Skills are a key component of a well-written CV. Although your work experience and your education paint a picture of your background and your overall qualifications, the skills section is where employers make a quick judgement of how suitable you are for their position; therefore, a clearly structured format is vital to ensuring your application avoids the bin.
Knowing how to list everything is no easy task, though. Industries place different levels of value on different sets of skills, so avoiding the temptation to throw a series of impressive buzzwords onto the page is important. Instead, you should focus on the position itself and how you can tailor your skills section to meet the relevant criteria.
Luckily, as ever, we are here to help. So, if you want your CV to create a strong and lasting impression in those fabled 6 seconds, this is what you need to know…
1. Mine for Keywords
If you’ve been on applying for jobs at any point within the last five years, chances are you will have encountered an Applicant Tracking System (ATS), a streamlined, semi-controversial and occasionally infuriating job application tool that recruiters use to ‘trim the fat’. They work by screening CVs and cover letters for predetermined relevant keywords.
Like them or not, most large companies use them, so in order to jump the first hurdle, you’re going to have to adapt slightly. Fortunately, it’s relatively straightforward to find those all-important keywords: simply read the job description and focus on the ‘desirable skills’. If the employer is looking for someone with sales experience, for example, then you can guarantee that the exact phrase ‘sales experience’ needs to be listed on your CV.
Make a list of these keywords and then match them up against your existing skills. In some cases, you might need to be creative and reword certain things; as long as you’re not lying on your CV, then this is fine. If none of your skills matches up, though, then it may be a sign that you’re not suitable for the position and you should look to develop your existing capabilities first.
2. Organise Everything
Once you’ve measured your existing skills against the company’s needs and worded them appropriately, it’s important to structure everything in a defined and easy-to-understand way. This doesn’t just mean adding bullet points to everything, though; you need to differentiate and categorise accordingly.
How you do this depends entirely on the industry of the position you are applying for. For example, if you're applying for an IT position, then it would be necessary to completely separate your technical skills from your soft skills; it would also be advisable to prioritise those technical skills at the top of your CV, as employers will want to identify immediately what programming languages you can use and what systems you can work with.
It doesn’t stop there, either. Separate your technical competencies into subcategories (security, languages, operating systems, networks, etc) so that everything is neat, easily accessible and simple to follow. It could look something like this:
Other professions will, of course, vary; non-technical positions will likely require more emphasis on your professional skills. The important thing is that it is readable.
3. Sell Your Skills at Every Opportunity
There are several types of skills that you can allude to on your application, but it is important to understand where they should be best used. The aforementioned technical skills, for example, are classed as job-specific and their appropriate usage varies depending on your profession; as the name suggests, they are convenient for technical roles, such as in IT, engineering or healthcare, and are best suited to a list format.
But there are also transferable skills that are applicable to any industry. These are attributes that can be developed, like leadership, communication and the ability to solve problems, and being able to demonstrate them is usually integral to getting a job.
Finally, there are adaptive skills, which are aptitude traits that are unique to the individual. Much of the time these cannot be taught and involve things like loyalty, creativity and reliability.
You don’t need to create subheadings for each of these skill types – in fact, you don’t even have to restrict them to the skills section. For instance, you can describe yourself in the ‘personal profile’ section of your CV as:
A dedicated and reliable warehouse supervisor with 3 years of experience as an HSE-accredited forklift operator.
In just one sentence, you are already demonstrating a variety of job-specific, transferable and adaptive abilities, and the reader hasn’t even got to the designated skills section yet! Remember: you are restricted for space and time, so never miss an opportunity to sell what you are good at.
4. Don’t Be Vague
If you’re short on space, this can be slightly difficult, but it is always a good idea to try and give specific examples of your various abilities.
For instance, if your background is in marketing, you may be tempted to say:
Experienced in various product marketing techniques
While this may be true, it is too ambiguous and could entail any number of possibilities; it’s also a classic example of somebody selling themselves short. There is a wide variety of marketing techniques, so demonstrate to your potential employers what exactly you can bring to their team. You could say:
Strong background in consumer product marketing, including promotional planning, product launch, and positioning and branding
This allows recruiters to develop a more accurate insight into your background, as well as define which area your strengths lie in.
5. Adapt Accordingly
If you are applying for an entry-level position, then by definition your skillset will be smaller and you will have to emphasise each point. This will likely mean that you include every relevant technical skill that you possess, much like the IT example above.
For a mid-level position, though, it’s wise to change tact and flesh things out a little bit more. Common sense is important, too; for instance, if you’re a nurse and your work experience dictates that you’ve just spent seven years in an emergency department, then it’s a given that you will be highly competent and experienced at a basic skill such as cannulation, so you don’t need to list it.
In some cases, you may not even need to list your skills at all; the capabilities of a civil engineer or a doctor would be denoted just by their educational qualifications, for example. But for the majority of job seekers, it’s always worth bearing in mind that the level of the position you’re applying for should dictate how basic or advanced your descriptions are.
6. Rate Your Skills
Visualising your level of proficiency in a certain skill is a practice preferred by senior managers and executives applying for corporate positions, although it can be adapted to suit any CV. It is particularly convenient if you’re short on space or you want your application to have a more aesthetic appeal.
How you ‘grade’ yourself is completely up to you, but it should take into account your experience and familiarity, as well as any feedback or certification you’ve received. If you ‘played around’ with Python in your last role, for instance, but didn’t complete any courses, then applying a rating is a good way to convey that you have a basic working knowledge but are by no means an expert.
7. Seek Inspiration and Don’t Fear Change
While, of course, you should never directly copy someone else’s work, it can sometimes be hugely beneficial to see how other successful people in your field do things; search your potential job title in LinkedIn and study how those who already do the job advertise themselves.
Don’t be afraid to study CVs, either; there are many great examples online that you’ll find useful. As you get a feel for how people structure things, you might notice little touches here and there that you can adapt and employ in your own CV, particularly in terms of formatting. Take inspiration from what you find and don’t be afraid to completely change your existing template. After all, it might have looked great in 2007 when you graduated, but don’t rest on your laurels: keep it modern and keep it fresh.
Knowing how to write and format a working life’s worth of skills can seem like a daunting task, but it doesn’t need to be. As long as you follow this guide – and don’t neglect the basic CV writing tips – then your job search should be destined for success.