TRIED & TESTED / As others sell you: In a tough job market, would a professional CV be better than one you compiled yourself? Our volunteer tries eight

CV WRITING services are a vestige of the professional letter-writers who once made a living out of the illiterate, composing love letters or messages to distant relatives. When it comes to that all-important document, one's own life story, there are still people so lacking in confidence that they will pay an 'expert' to do a better job. Anyone with a telephone and a word processor can set up a CV writing service, which raises the question: can a self-styled consultant really produce a more effective resume than you can yourself?

We set out to test anonymously eight CV writing services that advertise in the recruitment pages of national newspapers. The challenge set for the companies was to produce a CV for Lois Hants, a single parent aged 45 who is unemployed. Lois's career path has been far from conventional, including 10 years as an actress in the 1970s, taking a degree at the London School of Economics as a mature student, a break from work to bring up twins (now aged seven), and experience in research and conference administration. We asked two experts to assess the CVs produced by the companies, plus the one Lois had done herself. We were particularly interested to see what the companies made of Lois's unusual career.

THE EXPERTS Alan Jones, outplacement consultant/ writer and author of How to Write a Winning CV (Century Business); Mina Gouram, executive search consultant.

THE TEST The panel gave the CVs marks for layout and visual presentation, the effectiveness of the writing, how positively they presented the applicant, how relevant the information was and how well-targeted the CV was to the applicant's career aims.

*ABBA CV SERVICE - pounds 20 for 11 copies This low-priced CV broke the mould by using cream paper rather than the standard white - a slightly daring ploy to catch the employer's eye.

Personal details, including age, were left until last. Lois Hants said: 'The man I spoke to on the telephone was friendly and courteous, and gave the impression he really wanted to help. However, he spoilt it a bit by saying I sounded so nice that he wanted to meet me. I did not feel this was necessarily the most professional approach.' The CV itself was sparse, Lois thought, but good points included the fact that it didn't give her marital status.

Alan Jones commented: 'This one would have to be accompanied by an impressive letter to get my attention. Spelling mistakes such as 'liasion' (sic) and 'acedemics' (sic) are offputting enough on any CV, but unforgiveable from someone promoting communication and writing skills. The dates were all over the place: it was impossible to see the pattern or progress in Lois's career.' Mina Gouram liked this CV, however, saying that it had a good format, and was concise and to the point.

**BUZZWORD - pounds 39 for 10 copies, plus personalised letterhead Lois had high expectations after an impressive telephone interview, but she was to be disappointed. 'In the first draft, they even missed out the grade of my degree (a 2.1) and misunderstood or misinterpreted bits of information. They ignored skills from my acting career. However, I liked the 'career status', and 'personal profile' sections.'

Alan Jones thought there was some irrelevant information on this CV - such as O-level subjects, date of birth and references - but on the whole he rated it highly. 'I felt a lot of thought and hard work had gone into it, and achievements stand out; I got a strong sense of the person, and if I had an appropriate position I would want to interview her.' But Mina Gouram commented: 'Listing hobbies and interests is unnecessary and gives the impression of simply wanting to fill the page.'

**PERSONNEL ADVISORY SERVICES - pounds 44 for 11 copies This was Lois's favourite company: 'The consultant I spoke to on the phone seemed really interested in me and sounded genuinely impressed by my career history.' She felt that the final result mirrored this personal interest.

'This was the only one that seemed as though the writer had taken the trouble to explore my talents and achievements,' she said. 'I felt like an individual in this CV, rather than the anonymous being I was in the others.

This was also the only company to offer me really sensible, useful advice on the telephone and they were anxious to get details absolutely accurate.'

However, the two experts spotted some flaws - in particular a total gap where her twin-raising years should have been. And as with several other CVs, they felt there were too many irrelevant details.

CAREER MOVERS' COMPANION - pounds 40 for 12 copies, plus pounds 15 for telephone interview This CV was criticised on the grounds of length; it ran to three pages compared to two for the others. 'Too detailed and wordy,' said Mina Gouram.

Alan Jones didn't like its continuous narrative style, known in the recruitment business as a 'Carmen Miranda' - like the words of the actress's famous song, it has too much 'I, I, I'. 'Recruiters don't have time to read your life story; they want relevant facts that can be substantiated. And what is Lois's salary in her last job doing here? This should never be mentioned.' Lois Hants felt CMC did not make it clear when she made inquiries that a telephone interview would cost an extra pounds 15 (though this was stated in their price list). Instead of putting 'single' under marital status, the company had for some mysterious reason revealed that she had seven-year-old twins - right at the top of the first page. But Lois praised the company as the only one to mention the skills she acquired during her stint as an actress.

***JAY ASSOCIATES/ INTERLINK CAREER COUNSELLLNG - pounds 60 for CV in folder plus 14 copies Although expensive, the pounds 60 fee includes a face-to-face interview.

Lois thought the interview, which lasted about an hour and a half, made little difference to the end result. 'Other people might get on OK, but the consultant and I didn't really hit it off. I had the impression he was telling me to shape up. He kept insisting that I had language skills, dredging up a 25-year-old French O-level. In the end I had to make him take that out. We had so long to talk that it just clouded things.'

However, this was the CV our experts liked best. 'Well presented, logical and makes a good job of selling achievements and skills,' said Alan Jones.

But he did point out some irrelevant, not to say bizarre, details. For example, an obscure dissertation on 'Migration and the poor law in a late 17th-century Gloucestershire parish' was mentioned, as was the fact that Lois Hants subscribes to Which? magazine. Some other companies offer face-to-face interviews as well, at extra cost.

**MGM ASSOCIATES - pounds 30 for 11 copies This company's tactic for dealing with a period of full-time childcare was to ignore it - which left an unexplained three-year gap. 'This is confusing and can give cause for alarm,' said Alan Jones. 'One might conclude that the applicant was in the slammer rather than discharging the honourable duty of raising a family, with all the skills this entails.' Lois agreed. 'It looked as if I had something to hide.' Mina Gouram liked the layout, and Lois commented: 'This didn't stand out as a commercially produced CV; a good thing, I feel. And my employment history was clearly written.' This was the only company not to require payment in advance.

OFFICE BOX LTD - pounds 29 for 9 copies The poorest CV of all. 'If I had paid someone for this,' said Alan Jones, 'I'd demand my money back. There was no attempt to highlight skills and achievements. It is no more than a list of employers, dates, job titles and responsiblities.' Lois agreed. 'It's just a bald list of what I've done and when, with no reference to personal profile, career objectives or particular skills.' Even the printing is uneven.

SAME DAY CV COMPANY - pounds 46.41 for 12 copies Lois Hants felt as if she was paying for something blind when the company demanded payment by credit card before they would even send her a draft.

'When it came to my career history,' she said, 'I had to give so much advice I felt I might just as well have written it myself. However, it had one redeeming feature: the profile was quite well written, not res-trictive and brief.' Mina Gouram had mixed feelings: 'It concentrated on her recent career, which is good, but was too vague about the earlier period.' Alan Jones commented: 'There was too much emphasis on personal details at the expense of skills and achievements. There were also inaccuracies of grammar, such as 'decided to go study for a degree'.'

*LOIS HANTS'S OWN CV - Cost nil Lois Hants felt fairly confident about her own CV which, she says, has had a very good hit-rate with prospective employers. The experts (who didn't know that it was Lois's own) rated it on a par with some of the commercially produced ones, but Alan Jones felt that it had a touch of the 'Carmen Miranda': 'A good CV should be intriguing. This is done by leaving things out, not by telling your life story. The typeface used is far too small, and the CV in general is too verbose.' This was the only one to make a positive feature of the skills acquired through raising a family. Alan Jones commented favour-ably on this, but Mina Gouram thought the mention of the twins was 'an unneccessary detail of her personal life'.

CONTACTS: ABBA CV Service 0202 527050; Buzzword 081-905 0365; Career Movers' Companion 0734 573369; Jay Associates/Interlink 071-712 9770; MGM Associates 0257 276837; Office Box Ltd 071-323 0821; Personnel Advisory Services 081-671 4452; Same Day CV Company 0753 890243.

NEXT WEEK: SWIMMING GOGGLES (Photographs omitted)

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