Which are the most important sections of a CV?

Updated: Apr 7, 2020

As highlighted in previous My CV Guide articles, the way in which a CV is read gives valuable insight into how the information within it will be processed by a reader.

Whether this be due to their preferred style of reading (How is a CV actually read? Scrutinisers, Skimmers and Jumpers), the effect of reading on screens (CVs are read on screens. What can a CV writer learn from research-based UX?) or the way in which the eye moves when reading (How to write a good CV; the importance of readability) it is key to understand that not all words, sentences or sections of a CV will be read with exactly the same level of attention and focus by every reader.

This is important to understand if you want to write a really good CV and raises the question of whether certain sections of a CV are more important than others. This is not an easy question to answer definitively given the huge variety of factors including individual differences between readers, professions, industries, roles and candidates themselves.

But there are certainly common trends that by exploring further, you can identify the value that different sections of your CV offer and therefore how best to write each of them. This will be covered in detail by subsequent My CV Guide articles focusing in depth on each section of a CV in turn.

To start with though, which sections of a CV do people feel are the most important and which do reviewers prioritise when deciding whether to select for interview or not?

My CV Guide recently conducted a survey asking recruitment, HR and business professionals about how they actually read a CV. One of the questions was:

“If you had to decide on whether to select a CV or not but were only allowed to read THREE sections of it to base your decision on, which THREE would you chose to read?”

Similarly, a LinkedIn post to an open audience posed the same question from the candidate perspective.

“A potential employer is looking at your CV and considering you for your dream job (whatever that may be). But they can only read THREE sections of your CV to decide whether they interview you or not. Which THREE sections of your CV would you want them to read?”

Rather than the survey and responses to the LinkedIn post providing statistically validated research results, they offered a number of interesting insights and discussion points worth consideration. So what were the most popular selections for the top three?

A Clear Top Four

The top two most popular answers were the same for respondents of both questions.

Key Achievements (Details of selected achievements from throughout their career to-date)

were chosen to be in the top three by 73% of respondents to the reviewer question and 76% of respondents to the candidate question.

Key Skills (Core skills and areas of particular expertise they have) were virtually as popular with 73% of reviewers and 74% of candidates selecting them in their top three.

With three quarters of respondents from both the sender and recipient perspective identifying these two categories as being one of their choices, they represented a clear top two. This is undoubtedly key information to be getting across in a CV. Why this is so important and how it can be done within designated sections or elsewhere within a CV are clearly valuable considerations to explore further.

It was a split decision for the next two most popular sections.

Personal Profile (An opening paragraph providing an overview of you as a candidate) was a very clear third place from the candidate perspective with 68% choosing it in their top three. It actually came in fourth for reviewers, but was still selected by 1 in 2 respondents.

Employment History (Details of companies worked for, positions held and key deliverables) was third within the recipient list at 68%, but only joint fourth and perhaps more notably selected by just 30% of respondents from the candidate perspective.

These two categories complete a top four far out ahead of the rest of the sections. The difference in result between senders and receivers for Employment History is an interesting one and raises questions of whether this is a reflection of difference in perceived value or other factors such as candidates lacking confidence in the value of their previous employment or simply not believing their ability or suitability for a role should be judged on it. The popularity of this section amongst reviewers perhaps indicates that the context of previous experience is deemed to carry significant relevance and value. If this is a consideration being missed by candidates, it could represent a key area for improving a CV.

Other Notable Observations

Contact Details ranked joint fourth with candidates (30%), far higher than with reviewers (down at 9%). This would seemingly be predominantly based on contact details being essential for on-going communication and practicalities of being able to be called to interview and progressed in a process. The functionality of this section makes clarity and succinctness key to doing it well.

Additional Information saw a modest number on each side and was generally cited as an opportunity to represent personality and demonstrate cultural or team fit. These are important aspects to bring a CV to life and how this can be done effectively either in a designated section or throughout the CV is another great area to explore.

Education and Qualifications was perhaps the biggest surprise in how low it was ranked from both sides. Only around 1 in 5 of reviewers put it in their top three and just 3% from a candidate perspective did so. With so many job adverts identifying both essential and desirable levels of education or qualifications, this raises a number of questions. Are they actually required or not? Is it assumed that a CV review wouldn’t need to consider them as that will have already been filtered through an application process and initial CV sift? Do candidates not feel that their educational backgrounds and qualifications carry any weight when it comes to what they offer to a role? These are multi-faceted questions that warrant further consideration from both sides of the recruitment process.

Of final note, there was no measurable take up of an option to highlight other sections or information not already mentioned. If you have covered the information listed above effectively therefore, you can feel confident that you have covered the essential requirements of a good CV.

What are your thoughts on the outcomes? Would you agree with them?

The above observations are certainly interesting. The real value comes from exploring them further though, to really consider why those choices have been made and ultimately identify how best to communicate the information considered most important within a CV, whether that be in designated sections or threaded throughout the document.

Upcoming My CV Guide articles will offer exactly that insight and identify the true value of each section of a CV and therefore advise on how best to approach and write each one in turn, whatever your profession or background may be.

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