This post was written by the previous writer and founder of That Publishing Blog, Carl Smith. Before leaving the blog, Carl raised money for The Book Trade Charity (BTBS) by running the London Marathon. If you find this content helpful in any way, please consider donating to BTBS. https://www.btbs.org/donate/support
SHOCKING STATEMENT ALERT: I hate CVs and covering letters.
You can spend hours working away on them only to hear nothing back once you’ve sent them off. It is genuinely heartbreaking. Of course, many companies do receive around 100-200 applications per role so they can’t personally respond to them all with detailed feedback, but they could at least load the names into a mail merge and send a simple email saying something like, “Sorry, you didn’t get picked.”
That’s just the start of my dislike, though. I think the main issue I have with CVs and covering letters is their subjectivity. Normally in life subjectivity is a good thing as it makes us, well, us. Unfortunately, when it comes to CVs and covering letters, subjectivity can make a wonderful application to one person an annoying one to someone else. So many sites and career advisors will say X and Y is how you write a perfect CV and covering letter, only to actually ignore the one thing you can’t account for: who is reading them and what they like.
The bottom line is there is no perfect CV or covering letter.
There you go, there’s my post on the subject. Thanks. Bye. I hate everything!
OK, that’s probably not helpful to anyone so I will explore what I’ve found and hope it can help others. As I said with the skills post, I’m not perfect and what I outline here is just what I’ve found helps me get those elusive interviews. (If someone can help me with the actual interviews themselves, please feel free to do so as I clearly need help on that front!)
As with that skills post, I’ll start where I think it is easiest to get things right: CVs. I don’t know if it is just a myth that CVs are only looked at by HR or the recruiter for six seconds, but if it is true – and it is best to assume that it is and work from there – then you really do need to make a good impression straight away.
How do I go about making a good impression?
In my eyes, formatting and positioning are key. Formatting is something I think a lot of people slightly overlook despite the fact that it can show your true level of attention to detail. I’m sure I sound like a broken record with the amount of time I spend making references to house style and consistency, but that is because they are vital in publishing. Publishing is all about having a style and sticking to it on a holistic level and then also throughout individual projects. How many books do you come across where the typesetting changes for a few headings, or the narrator’s diction and phrasings change mid-novel?
Formatting falls into this search for a consistent style and is something I make sure is perfect for every application I make. I make sure mine is consistent in my CV and is matched in my covering letter. If you apply for a job and you need to submit both a CV and covering letter – like with Penguin Random House – then make sure you have the same formatting across both documents. It sounds simple advice but I would be interested to know how many people don’t do this. My CV is set in Arial with a general font size of ten, twelve for headings, and with the main bodies of text justified. If I need to submit a covering letter in a Word document then it follows the exact same formatting rules as my CV: Arial, ten, justified. It is a small detail but shows a consistency of style and that killer eye for detail. Doing this can show that your own style matters to you and that, if given the chance, their chosen style will, too.
As for the ordering of your CV, there are two approaches and it is entirely personal (YAY subjectivity!) and should be based more on the depth of your work experience. These two approaches are the experience and competency based CV. Shortly after I was made redundant, and on the advice of a careers advisor, I made my CV entirely competency based and it backfired on me. I listed all of my skills at the top with examples of where I’d shown them – taking up the first page entirely – and only then listed the companies I’d worked with along with a single sentence explaining my role. For two months I rarely heard anything back from potential employers with this layout. (Actually, I did a few times with one company saying they thought my CV was confusing.)
In hindsight, I believe this was because I had some experience with good companies and the formatting was taking away from the fact I’d managed to work with them. If you’ve managed to get work placements with a number of companies then it is important to be able to show them off – rather than sticking them at the back like an afterthought as I did originally.
However, if you are lacking experience in the industry then I do think this more competency based approach is the way to go. List a skill then put examples of where you’ve shown it before you detail your qualifications or work experience. For example, if you have a good eye for detail then explain this as close to the start as possible after your own details and statement if you have one. This is the same with any IT skills you have and systems you’ve used that may be relevant to that department. If the six second test exists, then listing these skills first will hopefully help you pass it and pique the interest of the recruiter.
Also, if you think you can get away with having only a single page CV then I would say do it. Being able to cut out what is superfluous in your CV will show you know how to show only the important facts and keep things succinct. I do not put my home address on my CV and I simply say references are available upon request to save space. They’ll only just ask you for a reference if they offer you a role anyway and I don’t think it is important to say where you live as it may subconsciously sway them – it shouldn’t, but you never know so I don’t see the point in taking the chance. (That’s just my personal view and what works best for how my CV looks; maybe you like how the formatting of your CV looks with this information there – please do what you think works best for your circumstances.)
Blood, sweat, tears and covering letters
As for covering letters, those fine folks at Publishing Interns have covered this nicely here, as has a member of the HR team at Hachette here. With that in mind, I’m not going to just reiterate what they say, however what I will say is that research and the ability to write succinctly can take you far. Knowing the company you’re applying to and their products is important. For every covering letter I write I will always try to convey that I know their company and products in some way. I don’t think this needs to be overt in a “I know this author and love this book” way, just a subtle way will do and is the approach I take.
Now that isn’t exactly groundbreaking, so let me say something I sincerely doubt anyone has ever said to you before. Bear in mind that I actually feel a little silly saying what I’m about to say to a bunch of people I’m sure are more intelligent than I am myself, but here is what helps me structure my covering letters:
PEE on you page!
Finished giggling yet? Seriously, I really do mean PEE all over your covering letter. OK, of course I don’t mean literally drop your kegs and go to the toilet on it; what I mean by this is use an important writing technique that helps you order your thoughts and arguments succinctly. I was a teacher in an old life and this is what I taught my pupils to do. In essays students needed to show me they could successfully make an argument in an ordered way and this method is how I taught them to do that. I see covering letters exactly the same. You don’t want to make an overly complex argument as to why you are the best candidate as it may seem tedious to the reader. What I think you need to do – and what I do myself – is keep things simple so that the recruiter can easily find and understand the key skills you can bring to the role. In the context of a job application you would do the following:
- Point: Say that you meet a certain required skill
- Example: Say where you have shown that you meet this requirement
- Explain: Say why the example proves the point
Case in point: For this role you want to find someone with knowledge of various data and content management systems and this is something that I possess. While working with Company Z, I routinely updated the Marketing team’s product information for upcoming releases – such as BIC codes – on System A and also upcoming event information in System B. By undertaking tasks such as these I have proven that I am able to adapt and learn new systems easily while simultaneously helping to optimise data to help maximise sales and findability, as well as target relevant upcoming events for new releases.
I made my point, gave an example and then explained why the example fits the point – I actually covered a number of typical person specifications that companies always ask for in one short paragraph, too. Simple. You can use that template to make the argument more in keeping with your own style and personality, but the structure is there. (Incidentally, using this method you can now also go back and get an easy C at GCSE English. My usefulness never ends! Saying that, I actually got an E in my own GCSE English and never re-sat it! Soooooo… yeah, take advice from someone who basically flunked their GCSEs.)
Back to subjectivity
As I said at the start, subjectivity is why I hate covering letters and CVs as no one approach is going to be a hit with everyone. I do feel that the above is the best way to nullify that issue of subjectivity with your covering letter, though. You don’t want to just fall into the pack of other applications so find a simple method that allows you to write clearly and get your points across sharply – not in an overly long style like a university essay. Genuinely, I am not exaggerating when I say I feel silly telling you to try this, but there you go, that’s what you pay me the big bucks for.
Sometimes I do pla… wait a minute! You don’t pay me, do you? What am I doing? You lot owe me like, I don’t know, a grand each for all of this awesomeness. And I don’t accept cheques, just cold, hard cash. I’ll be knocking on your door tomorrow and no hiding behind the sofa pretending you’re not in. I know you’re there! OK then, while I pop over to your place to get my money, back to what I was saying…
I have sometimes played with that PEE structure when I seem to be in a funk, yet I always revert back when I see my other approaches don’t seem to work. I once went all brash with a few covering letters and was all, “I’m great and you should hire me because of that greatness and if you don’t do it now you’ll lose me to others blah blah blah”. Annoyingly, this is where the subjectivity raises its head again. One company went out of their way to tell me that my CV was really good and that they would have interviewed me were it not for that covering letter putting them off. Hearing that feedback prompted me to get in touch with another company I’d sent a very similar application to and explain that I honestly wasn’t an arse. This second company’s response was that they actually found my application funny and refreshing; in the end they didn’t interview me for that role, but they did for another shortly after and that HR advisor I spoke to is someone I’ve spoken to again since and has even provided me with advice.
Significantly, and what I found most interesting with this example, is that both of these companies published very similar content. Because the companies were so similar you’d maybe think they would likewise have similar attitudes to what they were looking for in CVs and covering letters. They clearly didn’t.
Why is that? Subjectivity!
So all in all:
- I try to minimise what could subjectively annoy someone who has to read over 100 similar covering letters and CVs by making everything easy to find and simply written
- Having a set ABC (or PEE) style for actually writing covering letters, which allows me to make them bespoke relatively effortlessly each time
- Having the same formatting style shows I can be consistent – also keeping this constant allows me to easily spot if something has gone amiss somewhere as I am so accustomed to what it looks like that if something is just slightly different it stands out like a sore thumb
These are my tips for CVs and covering letters. I hope you find this piece useful in some way and a huge thanks for the kind comments I have been sent. They mean a lot and if anyone does have questions, do send them and I will try to be as helpful as possible.
I have also written a little here about the more creative approach to covering letters I sometimes take, while next up in detail is something about interviews themselves. I am very open with the fact that I am clearly awful at interviews so any advice I give there should be taken maybe with a pinch of salt. However, I can give you an idea of the questions that typically come up to help prepare you for when you get that far.