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The information age guide to writing CV and cover letters

Are you one of those who mass mail atrocious internship and job applications? Do you wonder why no one is responding to your applications? Blaming the uncles and aunts of other people for not getting what you want is ok, but that does not solve your problem. It is highly likely that there are mistakes you are making that are ruining any chance you had. We can say this confidently because all my friends working as HR or doing recruitment for their organization tells me that usually 90-95% of the applications they receive are trash! They have even gone on to develop blogs on recruitment and job application humor.

My personal experience also suggests that the way most people write their CV in India is just downright pathetic. It is simply ridiculous that in this age of absolute proliferation of computers and internet, people who are applying by email does not bothered to do a simple Google search to learn how to write a CV and cover letter. Anyway, if you are reading this article then I presume you are smarter than the average person (FYI, the average person thinks he already knows how to write the CV correctly even though he is not getting any results), and I am going to tell you exactly what goes into a great application. This applies to both job and internship applications.
CV and cover letters are marketing documents

Firstly, remember that both CV and covering letter are nothing but marketing documents. Do you have any idea about how advertising industry chisels everything that the you are going to see, say, in a print advertisement? They even test which words or phrases are getting more attention. They thoroughly think through and then test what kind of language is more likely to make the reader take intended action. You should have the same approach to writing your CV. When you are writing your CV, you are a copywriter too.

Sorry, but no one will ever read your CV

Please remember that no one is going to “read” your CV or cover letter. They are just going to look at it. That’s your chance – you have to make an impression at the first glance. If the first glance suggests that there is something interesting or promising about you, then the person will skim through the CV. This is why you must write in a manner that is suitable for skimming. Bullet points are often better than long sentences. You need to plan the sections in the CV in a way that makes it very easy for the potential employer (more likely a person just sorting the CV) to find the relevant information. This is why, the right sort of formatting is very important. Also, try to keep your CV within 2 pages. 1 Page is not bad either. Here is a bunch of CV and cover letters provided by the career services department of the Harvard University, and I think these are pretty good models to follow.
There are only two main sections in the CV

You will have two main sections in your CV – Experience and Education. Which one comes first will be determined by which one is stronger. For students usually education will come first. Please provide your percentage, rank in the class, whether you are in top 10% or top 20% – because that information is relevant unless you are applying for the job of a manual labourer.  If you don’t tell me anything academic performance, people will assume the worst – that you are probably a slacker in academics. Also, even if you are a student, you must obtain some work experience to write in the CV. It is ok if you have done unpaid community work, or even played an important organizing role in your college fest, or worked at the Legal Aid Clinic: all of that counts as valuable experience.

Keep it strictly relevant

You must not write about irrelevant experience in your CV or cover letter. If you are applying to a law firm for an internship, do not write about all the street plays you have directed. Don’t even write about your internships with NGOs unless those are the only internships you have done so far. Do not make yourself out to be an entrepreneur or journalist even if you have done a lot of important work on those areas when you are applying to an unrelated field. Keep your CV and cover letter strictly limited to the role you want.

Is that a strong verb?

Strong action verbs are preferable to passive verbs. Don’t write “Received an award for creative writing” – it is way better to write “Published in literary magazines regularly and my contribution was recognized by ABC literary society by XYZ award” or even “initiated a reading group and managed it for the following two years”.

Stop emailing the same template to every possible recruiter. Unless your profile is in the top 2-3% of applications, no one will bother to read templates – and we know a template when we see one. We know you have been mass mailing that same email to hundreds of places. That does not make us think very highly of you. Please customize your CV based on your research about the organization, and obviously cover letter, according to the place where you are applying. If you are applying to a corporate law firm, do not write about your accomplishments as a researcher for a public policy institute or your short-lived career as a stand up comedian.

It will be used during your Interview

Never lose sight of the fact that the interviewers are highly likely to have your cover letter and CV in front of them. They will ask you questions about what you write their. See this as an opportunity to drive the conversations during the future interview towards the things that you want to talk about. Do not write about things you are not confident about or would not want to discuss with the interviewer.

And if you can actually apply all of these suggestions in your life, I am certain that your CV will be featuring in the top 10% of all CVs that various organisations receive and getting a response will be quite easy.

Best of luck!

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