It's vital that your CV highlights your strengths rather than your weaknesses, says Alex McRae

Picture this. Scanning idly through a newspaper's careers pages, you spot the perfect job. To bag an interview, you need to send in a covering letter and your CV. Piece of cake. After one glance at your glittering CV, prospective employers will be putty in your well- qualified hands.

But hang on. What's that dusty old document lurking in the far recesses of your computer files? Uh oh. If your resumé is a relic, it might get tossed unceremoniously to the bottom of the pile. One way of avoiding this is to keep your CV up-to-date even if you aren't scouting for a new job. "It's not just about updating when you move jobs," says Lola James, managing director of Career Analysts, a career consultancy. "If you've just completed a project at work, or volunteered to help with your local disabled group, add it then, before you forget."

So what are the experts' guidelines on snazzing up your CV? "There is no one-size fits all advice," cautions Steven Holmes, a professional CV writer with 16 years of experience. "Every single individual is different. Figure out what your selling point is, then tailor your CV independently to get across the messages you want. If you're a young graduate, it should showcase your initiative and potential. If you're a woman returning to work after taking time out to have children, it should highlight the range of knowledge and experience you gained before your career break."

If your resumé inadvertently flags up your weaknesses instead of your strengths, it can kibosh your chances of getting a job you love. Kay Whittaker, 27, spent a miserable nine months sending out fruitless job applications without getting a single interview. Feeling lonely and trapped in her job as a customer sales manager at a pharmaceutical company, she desperately wanted to move into project management. The snag? She didn't have specific management experience. "I wasn't even getting responses," she recalls. "It was very, very demoralising."

Her confidence at rock bottom, she asked Career Analysts for advice. They told her to scrap her old CV. "My CV was very traditional, with my education and work history in chronological order. It highlighted in big capital letters the fact that I'd only worked in sales, and people didn't see past that."

Back at the drawing board, Whittaker realised that although she lacked a textbook career path, she did have masses of transferable experience. So she set down her abilities on her CV. "Rather than having a chronological history, I broke it down into my skills, giving examples. I'd been the president of a couple of societies at university, and set up the gliding society from scratch." Next, she revamped her personal profile so it matched up with who she wanted to be - a project manager. "Instead of just saying 'I'm a sales rep', I concentrated on how what I'd done related to what I really wanted to do."

It worked. A week after posting her new CV on Google, she was inundated with interviews, and offered a job as a project director at a medical education organisation almost immediately. She only regrets not changing her CV sooner. "If only I'd known how easy it was, I could have saved myself months of heartache."

Whittaker's experience shows that the most enticing CVs are individually tailored to fit. But there are some straightforward tips that everyone can bear in mind, advises Ms James. "People get so immersed, they forget to include their contact details. Try to keep it to two pages. Use the third person and strong action words - no 'I did this, I did that'. Account for any gaps. If it's down to illness, or nursing a relative, put it on there. Give tangible achievements, show what you've learnt. It's not enough to just list jobs any more." Holmes agrees. "It's got to come alive. People appoint human beings, not lists of attributes."

What about red flags? "Don't lie," says Ms James. "Do not lie on a CV. Don't put down 'water-skiing' as an interest if you've only done it once on holiday. If the interviewer turns out to be a champion water-skier, you'll look a fool. And don't put your salary. You don't want to limit your negotiations."

Once you've spent hours fine-tuning your CV, what next? "Show it to someone who's got a critical eye," says Holmes. "Take advice from recruiters, from friends, from experts. If your CV has been dashed off, no one is going to look at it. This is serious, so take it seriously. Your career is the heart of your life. Don't sell out on your dreams."