no place for a narrative. Bullet points help you keep your wording succinct.

Explain your career gaps, if you have any

Oh, the shameful career gap. What to do about it in the work experience section? Maybe you should stretch the dates of employment here and there so it doesn’t look this bad? How about you just say nothing about it and hope no one notices?

Nah, it’s best to be upfront.

  • 73% of CV pros say you should explain your career gaps.
  • 14% suggest ignoring them.
  • Only 12% think it’s ok to hide them.

Whatever your reason has been for a career gap, it’s better to quickly describe it rather than to have a recruiter imagine the worst possible scenarios.

Finally, don’t obsess over gaps in your CV. Research by American Economic Association shows that recruiters usually ignore career gaps if they have been followed by relevant experience. Also, for a career gap to potentially hurt your chances of getting hired, it has to be longer than 9 months.

“Don’t judge a book by its cover”

Sorry, just kidding. A CV is your cover. You will be judged. So pay attention to the layout, design and presentation. Here are the key pointers from the hiring experts we surveyed:

best practises

Submit a one-page CV only if you have less than 5 years of experience

The common belief is that a CV has to be one-page long. It’s wrong. At least, for experienced candidates:

  • 95% of CV writers think a single-page CV is best for people with less than a year of work experience.
  • 82% advocate for a one-pager for candidates with 1–5 years of experience.
  • 49% say a one-pager is a good idea for those with 5–10 years in the workforce.
  • Only 27% think a single-page CV will work for seasoned pros with 10+ years under their belts.

But it’s not just an expert opinion. A two-pager is a data-informed choice. Recruiters are 2.9x more likely to choose a candidate with a two-page CV for supervisory or managerial positions, and 1.4x more likely for entry- to mid-level jobs.

The terms one-page and two-page have a limitation, though. Both assume we’re talking about full pages. So what to do if your CV is currently at a 1.5 page mark?

Most experts (44%) suggest that you should just leave it as is. 28% say you should try and trim it down to a single page (by cutting the unnecessary fat), another 28% suggest you expand it to two full pages, either by increasing line spacing and margins or by adding extra details so that your job application gets a cleaner, more “complete” look. Clever.

Unless the job ad says otherwise, submit a PDF file

We asked CV writers about their preferred file format for CVs. Purposefully, we made this question close-ended and two-answer. It had to be either PDF or DOC. No both, it depends, no difference answers were accepted. The results?

  • 65% opted for PDF.
  • 35% went with DOC.

PDFs are, generally speaking, a safer choice. Saving a text file in PDF ensures your layout stays intact across all kinds of software and devices. That said—

DOC files are a bit more ATS-proof. If the job ad explicitly asks for DOC CVs, you know the drill, play by the rules.

Pick one of the standard fonts

What’s the best font for a CV? Well, that obviously comes down to personal preference. When asked about their go-to CV font, HR pros mostly picked traditional, conservative typefaces. Here are the most popular choices:

  • Calibri: 44%
  • Times New Roman: 13%
  • Arial: 11%
  • Helvetica: 8%
  • Garamond: 6%

Let’s be real, your font choice won’t make or break your hiring chances so, at the end of the day, simply pick a font you like. Just stick to one of the open-access fonts available for every kind of word-processing software. Don’t go for designer or custom-made fonts—those might not parse properly on someone else’s computer.

Don’t get overly creative

Of course, you want your CV to “stand out” but don’t try too hard to make a visually distinct document.

Popular culture in recent years (Intern, I’m looking at you) made video CVs a thing, too. Much like using any other non-standard format, applying with a video CV is risky—80% of our respondents advised against it.

One final piece of advice that deserves a separate heading so that you notice

Finally, we asked our respondents about a single best piece of CV advice they’d share with a friend.

A vast majority of respondents said the same thing (and I also happen to believe it’s the most game-changing CV tip, ever!).

Every CV you send out has to be tailored specifically to the position you’re targeting.

Ensure that you customise your CV according to the position you are applying for.
Target every CV at the position you’re after and include strong metrics that prove relevant achievements from the past.
There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to CVs, you really need to tailor it to the job ad.

I could go on and on. You get the picture.

92% of CV writers said it’s a very bad idea to use an all-purpose CV for all job applications and 99% think failing to use the right keywords from the job ad is a serious mistake.

Methodology and Limitations

For this study, we surveyed 97 Certified Professional Résumé Writers (CPRW) who obtained their certifications from The Professional Association of Résumé Writers & Career Coaches™. 64 of the respondents were female, 33 were male. 4 respondents were 24 or younger, 36 were 25–38 years old, 49 were 39–58, and 8 were 59 or older. 

In the survey, we asked 5 close-ended questions, 3 open-ended questions, and 16 scale-based questions regarding the perception of various CV practises.

The data rely on online self-reports after eligibility screening. Each participant responded without any researcher administration or interference. Potential issues with self-reported data include but are not limited to exaggeration, selective memory, and attribution errors. Some questions and responses have been rephrased for clarity and ease of understanding for readers. In some cases, the percentages presented may not add up to 100 percent: this is either due to rounding or due to responses of “neither/other/don’t know” not being presented.

Sources

  • https://doi.org/10.1257/aer.104.3.1014
  • https://www.jobvite.com/lp/2019-jobvite-recruiting-benchmark-report/ 
  • https://doi.org/10.1080/13594320902903613 
  • https://www.careerbuilder.com/advice/new-study-shows-job-seekers-what-hiring-managers-really-want
  • https://www.gallup.com/workplace/238085/state-american-workplace-report-2017.aspx
  • https://resources.glassdoor.com/50-hr-recruiting-stats-2019.html
  • https://clutch.co/hr/recruiting/statistics-average-job-search-2018
  • https://resources.entelo.com/download-2018-entelo-recruiting-trends-report

Fair Use Statement 

Feel free to share our study! The graphics and content found here are available for noncommercial reuse. Just make sure to link back to this page to give the author proper credit.

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Michael Tomaszewski, CPRW
With vast expertise in interview strategies and career development, Michael is a job expert with a focus on writing perfect resumes, acing interviews, and improving employability skills. His mission is to help you tell the story behind your career and reinforce your professional brand by coaching you to create outstanding job application documents. More than one million readers read his career advice every month. For ResumeLab, Michael uses his connections to help you thrive in your career. From fellow career experts and insiders from all industries—LinkedIn strategists, communications consultants, scientists, entrepreneurs, digital nomads, or even FBI agents—to share their unique insights and help you make the most of your career.

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