Sky divers need not apply
You may have to lie about your hobbies if you want your CV to do the job, says Charlie Skelton
Thursday 16 January 1997
I've never been very good at accumulating CV points. At school I was thrown out of the Cadet Force for insubordination before I could make it to NCO. At university, the only society I was a member of was the Cribbage Club. Sure, I was president for a year, but somehow that seems to make it worse.
I could, of course, lie. Jasper Barnes, 25, lied. He applied to the Foreign Office with an outstanding academic record: Eton, Oxford, a first in history, fluent in two languages - but still he felt his CV was a bit slim. He'd never actually done anything. So he told them he'd lived in Athens for a year, co-ordinating a shipping survey for the Greek navy. Good tactic: bluff big and you won't be called on it. Sadly, Jasper wasn't offered a job. He'd forgotten the cardinal rule: Harrow, Foreign Office; Eton, Treasury.
The CV jungle is a treacherous place. So what do employers want to see on a CV? Gloria Barber, graduate recruitment manager at Abbey National, says: "We're looking for broad-based people who've developed personal skills as well as their academic abilities." She looks for positions of responsibility, and evidence of team-related or social activities, not isolated, lone pursuits. Such as? "Such as hill-walking," she says knowingly.
"I would be less impressed by someone who has stayed at home, gone to university nearby, and never really been tested," she goes on. "We want people who aren't looking for a safe, secure environment, people who want to take risks - these are the managers of the future." Like Mr Jones, deputy branch manager, Swindon. First name, Indiana.
However, you shouldn't put down anything too adventurous, says Penny Bushell of Careerquest, a city-based recruitment consultancy: "No bungee- jumping, no parachuting and no gliding. You don't want an employer to think you're about to die." And nothing too contentious: "No membership of a political party. No Amnesty International. No Greenpeace."
No Greenpeace? That seems rather severe. I collected for the NSPCC at school. Should I keep that suppressed? What if it comes out at a later date? What if I'm drunk at an office party? "Yeah, I did a bit of NSPCC collecting back in the old days. So what? Got a bronze badge for it." I could lose my job. But no - a lady I spoke to from Graduate Appointments was adamant: "I would strongly recommend against putting Greenpeace." I asked her why that was. "Because I deal with mining companies." Fair enough. I was afraid to ask her about Amnesty.
Another no-no, and one that I can wholeheartedly agree with, is membership of Mensa. "No Mensa," says Penny succinctly, "you don't want people thinking you're an idiot." She also takes up the clarion cry of keeping solitary pursuits off your CV: "No gardening, no fishing, no DIY, no sitting alone in libraries and definitely no hill-walking." What is it about hill-walking? It seems to be the main leisure activity of the unemployable. Maybe that's why they've got so much time to spend walking up and down hills.
James Harris, a director of Personnel Consultants, is even more specific in his targeting of this CV taboo: "No fell-walking," he insists. And I can see his point. Hill-walking could just about be excused as a hobby, a weekend kind of thing - but fell-walking? That implies a lifestyle choice ... "Could you pass me my whittling stick, please. I rather fancy carving myself a new fell pipe."
I should say that not all employers are opposed to solitary hobbies. Miss E, of a certain large insurance company located in London, tentatively suggested that "refereeing and playing chess" might be taken as good character points. But I can't help thinking she was just trying to be kind. It's like saying of hill-walking that at least it teaches you to tie your own shoelaces.
There's a definite CV code that you can use to suggest the ideal "well- rounded" personality, and, as James Harris says, "most people have got cute to it these days. They try to make out that they're both a 'decision- maker' and also a 'team player'; a responsible individual who's also a good 'people person'."
I find something strangely repulsive about these categories that you have to try to fit into. I don't know what I'd do if someone asked me if I was a good "people person". Probably punch them and run off back to my tool shed. But these days it has become the trend to put a "personal profile" at the top of your CV, saying something like: "Dynamic young team-playing graduate with burning ambition to forge a challenging career. Is also a committed and enthusiastic people person." Yep, that's me all right. I just can't get enough of people. Give me more people! I want to be in teams with them, make decisions for them, take responsibility for them, be challenged by them, listen to them, facilitate them, conciliate them, push them out of windows ... damn! I so nearly got the job.
But it's better that you should deal in these dreadful "personnel" categories, than be too honest about yourself. Too much honesty is a dangerous thing.
Penny Bushell recalls: "We had someone come to us who went rather over the top on his personal details. He insisted we included them all on his CV." What details, exactly? "Measurements of different parts of his anatomy ... I can't say any more."
This case proves the CV rule that less is more. Penny told me about another CV she'd been sent that was 16 pages long. "The high point was being told details of her son's graduation ceremony."
James Harris also has experience of over-long CVs. "The Irish are the world's worst CV writers," he says. "They go on for pages and pages, telling you about how they came third in the egg and spoon race at school, never mentioning their jobs ...
"My mother's Irish, God bless her," he adds. CVs should be "short and punchy" says Harris. "Like my mother."
So, when you've honed your CV down to a snappy summary of your various African teaching jobs, D of E awards, hockey scholarships and society presidencies, there's one last thing you have to remember - don't leave any gaps.
"Gaps worry me," admitted Miss E. "You find yourself asking, what was this person doing between February and August 1995? Six months in prison for possession of a hand-gun?" Probably just doing the Pennine Way a few times, but afraid to admit it.
But we all have gaps. Why is it such an employment taboo to do nothing? In my year off between school and university, with utter dedication and assiduity, I did absolutely nothing. Sat at home and watched Mash and Cheers on video. Of course, I benefited from the experience: I can now fascinate my friends by identifying borrowed Cheers jokes during episodes of Frasier. It's the sort of life skill an employer should jump at.
And, of course, a long period of doing nothing can be a very important part of someone's personal history. How do you know if you want to work if you don't know what bone-idleness is like?
In fact, more people should put "I've done nothing" on their CVs, and be proud of it. If enough do, perhaps one day doing nothing will become a team sport and finally gain the acceptance it deserves.
"Ah, I see this applicant has done nothing for his college's second team.""Yes, but look - he hill-walked for his county first XI.""Oh. Bin him"n
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