So you’ve seen a job you really like, and you’re dead keen to apply. Instead of the usual pesky form that un-formats itself halfway through your attempt to complete it, however, applications are being received in the form of CV and covering letter. Now is the time to get that CV to work for you.

Definition of a Curriculum Vitae

The first thing I want to do is establish what we actually mean when we use the term ‘CV’, as there is a subtle but significant difference between how the term is understood in British English than in American English.

In British English, a CV is a short overview over a few pages of a person’s work history, qualifications, training courses attended, membership of professional bodies, publications and key achievements. It is more a summary than a comprehensive review, and is typically no more than a few pages in length. In American English, it would be understood as a résumé.

The term CV in American English refers to an all-encompassing capture of a person’s work history, qualifications, etc. It may sometimes run to multiple pages if referring to a particularly experienced candidate. In British English, there is no equivalent term – but perhaps there should be…for reasons I will explain below.

Compile a master copy of your CV

…And make sure it contains everything you have done which is worthy of note. In general, writing things down is good practice. The very act of writing can compound learning experiences, as well as creating a record more lasting than our very fallible memories. You may want to keep a learning journal for more detailed scenarios, but for now you should focus on compiling every duty and responsibility you have had in a professional capacity, every major task completed, every project worked, every training course attended and every qualification received. Crucially, you should try to keep a record of the boring most details – dates, places, and names of trainers – as these are the most easily forgotten. Update all this information at regular intervals.

Obviously, there is little point in recording the minutiae of what you had for lunch on Wednesday 10th April 2013 (Macaroni Cheese) or how your hay fever was on that particular day. But in other respects, try to be as detailed as possible.

Let your master copy run to as many pages as possible. It doesn’t matter how long it gets, for the resulting document is strictly for your eyes only. Because before even considering sending it off to a prospective employer, you have serious work to do.

Tailor your CV for each individual job application

You know the score. At least you do if you have read my earlier posts here and here. The criteria which you must fulfil to be shortlisted for a position will have been outlined under the personal specification on the job advert. The sort of daily duties and responsibilities that will form the ‘bread and butter’ of the role will have been outlined under the job description. You will need to make sure that your CV is as relevant as it possibly can be to the position for which you are applying.

That is going to take some tweaking, and your master CV is going to have to be severely trimmed. Applying for a collections-heavy role? Emphasise that collections care internship you did, and go light on the details of that summer job you had working in a dog-grooming parlour.


How long should my non-master CV be?

Now we are on to a seriously contentious topic. From university careers services’ CV workshops, to vaguely remembered titbits of advice from secondary (high) school, there is no doubt in terms of what received wisdom has to say. Received wisdom says it’s two sides of A4, maximum.

Then, in the course of my museums career (either as a volunteer or as a professional), I have come across supervisors and managers who have dared to challenge that received wisdom. You want the job, these elders said, so make sure your CV covers all the bases. It doesn’t matter how long it is, as long as you show yourself to be the ideal candidate.

I was fairly quick in taking on the message of the long CV-supporting elders. Not least because I was finding my CV getting rather long rather quickly with the amount of voluntary work and short-term contracts I’ve been taking on over the past five years. My CV has been three sides of A4 for a while now. I have really struggled to get it down to two sides without omitting important things. What the long-CV elders said fitted my circumstances and my agenda, and so I must declare my initial bias.

Stuck between the received wisdom and the long-CV elders, I decided to take to twitter to try and get a straight and definitive answer from my network of museum tweeps. My request for opinions attracted some quite passionate answers:


When I mentioned how difficult I found it to keep my own CV down to two sides, Rupert Shepherd of the National Gallery made these suggestions:


While Anita Pickerden, a lecturer in Leadership and Management, had this to say:


(Anita taught me on a Heritage Management programme at the University of Worcester – do DM her for interview practice if you are based in the West Midlands!)

While Tamsin Russell of the Museums Association has this opinion to add:


The vox pop had spoken. The balance of opinion probably results more from my own selection-bias than anything else. So next I wanted to get something a bit more grounded in raw data, and something which I could not corrupt – so I set up a twitter poll, and got the following results.


On the one hand, these results seem pretty unequivocal. One thing this twitter poll can’t do, though, is tell me how many respondents were seasoned recruiters themselves, and how many were less experienced museum workers simply passing on the received wisdom of ages past. Clearly, some more experienced museum professionals did take part in the poll – and one respondent was particularly frank in outlining the sorts of pressures that short-listers can be under:


Yet, going back to what Rupert Shepherd said about focus –relevance and clarity can be more important than sheer length (or lack of).

My conclusion? I still have no idea. I will continue to stick to three sides myself, and it certainly hasn’t seemed to have done me much harm in the past. Each of my managers or supervisors who I have asked in the past about this issue has said three sides is fine – but they are the very people who hired me! My faith in three sides being the optimum length for a CV (mine or anyone else’s) is not sufficiently strong enough for me to consider recommending it. What I can say is that five pages is definitely too long, unless you are going for a role with a very heavy academic leaning.

But if you did need to trim…

Remember to keep everything focused and relevant to each individual vacancy. Key areas to consider trimming would be:

  • Non-transferable skills gained from outside the sector. But definitely include the transferable skills if you have room – see more here.
  • Early school and 6th Form college qualifications. A caveat though: sometimes jobs ask specifically for GCSE Maths or English at Grade C or above. Also, if like me, you are an arts graduate but have some science A levels, you might want to include them if there’s a chance that they’ll be relevant.
  • Interests and hobbies. Yes, they can make you seem like a well-rounded character – but most screeners of applications will only consider the skills and experiences specified in the job advert.

Keep your formatting clear and concise

There is no doubt that the selection panel will be having to wade through an awful lot of CVs. Brevity might be your friend, but clarity will be a key and indispensable ally. The panel should be able to glance at your CV and straight away get an accurate (and hopefully favourable) overview of your work history and qualifications. Some things which might help you:

  • Use bullet points!
  • Use nice wide margins and generous spacing to break-up blocky text
  • Highlight key information in bold
  • Keep it structured and chronological, but front-load with your most important and exciting information at the top of the first page. You might need to make a judgement call on whether your work experience or whether your qualifications are the most impressive thing about you as a candidate.


Because spelling mistakes can really piss off some people.



In the next post, I will upload a copy of my CV for you to have a look at. Any feedback or suggestions will be grateful received!


One thought on “Maximising the Impact of your CV (or résumé)

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