11/11/2013 10:51 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

You and Your CV, Part I: Ineffective CVs

"Here's a copy of my CV," a client I coach recently said with a nervous giggle. "It's not much." And she was right: it wasn't much. In fact, it was downright bad. The only interesting question is, if my client felt this way about her CV, why did she write it in this manner in the first place?

Curriculum Vitae (CV) literally means the course of your life. A resume, as a CV is commonly called in the USA, means summary. Regardless of how you call it -- although internationally CV is the preferred title -- a CV highlights your professional experience and achievements. If you submit it with the mindset, "It's not much," you've already lost the game. And if you write your CV with that attitude --"damn this is boring!" or "I don't know what to say!" -- your lack of passion concerning the course of your own professional life will be reflected in it. You will successfully sell yourself as "boring." Congratulations!

Ineffective CVs start in the mind and the soul. If you think you are not special or have nothing unique to offer an employee, who the hell will want to hire you? Keep in mind that companies, depending on their size, receive up to 800 job applications for a single position. And the competition is fierce: the best and the brightest from around the globe. Moreover, the typical manager or HR officer -- over-worked, under pressure, running several projects simultaneously -- has about 45 seconds or so to scan your CV. The dull, the mediocre, the badly structured are quickly filtered out. Think about it: you submit the course of your life, the honors won, the responsibilities held, the targets reached, and nobody has the time to read your life's story in detail -- unless your CV is different, interesting and highlights your special skills and talents.

Unfortunately, the vast amount of CVs fail in this. Characteristics of ineffective CVs include:

  •  One-size-fits-all: creating just one CV that you submit to all positions ranging from potato-peeler to NASA engineer. You should have from five to seven variations of your CV, so that you can precisely target the position and the company you want.
  •  Leaving out truly interesting facts about yourself that show how special you are. You worked in a soup kitchen for the homeless? Put it in. You wrestled crocodiles in Australia for a summer? List this.
  •  Over-kill: "Drove customer satisfaction and ramped up sales in global gastronomical environment", when in reality you were a part-time waiter in Fresno. Using executive-style language to enhance things that can't be enhanced makes you look silly and delusional.
  •  Lemonade stand: listing every single job you've ever had in your entire life since you were 10. Nobody cares. Not even your mother.
  •  Underselling your achievements. If you undersell yourself, how will anybody know what you are capable of? All they know is what you tell them. Tell them.
  • Not listing special awards, honors and qualifications. List them.
  • Lies. Does this need explanation? If you lie on a CV, it will be found out should you get the job and you'll be summarily fired for, well, lying. If you say you're fluent in Spanish, the first call from Argentina will go to you and you'll have to deliver or die. Conversely, don't be too honest, either. Don't list your reason for leaving a particular job as "Sacked for stealing company toilet paper from restrooms." Tell the truth, but there is no need to tell all of the truth.
  • Length: a one-pager is too short, a four-pager too long.
  • Unexplained gaps between jobs. Explain them, not with "Drug rehab" but "Studied Mandarin Chinese."
  • Not mentioning hobbies: Hobbies are your one chance on your CV to show a bit of flare and personality to help you stand out from the crowd. Mention them. If, however, your hobby is "Rating Internet porn sites," this is best kept to yourself.
  • Unnecessary facts: details about your age, marital status, parents and even a photograph of yourself are all unnecessary and indeed are often illegal due to discrimination laws. In a very few countries, though, such as Germany, CVs often do contain such information. But for modern, dynamic or higher-level positions this is not the norm.
  • Unprofessional appearance: paper copies of your CV with ink flecks, crooked formatting, faded print, misspellings, bad grammar or printed on cheap paper will mirror who you are: crooked, spotted, cheap, faded and kind of dumb for submitting such trash in the first place. Consequently, candidates suffering from the bubonic plague will be more attractive to HR officers than you.

Your CV is your life. A bad CV is like not washing your hair for a month: instantly noticeable and utterly revolting. Forming such an impression in the minds of managers and HR officials is, I'm sure you'll agree, not conducive to finding your dream-job.