The dos and don’ts of writing a CV

 “People send out generic CVs that are way too long and they just go in the bin,” says William Nell, Managing Partner at global executive search firm Signium. How long exactly? “15 pages sometimes.”

Crikey! With the recent resurfacing of Elon Musk’s one page CV, I’ve turned to Nell to ask if we should all be stripped back.

“One page is very short. You can’t get much on one page, unless the font size is really small – then it’s going to be difficult to read,” says Nell, who finds: “Two to three pages is probably right.”

Of course, Elon Musk isn’t actually applying for jobs (the spoof CV was a stunt) but what tips and tricks can we glean from the bonafide CVs of billionaires? Let’s take a look…

Subliminal messaging

As a student at Stanford, Google co-founder Sergey Brin coded a hidden message into his online CV saying he’d like: “Frequent expense-account trips to exotic lands”.

What does our head hunter make of this attempt to subconsciously sway employers? “I think that’s brilliant!” says Nell, whose friend at Disney used to receive CVs with a teabag in the envelope. “This was when they’d come by post, and it would be: “Please have a look at my CV over a cup of tea”. There’d be a really good covering letter about why they wanted to work for Disney, then there’d be the cup of tea and the tea bag, and it stood out. It worked. It would be, “you know what, let’s get them in!”

What’s today’s equivalent of posting a teabag? “That’s tricky, isn’t it? The person who works it out will probably get a job!”

The devil’s in the detail

Steve Jobs (Photo: Getty)

Bernie Sanders’ CV, from his time as a mayor, is peppered with rogue capital letters, while a 1973 application form filled in by Steve Jobs is similarly slapdash, giving his surname as “jobs” and his major as “English lit”. Do these details matter? “Yes, massively,” says Nell. “I know a partner at a top US law firm, and if he receives a CV with typos, he throws it in the bin. He says: “If they can’t get it right on a CV, how can I trust them with client work?”

Nell recommends re-reading the CV with fresh eyes before sending it. “When you’re finished and you’re happy with it, let it sit there for a day or two, then revisit it, because you’ll look at it a different way. Get at least one person to look at it – probably a couple. Other people will see things you don’t.”

Human interest


A Bill Gates CV from 1974 announces he’s 5ft 10, 130lb and unmarried, while Bernie Sanders’ mayoral CV proclaims he’s: “Divorced, One Son” and in “Excellent Health”. We don’t include this sort of information now, but should we?

“I think nowadays, with what’s going on in the world, there’s an element of the human side being more important, so get across who you are under the skin, what you enjoy doing, and what motivates you,” says Nell. “Interests are always good. If the person reading your CV shares your interests, that can be helpful. It can also tell you a bit about someone – if they’re into skiing and fly fishing, you know what you’re dealing with!” declares Nell, who waxes less lyrically about candidates favouring the cinema, stock car racing or drinking wine (“not a great one to put on a CV”).

Sweet little lies

Former UKIP leaders Henry Bolton and Paul Nuttall claimed, between them, to have a “BA in military studies” from Sandhurst (not actually a thing) a “BA in leadership and management” that turned out to be an NVQ, a PhD (nope) and a stint playing professional football (another own goal). Gordon Ramsey has also had his footballing fibs found out, while Jeffrey Archer allegedly fabricated three A-levels (the tip of the iceberg perhaps, as he was later convicted of perjury).

Does Nell think it’s alright to stretch the truth on a CV? “I don’t – and I’m an ex-lawyer!” exclaims Nell, who recalls a partner in a law firm being fired for faking an Oxbridge degree. “You’ve got to present yourself in the best way, but making up blatant lies is a step too far. You’re asking for trouble, and I don’t think it’s a good trait. If I was an employer, I’d be looking at that person quite closely, thinking, if they’re lying on their CV where else are they lying? What does that say about the person?”

And if someone is caught out lying? “Put your best foot forward. Say: “Look, it was a dreadful error of judgement.”

Positive presentation

The application form with Steve Jobs’ answers scribbled out in biro fetched $174,000 at auction. However, most of us can bank on slipshod CVs being binned. So what should we remember?

“These days, first-person doesn’t sound great on a CV. So rather than, “I managed a team of ten lawyers and we won law firm of the year,” take the pronoun out and put: “Managed a team of ten which won law firm of the year.” It’s less wordy. Be succinct,” says Nell, who favours a size 11 Calibri font. “It doesn’t take up too much room. The layout’s important – you don’t want the page to be cramped. Headings, bold, italics, bullet points – it doesn’t matter how you do that, as long as it’s presented well.”

The CV should be tailored to the job. “Look at what they’re looking for and include a paragraph at the top of your CV saying why you’d be right for the role. Just three or four lines highlighting where the synergy is with your background and skills and what you want to do going forwards in your career,” advises Nell, adding: “Don’t highlight weaknesses!”

Any last words of wisdom? “Everyone wants dynamic, positive people. They don’t want Eeyores who say, “it’s all been awful” so show you’ve got positive energy!”

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