CV and interview: How to stand out from the crowd
Jobseekers can take steps to maximise their chances of getting hired
Interview advice: “Make eye contact, answer the question asked, know when to provide a short answer to a simple question and when to expand on something that interests the interviewer.” Photograph: iStock
The “real world” of work and career requires a lot of adjustment and it can be daunting to start off with. The CV is the key which unlocks the interview process and can lead to a job you’ll really enjoy, but it is important to make sure yours stands out in what may be a large pile.
So how can you get it right? We asked careers experts.
What makes a good CV?
Skills are highlighted: Orla Bannon, director of careers at Trinity College Dublin, urges students to engage with their college careers office. “Employers are looking for the transferable skills that are developed both through curricular learning and through extracurricular involvement in clubs and societies. It is important for students to reflect on what their skills are and to be able to articulate this to an employer at both CV and interview stage.”
The information jumps off the page: Making sure your CV matches what the employer is looking for means you will have to tweak it with every job application. “You want to understand what they are looking for and what their needs are, and then try to use your CV to show them that you are the answer,” says Ronan Kennedy, an independent careers coach based in Dublin.
Kennedy suggests applicants should “frontload” their CV. “All the most important information they need to know should be in your personal summary. So if someone is looking for someone with particular experience in, say, a particular area of marketing, then make sure that’s right up the top, so human resources can tick that box and move on.”
What are the big mistakes on a CV?
It’s a mess: Poor layout can destroy an otherwise finely crafted CV. “Remember that they will have lots of CVs and they don’t have time to go through them all,” says Kennedy.
Spelling and grammar mistakes give employers a reason to bin a CV, as it suggests a lack of attention to detail at the very point job applicants should be trying to make a strong impression.
Long paragraphs are boring, so get it down to bullet points.
It doesn’t give a sense of who the applicant is: Fergal Scully, a guidance counsellor at Rathmines College of Further Education, says a good CV will give the employer a quick summary of what skills you have developed, particularly during your time in college. College activities – such as students’ union officer, college paper editor, club captain or society auditor – are roles where you have developed real skills and insights, whether running an event, leading a team or developing a PR strategy. Put them under volunteer work, not hobbies.”
Marie McManamon, director of Clearcut Careers and Consulting, agrees. “It’s a mistake to leave out work experience, including holiday jobs during your time in college. Applicants sometimes delete certain jobs because they think they weren’t good enough, but they’re often deleting the fact that they worked in or led a team. Under each job, write down the skills it involved, including communications, budgeting, working independently or problem-solving. Make it easy for them to put you in the yes pile.”
Do cover letters matter?
Yes, says Scully. He suggests a cover letter could be broken into three sections. “Think of it as almost like a mini-essay. Introduce yourself, show that you have the skills and experience and then write a section on why you want the job. It’s very important that it is concise and that you show you are a good communicator – a cover letter of no more than a page shows this.”
McManamon says they are binned about half of the time, but that they are still important to write, with as little as two paragraphs, perhaps in bullet points, showing how you match the job requirements.
How can you prepare for an interview?
When it’s all boiled down, job interviews are a chance for employer and applicant to see if they like each other and there is good chemistry.
Interview questions will vary from employer to employer. It’s worth doing practice interviews if possible and many college careers officers offer this service. “Here at Trinity, we do practice interviews to prepare for interview questions and so they will be able to give real-life examples of where they got exposure,” says Bannon. “If, for instance, they were the head of a college society, we would help them to reflect on the skills they developed in that role.”
Too late to call to your college careers office? Scully advises job applicants to call on friends. “Get them together, have a look at the job description and what might come up in a job interview. Go through it a few times and you’ll find the process more natural.”
What sort of questions might come up?
It’s a groan-worthy cliché, but the old reliable: what is your greatest weakness, is always a possibility. “If it does arise, state what your weakness is but show you overcame it,” says Scully.
It’s all about being positive. If, for example, putting together presentations isn’t your strong point, show them how you learnt the tech skills you needed and how you powered through and succeeded. Employers may also ask candidates why they made the choices they did; this is an attempt to understand what motivates or drives you. So if, for instance, they want to know why you joined the rowing club, you could explain that it wasn’t just because you like to row, but because you enjoy the camaraderie of being on a competitive team and that staying healthy matters to you.
A few other pieces of interview advice from Bannon: “Make eye contact, answer the question asked, know when to provide a short answer to a simple question and when to expand on something that interests the interviewer, try not to fidget, ask for clarification on any questions you’re not too sure of and, finally, you will have a chance to ask questions at the end of the interview, so have one prepared.”
What are the possible curve balls?
The familiar cover letter/ CV/ interview process is becoming less familiar, and candidates can increasingly expect to undergo psychometric tests as well. “It’s okay to ask what to expect so you can be prepared,” says McManamon.
And if at first you don’t succeed . . .
Start the job hunt with the assumption that you may not get the first four or five you go to, but see them as good practice and a chance to learn from your mistakes, Scully advises. “Don’t be disheartened. It can take a while to find your rhythm, but you will.”
At a glance: Dos and don’ts
Use your CV to highlight your skills
Make it clear and concise
Show how you have the attributes the employer is looking for
Include a short cover letter
Practise interview techniques if you can
Show the skills you have gained from experience and demonstrate why the company needs to hire you
Forget the cover letter
Panic in the interview. Take a moment to consider your answers
Be true and authentic instead of trying desperately to impress
Be disheartened if you don’t get the job. See the interview as good practice