The key qualities to look for in a candidate’s CV

Here are some pointers for small businesses on identifying the best candidates through their CVs.

When recruiting, employers may have to go through dozens of CVs every week. As a result, many will be simply scanned over, meaning that unless a CV stands out, it is likely to be destined for the dustbin.

You need to be considering candidates that have spent the time to make their CVs engaging, relevant and professional. Here are the key qualities employers should look for in a CV.

Getting the style and tone right

A CV needs to be written in a style that is concise and professional while also being unique enough to stand out, which can be a tricky combination to pull off.

Employers need to look for candidates that are ruthless, who cut out any waffle and make sure each word counts.

Look for a sensible font and spacing too; both the writing style and layout should be geared towards making it as easy as possible to go through the CV.

Creating a unique CV is important, but candidates should not try to be gimmicky. In general, a serious tone shows they are serious about the job in question, especially with this document.

Checking the spelling and grammar

A CV can be beautifully composed but that will count for very little if it also full of spelling, grammar and punctuation mistakes. Employers expect to see that applicants have a grasp of these communication basics and have taken enough time to go over the CV to avoid embarrassing typos. Failing this test means the CV is certain to end up on the pile going into the bin.

Relevant content

A lot of people believe that listing every single skill, qualification and work experience they have had is the best strategy, but watch out for a long list; it’s offputting. Are all those badges people did ten or more years ago at school really that impressive any more?

A far better approach for candidates to use, and for recruiters to look out for, is to focus on those things that are actually relevant to the role being applied for – and detailing specifically how they will help in performing that role.

Look out for candidates who have shown signs of tailoring a CV to a specific role; this proves they are specifically interested in the job you’re advertising.

Personal touch

Most CVs have a space for other interests and this is a candidate’s chance to add a personal touch. Standard CV clichés like ‘happy working as part of a team’ and ‘highly motivated’ should be viewed with suspicion.

Look out for things like ‘spending time with family and friends’ or ‘watching films’. These are fairly bland and don’t show candidates in the best light. What do they ‘spend time’ doing? What type of films? The answers in themselves aren’t that important but do help someone create an impression of the candidate.

A hobby or interest that is productive is good but look out for applicants who try to make out they only do things that are relevant to your business. In this case, you should assume the applicant is being economical with the truth.

A CV doesn’t have to be bland and generic, but it is a serious, professional functional document. It should state a clear and concise case that the candidate has skills, qualifications and knowledge that would be a valuable asset.

A shortlisting exercise for CVs

Gavin Howarth, managing director at professional services firm Howarths, recently recruited for a HR adviser position and received a large amount of CVs as a result of the job ad.

He carried out a robust shortlisting exercise using a set scoring criteria of what the company was looking for. This was done independently by himself and the finance director, and the scores were collated and averaged. They then interviewed the top five candidates based on them receiving the highest scores.

“This document should be concise, professional and accurate”

‘Sifting through this many CVs, you see many different styles and approaches,’ Howarth says. ‘One in particular sticks out in my mind for all the wrong reasons. The name of the candidate was presented in an arch shape across the top third of the first page, and it was in big, bubble-type lettering.

‘We are a professional services firm providing advice to other businesses on HR, employment law and health and safety. Before I had read any further down the CV, a question was already raised in my mind about whether the candidate displayed the right degree of professionalism for our industry based on how they had displayed their name.’

In such an industry, attention to detail and professionalism is crucial, Howarth adds. ‘Perhaps this applicant was attempting to display personality; my view is that the CV is not the place to do this. This document should be concise, professional and accurate. The interview is the place to let your personality, enthusiasm and desire shine through.’

Three hooks for the best CVs

Chris Ogle of is always on the lookout for great candidates. ‘However, the vast majority of applications seem to fall down on some real fundamentals for having a great CV,’ he says.

Ogle feels there are three massive hooks that will attract interest:

Hearing about the candidate’s achievements, rather than their tasks. ‘It is way more powerful to say ‘Grew a Twitter following from 100 to 5,000 in 12 months by doing x, y and z’ than it is to say ‘managed Twitter for x company, updated posts, responded to comments’, etc.’

Candidates who keep it relevant. ‘If someone has three jobs in the last five years, and two of which are completely irrelevant to the role they’re applying for, then look for weighting in a CV.

‘Just because someone spent six months at a burger chain five years ago, doesn’t mean they have to go into full detail about how they had to ensure the surfaces were clean, and they had to show good customer service. Recruiters take that as a given.’

Real detail on the relevant experience. ‘This is desirable even if it means one job taking a full page, and another only going into a couple of lines.’

Ben Lobel

Ben Lobel

Ben Lobel was the editor of from 2010 to 2018. He specialises in writing for start-up and scale-up companies in the areas of finance, marketing and HR.

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