First impressions are important, and when it comes to job-seeking then recruiters are unanimous – you have to get your CV absolutely right to even get your foot in the door.
“If you’ve got a candidate just sending a generic CV, with a generic cover letter, that is a real black mark in my books,” said Kate Clarke, who heads up Artemis Clarke, a Bristol-based recruitment agency for qualified mid to senior accountants.
CVs should be tailored specifically to the job you are applying for, she said, adding: “Make sure that each time you put in key words that are in that job spec.”
General advice dictates that CVs should be no more than two to three pages long, but more important is to display key information at the very start.
“I always say do a personal profile. Don’t just say qualified accountant with ten years of industry experience. Use adjectives to really bring out your personality, like ‘diligent, personable’ and then people will think I want to meet this person,” advised Clarke.
Nowadays clients are looking more for a “cultural fit”, and a candidate with interpersonal skills who “can actually communicate in simple terms to non-finance professionals,” she said.
“Make sure that first paragraph really stands out, and then the next section should be the key skills and that is the bit that is critical to tailor to the job spec, that ties in specifically to what they are looking for,” Clarke added.
“That makes so much difference. If you imagine with some jobs you get so many CVs and ones that will even vaguely match what you’re asking for make a huge difference.”
Experienced recruiters can easily spot unsolicited CVs with no clear focus so you should always avoid the “spray and pray” approach, said Ashley Whipman, director at Robert Half, a recruitment firm specialising in accountancy, finance, banking and IT.
“It’s really important that you do collaborate in the [recruitment] process and don’t just send out your CV every hour on the hour without follow-up and just hoping for the best,” he said.
Authenticity is also a very important trait when looking for a job.
“It’s very easy to have a pile of CVs or to have a load of applicants for a job but individuals need to be able to be very clear about what they do, what they’re looking for, but also to be themselves. A lot of people have forgotten that so it becomes a lot more transactional.”
Candidates should be open-minded about the different kinds of routes to finding the right job opportunity, particularly through social media channels, he said.
Nicky Acuna Ocana, managing director at professional services recruitment firm, Ambition UK, agrees that “the biggest thing is having a really clear CV.”
Bullet points can help keep it to the point and highlight your best qualities, she said. Including a section on achievements can also put you ahead of the pack.
“That often differentiates a candidate when a client is looking at very similar CVs. What have they actually achieved, whether it’s a reduction in cost-saving, or it could be simply looking at how to improve a system to make it more functional.”
Including achievements about “personal development” that are not necessarily work-related can also help to get you noticed.
“Again it’s just reflecting and adding another layer to you. So I know that when I’m looking at people’s replies to roles here, at Ambition, I always like to see what their personal interests are,” said Acuna Ocana.
While CVs can look very similar, including achievements about an expedition, or charitable work, can help recruiters when pitching candidates to their clients.
“We can bring this person to life and say we know this personality, we’ve met them, we think they’d be a good fit with your organisation or with your team,” said Acuna Ocana.
When you reach the interview stage, openness is a trait that can help you to succeed.
Acuna Ocana said her firm looks for “someone that very open about what they’ve achieved and someone that’s actually thought about what they’re going to be discussing, who has read the job description first, and who’s thought about their strengths and what makes them different.”
It’s no secret that one of the most frequently asked questions in an interview is ‘what are your strengths and weaknesses?’ and you must prepare for it.
“Most interviews now are more competency based interviews so people want to hear give me an example of a time when you have displayed one of your strengths. You’ve got to be able to quantify that more,” she said.
Putting thought into your career path and personal branding is also important for adding a level of uniqueness.
“Think about what you have got to offer. That should always be a question that you’re asking yourself, what have I got to offer to this company, and research the company because a lot of the time a company will say to a candidate what do you know about us?”
Giving a good answer about your weaknesses can be tricky, Acuna Ocana acknowledged. But the key thing to avoid is to give an “off-pat answer”, like the most popular stock response, “I’m not very good at delegation.”
Ambition looks for “someone who has good self-awareness”, she said.
A good example would be to say that you want to complete tasks but that you are aware that you need to complete them in a set timeframe to leave the office on time.
However, it’s important to offer a solution to your weakness. If you point out that you need to work on your time-keeping because you want to do the best job possible, then you should also say what you will do to resolve that, advised Acuna Ocana.
The good news is that finance and accountancy remains a “solid industry to get into” and that it is evolving into more ambitious roles.
“It is a career. It’s a job for a life. In the old days it would be seen as just a beancounter. It’s not seen like that anymore. It’s very commercial, a business partner role,” she said.
“Finance and accountancy roles are much more strategic now. If you look at the emerging CFO roles on boards now, the CFO is now one of the most important board members.”
Nicola Smith has spent a decade reporting for The Sunday Times on both the European Union and South Asia.