Updated: Apr 11, 2020
How is a CV actually read?
My CV Guide recently conducted a survey asking recruitment, HR and business professionals exactly that. It is a simple and valuable question, but one that is not always fully considered.
The survey provided some interesting insight that would be of genuine value to both somebody writing a CV and those who regularly review them. It raised a number of discussion points that will be explored through a series of upcoming articles. Rather than the survey and articles providing statements of fact, they offer relevant observations and are intended to instigate healthy conversation and consideration for CV writers and readers alike.
This is the second article in the series, following on from the initial article; How is a CV actually read? Scrutinisers, Skimmers and Jumpers
CVs are read on Screens
Of the respondents to the My CV Guide survey, 73% stated that they would more commonly read CVs on a screen rather than printed off on paper. A further 18% answered that they would read a CV on paper or on a screen in equal measure, meaning that 92% of respondents would be reading at least half of the CVs that they see on a screen.
Given common recruitment practices such as sourcing CVs from job boards, databases and on-line applications, along with the prominence of digital distribution of CVs internally to hiring managers and interviewers, it is highly likely and almost certain that at some point on its journey, your CV will be read on a screen.
This may not be of any surprise to you. So why does it matter? Why would that be any different to reading it on paper and what does that mean you should be taking into account when writing or reading a CV yourself?
It is not an area of research that has been that fully explored with regards to CVs. Possible answers and definite insight however can be gained by considering the extensive research and findings of eye tracking surveys in the field of user experience (UX). What can the way in which we read text and process information on a website tell us about the way that CVs may be read on a screen?
What can be learnt from UX?
The Nielsen Norman Group (www.nngroup.com) are world leaders in research-based user experience. Their incredibly well documented and easily accessible research and publications offer a wealth of knowledge and insight on how users read web pages and their website is well worth visiting if you are interested in finding out more.
The following points offer some key takeaways and considerations from doing exactly that. For clarity, the research referenced has not been based on the task of reading a CV, so any suggested relevance or application is being made within this article, rather than being suggested or verified by the research itself.
1.) Produce User-Driven Narratives
From Writing Style for Print vs. Web by Jakob Nielsen, 8th June 2008
There is a difference between publications made in print where linear content is read in a more relaxed way, and websites where solution-hunting behaviour is more common. Where as in print, anecdotes and individual examples allow for a storytelling approach that can help entertain and engage the reader, this type of content on the web may slow down users and inhibit them from getting to the information that they want to. Website users are likely to be looking for something specific or have a particular mission in mind. To be most effective therefore, web page content must support the user by condensing and combining vast amounts of information into something that specifically meets their immediate needs. Web content must therefore be a user-driven narrative, where information is presented in a way that the reader can best use it.
And for a CV... the same can be said. The reader has a mission and specific purpose in mind. When writing a CV therefore, support them by condensing and combing the huge amount of information about all aspects of yourself into something that specifically meets their immediate needs. They want to identify whether you offer a solution to a requirement that they have, rather than take time following a storytelling narrative that either slows or prevents them from making that decision.
2.) Get to the point quickly
From Be Succinct! (Writing for the Web) by Jakob Nielsen, 14th March 1997
We read about 25% slower when reading from a screen rather than from paper and people describe the experience of reading online text as unpleasant. People therefore don't want to be reading a high volume of text on a computer screen. Screen readability will undoubtedly improve in the coming years as screens with high enough resolutions to offer a comparable reading experience to paper will become more affordable and common place. Until that happens though, users tend not to fully read streams of text on-line. They will instead, scan text, looking to pick out keywords, sentences, and paragraphs of interest whilst skipping over the text that they don’t care so much about.
And for a CV.. although a high percentage of CVs are read on a screen, that may well be down to convenience and conscientiousness rather than personal preference. A CV can be read anywhere and anytime in digital form and it saves on paper and print usage which has environmental and cost benefits that outweigh a preference to have a paper copy in front of you. The downside to this is that if reading on screen is indeed more cumbersome and draining for the reader, this makes them less likely to read the document fully. Instead they will scan the text for the key words and sentences that they are looking for. Ensure that your CV makes that information as easily accessible to them as possible so that they can find it quickly and before they give up and move on.
3.) Text needs to be scannable but still provide detailed answers
From Eyetracking Study of Web Readers by Jakob Nielsen, 13th May 2000
The most common behaviour for people reading content on the Web is to hunt for information of interest and be ruthless in ignoring other details. However once they have found what they are looking for, users will read through that content more deeply. Therefore Web content must be scannable, but must also provide the answers that users seek.
As for a CV... if you consider the journey of a CV from initially being found in a search or received as an application, through to it being thoroughly reviewed and used to inform questions in interview, it’s content needs to be both easily scannable and provide a depth of detail to answer questions a potential employer may have. Striking this balance by making the most relevant information easily identifiable and bolstered by extra detail in only the right places is key to producing a really strong CV.
4.) Content must survive a cost-benefit analysis
From Legibility, Readability, and Comprehension: Making Users Read Your Words by Jakob Nielsen, 15th November 2015
Great content is obviously crucial for communicating on the Internet, but it goes without saying that creating the best content is for nothing if users don’t actually read it. As is common with other areas of user experience, content has to survive a cost–benefit analysis by the user for them to look at it and read it. In other words how much hassle and effort do I need to go through on this website versus what will I gain from reading the information on it? To get people to read it therefore, you need to lower the cost for them by ensuring legibility, readability and comprehension.
As for a CV... it won’t face all the same challenges that a website will in this regard as it won’t need to balance visual or navigational aspects in the same way. It does however highlight the importance of clear formatting, fonts and readability of your CV to ensure that it is easy for a reviewer to start reading it. This will allow them to quickly realise the benefit of reading on and so commit the time to doing so and therefore get to all the information you have within it.
5.) Use Plain Language
From Plain Language Is for Everyone, Even Experts by Hoa Loranger, 8th October 2017
A common mistake is to believe that plain language dumbs down content. Believing that the use of long sentences and big words make you sound smarter actually has a detrimental effect on both readability and credibility. You should look to communicate information simply and clearly. Clear, straightforward writing allows information to be communicated succinctly and efficiently, is easily searchable, will improve SEO ranking and is welcomed by readers who will in fact perceive you as smarter as the more they understand of what you are saying, the more sense they feel you make. Plain language is even more important online than in person as Web users will miss key messages if they have not been communicated succinctly or formatted to support scanning.
As for a CV... it can be tempting with a CV to revert to technical terminology and more elaborate wording in an attempt to demonstrate knowledge and professional credibility, but do not lose sight of the purpose of a CV being to communicate information. The more complex the wording, the more translation is required to access the information. Avoid this by ensuring language that can be understood instantly by the reader and use short punchy sentences that will get them to the information quickly and easily.
Whilst research into the fundamentals of how a CV is actually read may be lacking, the extensive eye tracking studies and evidence based research in the field of UX highlights some really interesting discussion points and considerations for how text on a screen is read and how the information within it is processed. In the same way that this supports creating strong on-line content, by drawing comparators to the way in which a CV may be viewed and read, it perhaps nods to some meaningful and tangible pointers for how to best write CV content as well.
To read other articles by My CV Guide, visit our blog.