lots of different pens

Between the lines: what do your CV and cover letter really say about you?

One of the things I really enjoy about recruiting is the opportunity to give feedback, especially when I’m turning applicants down: if the feedback can help them get the job the next job round, then I’ve done them a good turn and so the ‘no’ isn’t all negative. Try to see it this way next time someone give you a ‘nice no’. Always remember to say thank you: people remember it.

But before you send anything out, find someone who can cast an objective eye over your application materials. Now, I don’t mean that you should run every version of every cover letter or application past some poor benighted friend, teacher or favourite auntie. But every so often it is worth wafting one generic version past someone who’ll give it to you straight. And if you do get turned down and no one offers you feedback, why not be proactive and ask for it… provided the employer hasn’t indicated (as many are doing nowadays) that they’re not willing to oblige. And isn’t that an interesting sign that maybe that’s not a brilliant company to work for anyway?

 But before you show your cover letter or CV to anyone, make sure you’ve done the best job you can without help. Feedback on a decent attempt should turn it into a good one. Feedback on a rubbish one will probably only render it not completely dire. It’s a good point about feedback in general: go looking for it when you can’t get any further by yourself, otherwise you’ll end up with people telling you thing you already know instead of pointing out the subtle things you’d never in a million years spot on your own.

The trick with polishing your own CV or cover letter prior to that critical second opinion is knowing where the potential dangers lurk and what you may be all but shouting without realising it.

Sometimes the problem is blindingly obvious:

I am very hardworking and reliable individual, I enjoy learning new skills and gaining new experiences. Also within my project meeting new clients and working with different people is customary to my degree. I am also apart of the Student Union therefore I am a part of the team who run and plan different ways of fund raising for are world wide trips and events. I also do allot of leaflet work for events at the SU. Therefore I feel I am an outgoing individual with allot of charisma and very hardworking. I am really looking forward in having fun at the placement while also improving my CV with the experience.

Everyone makes mistakes, even in their cover letter and CV. But there are only so many mistakes you can get away with, especially when you’re applying for a copy-editing position. Generally speaking, if you’re applying for a job that has anything to do with writing, you need to make sure you make a minimum of spelling and grammar errors.

Sometimes, the problem is about how the person is tooting their own horn.


• Passed elementary drawing exam in 2000 with grade ‘B’.

• Officiated as a student editor for the college magazine for two years, 2006 & 2007.

• Participated in several inter-school competitions for drawing and group singing.

The second point is interesting, relevant and worth mentioning when applying for a job in publishing. The other achievements aren’t. Some of the achievements I’m most proud of will never, ever get mentioned in my CV because (a) they have nothing to do with any job I’ll ever apply for, and (b) they’re just not that impressive. Getting a B at elementary level a decade ago in an irrelevant skill is just going to make your prospective employer toss your application aside: if that’s one of your top three achievements outside your degree in the last 10 years, it doesn’t say much for the range or depth of your skills. Why not just expand on the second point rather than scrabbling for things to put down that are going to do more harm than good?

The other side of the coin is that if you say you’re good at something, especially if it’s a skill that can be demonstrated in your CV/cover letter, then you need to deliver.

I am currently a freelance sub editor for XZTC. The work involves proof reading reports, which detail the commercial and industrial activities of companies across the globe; and are subscribed to by various investors.

So, this editor doesn’t really understand semi-colons and clearly can’t spot a clunky sentence even when it’s the first one. Not very promising.

I make sure the information is presented in the most effective way, with accurate use of language and grammar, and that facts and figures are consistent. This has really increased my understanding of writing technique, and of how (in business, public service or the media) it must be well handled in order to clearly provide the reader with the information they require.

This is the most effective way of presenting the info?” I ask myself. “This is a display of ‘accurate use of language and grammar’?” Not only has this editor not got a clue about how to be concise, but he thinks the primary aim of fact-checking is cross-referencing within an article. Or perhaps he just doesn’t know the difference between accuracy and consistency. Clearly (pun intended), he also doesn’t understand that splitting infinitives should be left for times when not splitting the infinitive makes for an ugly sentence. Then there’s the little fact that he doesn’t understand pronouns (the reader = they ?).

It has got me properly used to deadlines, and is a real position of responsibility (I am key link in the publication process between the writing stage and final edit) which I take very seriously. In addition, of course, it is increasing my knowledge of economic and business matters, and is stimulating my general sense of interest.

“Lovely,” I sigh to myself. “An editor who doesn’t understand the concept of formal language.” I can forgive the missing definite article and the missing comma, but the phrase “general sense of interest” is a problem: not only is this editor horribly long-winded, he’s also vague.

As well as that, of course, it drew on (and, simultaneously, further developed) my writing skills. The next placement consisted of contacting a high frequency of venues and organisations to try and get them interested in hiring the equipment for entertainment events.

So with his “further developed” writing skills, the editor has decided that “frequency” is a suitable descriptor here and that he is going to try-and-get as opposed to ‘try to get’ new clients?

My conclusion: no wonder this editor is looking for a new job.

Conversely, some applicants tell you, right from the start, why no one has hired them in the first place (or at least not for a while).

Other less relevant work has been omitted from my CV in the interest of brevity, but the only significant gaps have been the result of concentrating on higher education and the last month or so, when I’ve been looking for work.

Thank you for pointing out the gaps in your CV in a completely defensive ‘it’s not my fault’ manner. Why not just hint at what was missed out in a way that demonstrates exactly why you’ve left it out at the same time as proving you weren’t sitting on your behind during the gaps? And as for the “month or so”, I wouldn’t have cared: recruiters are usually not vicious about short gaps. It’s year-long or multiple year gaps that get people worried. But now I’m curious: is the phrasing intended to throw me off about how long the applicant has been off work? I’ll definitely be looking at the length of the gaps now.

Between March and August I was employed as part of a customer support team. My contract expired on August 30th, and although I was offered a permanent position I declined for various reasons. Chief amongst them was that the 10-hour a week commute and the poor shift pattern (I worked from 10 PM to 8 AM, four nights a week) were starting to have an effect on my health and left me little time to pursue my ambitions outside of work.

Lots of people commute for 10 hours a week. Lots of people have to work long hours on unpleasant rotas. Fair enough if you don’t want to be one, but please don’t whine about it. Friends will hopefully bear a certain amount of whinging with patience (and let’s face it, we all need a good moan sometimes), but even really nice recruiters don’t want to listen to complaints. If you need to explain why you left your last job, keep it simple and shelve the baggage.

“I was looking for a job with a shorter commute,” you tell the recruiter.

The recruiter checks your address, shrugs and says, “Fair enough.”

But there’s another problem with the extract above. Never tell a prospective employer that if you have to work late one evening, you’ll take the next two days off sick. Implied whining doesn’t go down any better than overt whining. If you’ve got a disability or long-term health issue that affects your energy, that’s a completely different matter. But if you’re a basically healthy person, you need to be willing to go into work even if you’re a little tired after a few long days. If you’re not, at least have the sense not to warn people in advance!

And please, don’t advertise your personality flaws in your CV. Save it for the Christmas party when everyone is being a bit obnoxious so it might just go unnoticed.

A long-term goal of mine is to become a renowned fiction author. As such, I regularly submit short pieces to magazines to gain a reputation.

Just what I always wanted! An employee who needs constant validation and craves worship from those around him. It’s never a good idea to tell a prospective employer that you want to do a job because you think it’ll make you famous. Why? Because you’ve effectively just said that you’re not interested in the work and that if you don’t get promoted quickly or you don’t get the high prestige jobs, you won’t care about what you’re doing.

Employers like recruits who are going to care about their work because usually these people work harder and do a better job. Plus, they don’t whinge about having to do a bit of scut work at the beginning. Demonstrate that you want to do the work for its own sake.

I also enjoy video games to relax, and on the weekend a few quiet drinks with friends and my partner, at the local pub or at one of our houses.

A picture perfect finish: in your down-time, you like to get drunk. Maybe you do, but is that really what you want to tell your prospective employer?

Now, while it pains me to do it, it probably is worth mentioning a few last things that might seem absurdly obvious but clearly aren’t to the many, many applicants who demonstrate no writing skills whatsoever in job applications but do show a clear lack of common sense.

  • Treat emails to prospective employers like formal letters. Use proper grammar and spelling. Start new sentences with capitals. Capitalise the pronoun ‘I’ and any names… And generally avoid informal abbreviations and text-speak. The minute I get an application email that reads ‘i am writing 2 apply for work placement @ ur company’, I know that I am unlikely to spend more than 10 seconds glancing at the attached CV to confirm what I already suspect: the applicant is lazy and generally second-rate.
  • Don’t use smiley faces or emoticons. Adopt a formal tone without being pompous or grovelling. 
  • Be enthusiastic and always reply promptly to emails from any prospective employers.
  • Be courteous. If someone rejects your application, never whine or tell them they’re wrong. Maybe they are wrong and you’re the perfect choice for the role, but whinging will only confirm the opposite.
  • Don’t miss deadlines. If something is going to stop you getting a form or reference in on time, contact the employer and negotiate a new deadline: that’s often acceptable. Being late never is.

Do you have any tricks for getting a CV/cover letter just right?

Or any tips you wanted to give job applicants you’ve rejected?


  1. This is such an amazing post that I seriously want to print it out and show it to everyone I know who is looking for a job! Whenever I’m writing a cover letter I try to start out with a basic template – who I am, where I went to school, where I’ve worked. Then I gather information from the job announcement and write how I fit that description. I’ve always thought that hiring managers really don’t care what your personal interests are or that you were the spelling bee champion in 3rd grade – they want to know if you’ll fit in at the company and what you’ll do for them. Those are the key things I try to put in my cover letter… I’ll save the other things (interests, achievements, etc.) for my resume.

    1. Just curious but are there particular things in your cover letter/resume that interviewers tend to mention? I’ve always found it helps to mention one thing in a cover letter that isn’t directly relevant to the position but taught me some useful transferable skills that are relevant: for methe key with this approach is to pick something interesting that will set me apart and make the recruiter think ‘What an interesting person! I’d love to ask them about that…’ Just wondering if you’d had a similar experience? Also, I’m always looking for new ideas to post on so if there’s anything on the subject you’d be interested in, it would be great to hear about it!

  2. I think you’re absolutely correct in that you should mention something that may not be directly relevant to the position but has some transferable skills, especially if it’s something unique. For example: I had a really cool internship that, while not exactly similar to what I do now, had plenty of things that I can transfer to my current position. When I was just out of college and interviewing for jobs, that was always one of the first things interviewers brought up. It didn’t really help me get a job, but probably did set me apart from those who might have picked an easy route and interned at an obvious place. I’ve also seen cover letters as more of a “hey, I’m ___” where you can let your personality shine. Although I’ve never been the one to weed through cover letters, I imagine that it gets tedious reading the same “Hi, I’m so and so and I graduated such and such and now I’m applying for this job” letter cover letters can sometimes be. Just keep them fresh so when someone comes across your cover letter, it’ll be like they just started their never-ending stack to read! – Candice

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