Once upon a time, CVs were the new thing and jobs were plentiful. Candidates listed their skills and experience, folded their CV up and put it in an envelope. A few days later that CV arrived on a desk in HR (or personnel as it was called back then) and the interview process began.

But times have changed.

In the beginning…

The world of employment has changed considerably since the 1980s, when CVs first became popular. Back then, just having a CV was impressive, but now people are planning their CVs from secondary school when they start taking on extra-curricular activities.

The job market is competitive, with some roles getting hundreds of applicants.

Call me Ishmael

In order to make it to interview, your CV has just seconds to impress. Passing that test means grabbing the attention of the person doing the first pass. So, make it easy for them! Have your name and contact details prominently placed. Include your key skills, and a headline or summary that explains who you are and what you have to offer.

But how do you keep the reader's attention when you move on to the next stage? You tell them a story.

The sun shone, having no alternative, on nothing new

Professional writers have a lot of training in how to keep people interested in what they have to say. They understand that when people read, they are looking for something to engage their attention. They'll glide over the familiar and particularly clichés. If you want someone's attention, you have to give them something they haven't seen before.

Just as with fiction, or writing blog posts, there are phrases which get over-used when it comes to creating a CV. Look out for things like:

  • Hard-working
  • Good communication skills
  • Team player
  • Results driven
  • Extensive experience in…
  • Highly motivated

Using these phrases won't make you unique. You won't stand out. The reader's gaze will just slip over them, but they won't enter the brain. You really want to make it all the way into the reader's attention.

How do you do that? That brings us to perhaps the most often quoted piece of writing advice: Show, don't tell.

The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel

If you write something like: 'The sky was blue. The sun was warm. Neil and I had a picnic. We were in love.' It's not very engaging. If you rephrase it as: 'Neil and I locked eyes as we both reached for the same sandwich. Bathed in heat from a cloudless sky, our fingers twined.'

It's much more compelling. Why? Because you're not telling the reader something. You're giving them the building blocks that they can use to build their own mental picture.

You can do this with your CV, too. Let's go back and look at that list of clichés again.

In order to find these examples, you will need to look back over your work and academic career. Don't limit yourself to that, though. Team spirit can be shown through participation in sport. Communication or organisation through voluntary work. Even your hobbies and interests can be used to get your message across.

The past is a foreign country

To write a compelling CV, you need to distance yourself from your own life. Think about the role that you are applying for – what are the key skills that you need to excel at it? Then look objectively at your own experience and find examples that show you doing those things. Include them in bullet points. Weave a narrative through your CV that shows you are the right person for the job.

You're not only communicating your skills and experience, you're building a picture in the reader's head. You're breathing life into your CV. You'll become more than just another applicant. That let's your future employer imagine you in the role. And once you have the role in their minds? You're a good way towards getting it in real life.

Sarah Dixon writes for Inspiring Interns, which specialises in sourcing candidates for internships and graduate jobs, including digital jobs

 Image credit: Amanda Dalbjörn