Think before you print this article. If you want to save it for later - bookmark it!
As you might have heard somewhere before - about 82% of applicants are rejected at the CV-screening phase of selection process. That's absolutely true and might be a bit depressing… but don’t worry because you are just about to learn how to get into the remaining 18 percent. Believe me, you would never have any doubts about this matter, had you jumped into recruiter’s skin just for one afternoon.
I used to review up to 300 applications per day and my main job was to decide which candidates were to be interviewed, and which were not. I worked in an executive search company, but at the time we were mainly recruiting junior and mid-level management. For some very specific positions we did have to do some real searching and "headhunter calls", but very often we simply advertised in the press and job portals – and waited for the candidates to flood our mailboxes.
Now imagine my work. It’s 10 AM. I’ve just finished drinking my second coffee while studying the job-description provided by our Client. It says what kind of person we are looking for; his/her job experience, education background plus a few bullets on personality (which usually turn out to be the most important). It also says what is the salary for this post and what the person will actually be doing there. Basing on this one-page brief, it takes me a while to imagine the ideal candidate and feel what he or she is like. Then I am ready to set my "internal filters" and get to work.
And that is when I feel really scared for a moment – because the project folder in my Outlook is filled up with 451 applications, which were continuously dropping there for the last 10 days. And I have maximum 2 days to get through all this stuff, select the most interesting candidates, interview some of them over the phone and then invite not more than 6 people to meet my superior consultant. The relief comes when I realize that in a purely statistical way - there should be about 4 or 5 ideal candidates in the 451-pieces-sample. So I just need to dig and discover them.
I create 3 subfolders called A, B and T. The "As" are most likely to get interviewed; "Bs" are the "not-exactly-matching-but-interesting" or "might-be-useful" and these people act as backup if there are too little candidates in the A group or in case the "As" turn out to be too expensive. The T folder stands for Trash.
So I set my subfolders and turn into a robot. Click, view, click, open, scroll, think, nooo, close, delete. Sometimes I laugh, sometimes I feel compassionate but most frequently I get angry at the candidate for sending such a hopeless CV . Or not attaching a cover letter when it was clearly required! But there is no time for emotions, I have to run.
Please keep in mind that now it is only the CV-screening phase. I don’t think that much about finding GOOD candidates, because first I have to shoot the BAD GUYS and move them into T-Folder. The Pareto rule works here amazingly precise. In this exact case, out of 451 candidates 352 went to trash (that was almost 80%) – so there were 99 people left. From this group - 23 candidates fell into "A" folder, and the rest (76 people) to "B" folder, which is again very close to 20:80 proportion.
You can’t effectively do the CV-screening for more than 3-4 hours per day unless you have a handy freezer to put your brain in. Easy to count – if I have to review 451 applications in 7 hours – it gives me 56 seconds per person on average. And that includes clicking, WAITING for a document to open, running through the CV, trying to match the requirements and finally moving the message to A, B or T. That’s pretty exhausting!
By now it must be quite obvious that I don’t read the cover letters at this stage. I only click through the CVs and try to do the pre-selection as fast as possible. The 56 seconds per CV is an average, which means that on most of CVs I only spend about 30 seconds, but some candidates take me even 4 to 5 minutes.
And that is where the discrimination starts! Because the more time I spend on your CV, the more I start liking you! It’s just the basic psychology. If I spend more time, then my intellect concludes that there is something in your CV that makes it better than others. So after 3 minutes of my staring at your CV – you will certainly not go to trash. And that’s a success!
Even if you are not good for this position, I will send you to B folder and that means I will re-read your CV and COVER LETTER at a later time – with more attention. And if I read your whole application again and find it nice – I might put you to some other project or forward you to my co-workers. Have you had an experience of being invited to an interview for a different position that you originally applied? That happens pretty often.
Answering this question took me some time, as it needed some observation and introspection. But finally I came to a conclusion: you just need to let me take some rest on your CV!
You see, after clicking through several dozens of all-the-same black and white applications, authors of which surely lacked a sense of aesthetics, I feel really overwhelmed, my senses are deprived and another Times New Roman causes nausea! Then a fresh, neatly formatted CV is like a cold breeze into my hectic face . Just compare these two examples:
Which of these seems more encouraging? Which author has put more effort into his application? Which Amy Brown is more intelligent? Which of two is more self-confident and would be a better interlocutor?
And one more guess: what do 95% of all CVs look like? They look just like the right-hand example. They are all darned the same!! AAArgh, let me out of here! It’s sooo boring!!!
So the left-hand Amy Brown would get my respect and attention for just being different. But that’s not the point. Remember "halo effect"? Well, that is exactly the way it works in recruitment industry!
Halo effect is a basic perception bias. In short, it says that we perceive people (or products) as "generally good" or "generally bad" basing on inadequate assumptions and fragmentary data.
HALO 1. So if you see a beautiful person, wearing good clothes accompanied by a nice fragrance and a smile – you subconsciously assume, that this person is at least worth meeting. Basing on this first impression, you will actually expect that he or she is intelligent, friendly, wealthy and trustworthy. You will more eagerly talk to this person, and you would catch yourself smiling during such conversation (even if you are not in mood). Have you had that?
HALO 2. This works not only in eye-to-eye contact. Let’s say you listen to the radio or a motivational audio-book. You have never seen the speaker, but he is an expert and he is just covering a very, very interesting topic. You are simply swallowing what he says, this is just the information you were searching for. You are at the top of your attention, repeating "Yes! This guy is absolutely right!" And now stop and try to imagine this person.
You will probably think of him as a handsome guy, wearing a suit or a good shirt and a nice haircut. And this can be true – but what are your premises for this guess? You have none. He can be bald and filthy. You idealize the physical image of this person just because he speaks wise. If you ever happen to meet the speaker, you will be probably disappointed by his real appearance.
It has happened to me several times. I had to get accustomed to someone who I only knew through speeches or books. This getting-used-to usually took only couple of minutes, because I had already known that this person is of high value.
Coming to a conclusion – and that is an important one - once you have categorized a person as "generally good" or "generally bad" your will unconsciously seek confirmation for your assessment.
But what has all this to do with your CV?
Why am I giving these weird examples? Let me ‘splain.
A good, positively-outstanding CV builds your future success in two ways:
HALO 1 – you get noticed and you win your 4 minutes plus a privilege for your cover letter to be read. In effect you get remembered and you build some positive expectations. That is a lot, but nothing more can happen at the recruiter’s level. But then...
HALO 2 – the consultant gets your CV and he also builds positive expectations about you! (even if he doesn’t admit ‘coz that’s not professional). Just by preparing himself to the interview he will have to categorize the candidates. He does not have any other info about you, so he will build expectations basing on your Curriculum Vitae and covering letter!
It is essential that your CV and cover letter SHINE THROUGH the applications of other people. Then, during an interview – you can count on this positive image in consultant’s head. That of course won’t win the interview for you, but that is such a helpful starting position! Even if you don’t physically make a very good impression you don’t have to worry – because you have already won his favor and now he is going to seek confirmation for your positive values.
Nice theory, huh? But that is actually working stuff based on my observation – not of the consultants, because I can’t read their thoughts – but of myself. After quitting the recruitment industry I have been running the family business (shoes factory) for a while. That of course included recruiting people, making selection and running interviews. Sure, there were candidates with great documents who would screw up totally during the interview, but that is another story.
You know, interviewing people is a very nice and easy job. I still cannot understand why the executive search consultants earned up to 8 times more than me – while I was doing most of the dirty work for them.
So how do you make your CV shine through other applications? Here are some tips and tricks which you can use to boost your layout.
Remember – you want to be different in a positive way. That means, that the final effect shall look professional and eye catching. Just like a press advert of a new car (women: please imagine Toyota Yaris). The new model is always shown at the best possible angle and it is drawing attention from the first sight.
Here is a nice method of checking whether your Curriculum Vitae is good enough. When the CV looks like finished, close your computer and take a break. Sit on a couch for a couple of minutes and grab your favorite magazine. Look through it, read some articles, view the advertisements. Then open your CV again.
Record your first impression. Does your CV draw attention? Does the layout look professional? Isn’t it too grey or too shouting? Are the proportions good? Is the text readable or cluttered? Do you have everything in line, or maybe some elements look like they don’t match?
Use your gut feeling – and make small improvements until you are absolutely sure, that your CV is professional enough to be printed as a whole page advertisement in the magazine you have just viewed.
Now let’s put is straight: the nice design is useless if you do not fill it up with adequate content. Design and content must go hand in hand! If you make silly mistakes or you don’t have anything to offer – you will be put to trash in the first stage.
Nothing will help you if you don’t meet basic requirements for the position.
But when you DO fit for the post and your cover letter is sparkling and your Curriculum Vitae is shining – then you’ve achieved the real synergy. That is when your CV and cover letter are printed and handled with respect. Then the consultant will say to me: "good job Mirek, this one looks like what we’re looking for".
Yes, the content is king. But often people make the mistake of assuming that content will defend itself. If I am good I will get noticed anyway – that’s what many high level people seem to think. And they are partially right – I will not delete a perfect-matching candidate even if his CV looks shabby.
But why be just very good, when you can actually trigger positive emotions? Think of your CV and cover letter as your personal advert. Build desire and sell yourself! Just think – would you pay 10% extra for a pack of spaghetti because it’s in a more attractive box? Decision making is rarely rational – it is emotional. Use this knowledge!